Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Signs Of Effective Counter-Terrorism

By Joseph A Kechichian
This comment was published in Gulf News on 4/11/2010

Beyond the familiar and hugely irrelevant media frenzy of the past few days, one has to be somewhat pleased that the latest amateurish terrorism efforts — to ship bomb packages to Chicago synagogues (early version) or to blow up cargo planes (later version) — failed.

Equally revelatory was the confirmation that what actually prevented two simultaneous bombing attempts were the result of tips from Saudi Arabia. Was this an example of successful cooperation between Saudi intelligence services and their Western counterparts?

Although 15 of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi citizens, the kingdom is proving to be an essential partner in preventing fresh terrorist activities, with many confused adherents part of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that gained an undeniable foothold in volatile Yemen.
Still, one has to think outside the box, and ask why terrorists would ship printer cartridges from Yemen to the US? Is this not like Washington exporting oil to Kuwait? Equally problematic is the alleged mastermind'(s) intentions to place explosives on board planes through fully identifiable tracking systems, with names, addresses, and telephone numbers that will ensure instantaneous recognition.

These are not haphazard points even if we now know that there was a breach in airline security protocols, as press reports confirm that one or perhaps two devices were flown on Qatar Airways aircraft from Sana'a to Doha, and onwards to Dubai.

PETN explosive materials were apparently found that could not be detected by standard airport security screening equipment. PETN is so sophisticated that no X-ray screening or even trained sniffer dogs could identify them. In fact, they were only "discovered" after an intelligence tip off, which is instructive in its own right.

According to unverified sources — the speed with which this information became public leads one to be somewhat sceptical—the prime suspect for constructing the devices was the Saudi-born bomb-maker, Ebrahim Hassan Al Asiri, a leading AQAP militant. Hassan's brother, Abdullah Hassan Al Asiri, was the 23-year-old who stuffed his underwear with PETN as he committed suicide on August 27, 2009, when he attempted to assassinate Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef, the Saudi Deputy Minister of the Interior.

Abdullah Hassan Al Asiri's stratagem, which was very similar to the efforts of Omar Farouq Abdul Muttalib, the failed Christmas 2009 Nigerian but Yemen-trained ‘underpant bomber', targeted a high-ranking Al Saud family member, which was the reason why Riyadh embarked on a systematic effort to beef up its intelligence network. Indeed, within a single year, Saudi intelligence activities in Yemen became so well tuned that they probably now surpass those of its muscle bound Yemeni counterpart.

This is a welcome development and US President Barack Obama called King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz a few days ago to thank him for the significant success. Gone are the days when Saudi officers were, or could be accused of being, unresponsive. Hardly anyone with responsibility in Saudi Arabia can now look the other way. Even traditional tribal customs, where loyalty to one's kith and kin stood ahead of any allegiance to the state or its institutions, gave way.

Nevertheless, while this awareness is truly commendable, it is critical to seriously think of the conditions under which Yemenis live, to better understand current and future trends.
Yemen is too poor to function well on the Arabian Peninsula. Few should be surprised that some of its sons and daughters find jihadism attractive. With limited oil income, expected to run out before the end of the next decade, and even less water, the estimated 23 million Yemenis will double in the next 25 years. Unemployment, already around 35 per cent, will rise too. Jobs are scarce and millions toil elsewhere.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh is a military leader whose understanding of economic needs are rudimentary at best though 30 years in power should have helped. Corruption runs high and prospects for improvement are extremely limited. Tourism, the one potential area where progress could be registered, is literally hostage to tribal kidnappings, which drive foreign investments away. A majority of Yemenis are disgusted even if a few are inclined to support extremism. Most are eager to improve their lives and need genuine help.

This is where Saudi Arabia comes in. For while it is extremely important to have top-notch intelligence services watching a festering environment next door, it is far more important, especially in the long run, to plan for the day after. Is it not in Riyadh's interests to supplement its intelligence and security assistance with development aid? Would investments in the socio-economic welfare of a close but vital neighbour not guarantee real security?

The struggle against terrorism cannot be solely won by military means, no matter how ingenious. Although one must confront extremism, the more one emphasises clashes, the more sceptical moderate voices become.

Success comes when intelligence services coordinate their efforts and share critical data, as was the case in this instance, but only if such hard work is followed by real investments that prevent the ills that generate hatred in the first place. Too many have died in the past and more may perish in the future. One method to win over sceptics is to give a hand to the weak to alleviate their vulnerabilities and seal their commitments to hope.

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