It seems that Al Qaeda has shifted to an age old strategy: bombs in cargo.
The latest plot involves mailing relatively sophisticated bombs in cargo. Initially it was thought that the destination, Jewish centers in Chicago, Illinois, were the targets. Later reports from Britian and the USA showed that it was flights that were the targets though, most likely passenger flights, with the bombs being in the cargo holds.
Al-Asiri: Saudi bomb maker in Yemen
The mastermind of these bombs, a Saudi fugitive in Yemen Khalid Ibrahim Al-Asiri (or Hassan Ibrahim Al-Asiri), is not a novice bomb maker.
He sent his own brother Abdullah Hassan Al-Asiri on a suicide mission to kill the Saudi deputy Minister of Interior, with a bomb that he designed, concealed in the brother's anal canal, and detonated via a cell phone.
Al-Aseery's handy work did not stop at Saudi Arabia. He is believed to be the bomb maker of the Christmas 2009 underwear bomb plot in Detroit. The detonator from that attempt as well as the cargo bombs are said to be virtually identical.
Both Al-Aseerys are on Saudi Arabia's most wanted terrorist lists since February 2009.
This latest bomb was more sophisticated. Officials have described them as professionally built.
The explosive was PETN, and was placed in the toner cartridge for HP printers, and a cell phone circuit attached. PETN is far harder to detect than other explosives by sniffing dogs or chemical analysis.
There is some talk on TV about the bombs would be remotely detonated by simply calling the cell phone number. The plan could even be filmed by video while this is happening!
Shift In Strategy?
The use of such old techniques is perhaps a shift in strategy. Passenger luggage was used for airline bombings in the 1960s to 1980s by various groups.
The reasons for this shift can be many, and one can only speculate. The cargo routes are far less secure than passenger routes, making it an easier target. Finding suicide bombers could be getting harder, specially ones that can make it to American soil. The cost and logistics of planning cargo bombs is far less than getting people to the USA.
The modus operandi of Al Qaeda may have shifted slightly, but still, their method bears all the hallmarks: they launch coordinated attacks targeting many places, and they thrive on the propaganda and publicity surrounding even failed plots.
Intelligence Still Works
Good old intelligence work was the reason this plot failed. The Saudi authority tipped the Americans. This is more proof that intelligence gathering and coordination is the most effective way to combat terrorism, not endless wars that alienate the locals more, and causes the ranks of terrorists with new recruits.
Along with intelligence, a prevention strategy should go in parallel: finding the reasons for terrorism and treating the reasons, rather than the resulting symptoms only. This is both harder and more long term, but the most effective. Improving economies in terrorism breeding areas will also go a long way at making the recruiting pool far less than what it is.
Rehabilitation Works, most of the time
It also emerged that the tip off came from Jabr al-Faifi a repentant ex-Al-Qaeda member in Saudi Arabia. This shows that at least some al-Qaeda members can be rehabilitated and become more or less normal members of society again.
As expected, there will be a hardcore minority who cannot be convinced to do so, but considerable numbers can still reform.
Normalcy vs. Overreaction
Overreaction, in its various forms (attacks on other countries, more invasive security, security theater, ...etc.), is counterproductive, both in the short term and in the longer term. It tells the terrorists that their tactics did work, whether the bombs go off or not.
It is important that life goes on. This is the best deterrent against terrorism, since the perpetrators will see that the West still functions after being targeted.