Last week, Congress held a series of hearings on the December 25th attempted bombing. More hearings will follow this week. While there have been countless analysis and assessments of the hearings, here is my 17 syllable assessment:
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On Friday, the United Kingdom raised its threat level from “substantial” to “severe.” The level, made by the U.K. government upon recommendations of the Joint Terrorism Analysis Center (JTAC), “means that a future terrorist attack is ‘highly likely,’ although not necessarily imminent.” The UK threat level had been at substantial since last July, when it had been lowered after two years at the “severe” level. The level, previous to that, had shifted between severe and critical since the July 2005 attacks on the London Underground and on a Double Decker bus. Interesting, U.K. officials were very quick to point out that its move was not related to the December 25th underwear bomber attack, though little information and lots of speculation as to the real reason has emerged.
Also on Friday, India raised its threat level, deploying air marshals and issuing a Civil Aviation Ministry security alert to airports and airlines for the “the stepping up of security arrangements at all concerned airports and airlines following inputs received from security agencies as well as the Ministry of Home Affairs.” The alert was issued just days before tomorrow’s celebration of Republic Day, which notes the country’s adoption of a constitution (following its independence form the U.K.).
Also, on Friday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano met with members of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in Geneva regarding aviation security standards. IATA represents approximately 230 airlines and 90 percent of the world’s air traffic. IATA raised several issues with the Secretary including industry operational capacities, better mechanisms for sharing passenger information, more input from airlines into security measures, and better international coordination between governments imposing security on the aviation industry.
These announcements came before the weekend reporting of a new video recording from Osama bin Laden claiming responsibility for the Christmas Day attempted bombing AND reports of non-Arab female suicide bombers, carrying Western passports, possibly attacking the U.S.
Collectively, this past week of events and announcements provide insight into the various challenges faced by the U.S. and its global partners in their terrorist-fighting efforts, both here and abroad.
Here are some observations:
- Congressional Hearings: The hearings made clear that eight and a half years after 9/11, intelligence sharing, culture, and assessments still are lacking – Commissions, Administration reorganizations, and Congressional actions not withstanding. Whether posed as failures or challenges, it is clear that some change is needed — what that change is remains the question. Or is it simply the case that intelligence challenges are unfixable and as a nation we need to reassess how we work around them?
- International Efforts: Despite the “homeland” in homeland security, the actions in the U.K. and India remind us that terrorism is an international issue that links us all together. Terrorism is not only a threat against the U.S., but one that has harmed a number of our allies. Consequently, our efforts – both on the intelligence and counterterrorism fronts – have to be bigger than the U.S. They also have to be bigger than the Inside-the-Beltway fighting over who “owns” terrorism as an issue within the political parties.
- Private Sector as Partner: The IATA-Napolitano meeting demonstrates that security is not a government-only function. The government’s efforts affect the private sector, requiring the private sector to be a key partner in any security efforts. Add the international angle, then this partnership becomes even more complicated and in need of constant communication. While much of the attention relating to the December 25th bombings have focused on the airlines and aviation industry, it would behoove the government and DHS to reach out (or better publicize) its efforts with others affected by security measures. After all, it was the traveling public that diverted the underwear bomber attack.
- Terrorists Come in Different Sizes, Colors, and Genders: The threat of people who may not “look like Al Qaeda terrorists” is one that experts and Congress have raised on numerous occasions over the past several years. In reality, none of us know what a terrorist looks like – we just know who has attacked us in the past. That image is constantly evolving and changing as more attacks are thwarted and responsible individuals come to light. What’s becoming clear is that we cannot and should not rely on “profiling,” as we will be left unprepared.
- Bin Laden as Boogie Man: Interestingly, after Bin Laden took credit for the December 25th attack, a number of U.S. intelligence agencies stepped up to adamantly discredit the claims. Does it really matter if he was behind the attacks to the average American? Well, it may or may not but there are reasons for these strong assertions. First, if Bin Laden wasn’t involved, then there is evidence of a continued splintering of Al Qaeda and its strength, though such splintering could arguably make our terrorist-fighting efforts even more difficult. Second, if Bin Laden was involved, it is just a reminder that he is still out there and has not been captured or brought to justice. Third, Bin Laden epitomizes terrorism to many average Americans and his omnipresence in all episodes that are terrorism make him an even more iconic figure to those who would follow him.