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Analysis: Does Times Square Plot Represent a Shift in Strategy?

  • Gary Thomas

It still may be quite a while before we know more details of the Times Square bomb plot. But what little we know has raised some interesting questions about terrorist strategy.

What if al-Qaida and its allies are, to use the sports phrase, "flooding the zone" -- sending in less experienced, less trained operatives but dispatching more of them in the expectation that by weight of numbers one of them will succeed?

Alleged bomber Faisal Shahzad claims to have received bombmaking training from the Pakistani Taliban. However, his actions make him seem more like a bumbling incompetent a la Inspector Clouseau than steely-eyed terrorist operative Carlos the Jackal. The bomb was a dud, he left his keys in the unexploded car -- which made him easy to trace -- and his getaway attempt - a flight to Dubai - was an amateur move (even though the surveillance teams appear to have lost him long enough for him to get on the plane).

On Christmas Day Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab managed to board a Detroit-bound airliner in Amsterdam with a bomb concealed in his underwear. It failed to detonate and he was subdued by passengers.

Al-Qaida, or for that matter the Taliban or any other like-minded group, has been unable to launch an attack to match the scope of the 9-11 attacks. According to analysts, this is because of a combination of good counterterrorism work, U.S. and Pakistani military and intelligence pressure, and just plain good luck.

In a recent interview with former FBI National Security Division chief Philip Mudd, he spoke of the "flood the zone" strategy. Less experience and training reduces chances of success, he said, but that can be offset by sheer numbers.

"There's a cost to bringing in people like this, and that is, the prospect that each operation is going to succeed probably declines," he said. "You bring in 10, maybe two or three get through, maybe one gets through, maybe one of 50. But the bang for the buck, even if it's one of 50, is huge."

On one level, resorting to human wave attacks is a strategy of the desperate. When Japan ran out of skilled pilots near the end of World War II, it started using kamikaze suicide pilots who required only minimal flight training. (After all, they only needed to know how to take off, not to land.) They did not alter the outcome of the war, but they did take a terrific toll on the U.S. Pacific fleet, particularly the precious aircraft carriers.

Today's terrorist groups use suicide bombers as well. Abdulmutallab was apparently willing to blow himself up. They need little training. In fact, in some cases the suicide bomber does not even control the detonation; that is done by remote control.

Shahzad was not a suicide bomber. He tried to get away - clumsily, it is true. And there is no evidence, at least publicly, of any backup or logistical team in place to make sure the bomb went off.

The known facts point to a terrorist strategy in which they "flood the zone" with untested operatives who fly under the radar of the intelligence agencies and let them operate more or less independently in the hope that someone, somewhere, will succeed. It's the kind of thing that gives counterterrorism officials nightmares.

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