30 December 2009

Why the Christmas Day Detroit Terrorist Attack is Different

The Christmas Day failed terrorist attack is different than past planned attacks on the homeland. I stated on Monday that "Domestic terrorism is here, and transnational terrorism is now scarier than before because of a) the rate at which threats are arising and b) amount of time AQ and affiliates are organizing attacks on the homeland." The cases of Nidal Hasan and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab present some general differences between domestic terrorism and transnational terrorism.

In short, Hasan is a lone-wolf type who acted independently with ideological intentions. As my colleague, Pat Ryan, notes, Hasan is a "soldier who work[ed] in the crusader armies and the apostate governments [who] repent[ed] to Allah..." We at Al Sahwa believe Hasan can be thought of as a "franchise terrorist," one who uses the brand of an entity and independently capitalizes on the strength of its image, mission, and reach to succeed. Hasan shouted "Allah akbar" simply because that is what he thought he should do; he believed he was being good by carrying out divine intention.

Abdulmutallab is not a lone wolf. He was inspired and instructed (in some way we do not yet know entirely) to carry out the Christmas Day attack. Additionally, he must have received materials and instructions from within AQAP either vis-a-vis leaders who confirmed the decision or operatives whom he was connected with. Abdulmutallab is not known to have shouted "Allah akbar" like Hasan or 9/11 perpetrators - and it is not surprising. Whereas Hasan falsely and wrongly did what he did for the Mulsim world, Abdulmutallab did it I think to liberate the Arabian Penisula from the "Western crusader."

Both terrorists do have similarities: a) they give us the opportunity to learn more through interrogations, as they are alive and recovering; b) they can serve as legal case studies for terrorists in US federal prisons. Above all, and of great threat to the US: Hasan and Abdulmutallab will now be the faces for terrorist recruitment campaigns.

It is paramount to understand the differences between domestic and transnational terrorism in order to identify the strategic plan of AQ (Serpent Head). I stated that "The jihadi 20-year plan is entering a new phase, one I think we will see unfold at an increased rate over the next 1-2 years simply because AQ believes we are a) internally vulnerable and b) slow to counter." I now think AQ has entered a new phase with the attempted attack carried out by Abdulmutallab, and here is why.

The central cause for concern is nothing other than Detroit, MI. The location means absolutely nothing to AQ and its affiliates AQAP, AQI, AQAFPAK; there is nothing of importance there for them to capitalize on. Detroit spotlights for us AQ logic: they are willing to choose any entry point for a deadly attack in order to send the message that they can and will continue to kill us to counter our military and diplomatic campaigns. AQ, at least AQAP, showed on 25 December that they are interested more in a swift response than a detailed but delayed response.

Comparing Detroit to 9/11 helps us understand the meaning of Detroit more deeply. One, 9/11 was planned over a course of several years; Detroit was most likely planned over the course of a couple of days after US air strikes in Yemen 17 December as a response to attempting to kill Islamic AQ cleric al-Awlaki.

Two, as mentioned above, Detroit holds no national or cultural meaning in comparison to previous targeted areas: the World Trade Center was the financial hub of the US (and world), and the Pentagon is the center of national and international security activity.

Three, the 9/11 plan utilized domestic flights that originated in Boston, MA (American Airlines 11, United Airlines 175), Newark, NJ (United Airlines 93), and Washington, D.C. (American Airlines 77). All flights were meant to fly across the States to San Francisco and Los Angeles, but the hijackers wanted to use the stored fuel for larger impact.

In comparison, Detroit (Delta Airlines 253) was an international flight from Amsterdam, Netherlands. This shows a break from the previous plan: AQAP did not scientifically measure the amount of fuel or strategically plan for taking over the cockpit. Rather, Abdulmutallab used the natural flight path and was probably instructed to wait until an appropriate time just before the flight ended. As stated, the goal was not the size of the impact but their ability to respond.

Detroit means that AQ in general, and AQAP specifically, are more confident in their attempts to bring the fight directly to the US homeland. The new phase of the AQ plan, I think, will employ Detroit-like methods in terms of a) short response time over larger impact and b) US targets that are more vulnerable than meaningful. This strategy spreads their playing field and imitates their tactics in the Arabian Peninsula against "crusader armies and governments."


  1. No doubt you have already come across this, but it seems unlikely that the Detroit attempt was conducted in response to the 17 Dec air strikes - evidence shows that Abdulmutallab's ticket was purchased on Dec 15.

    Still, the second point you make is a good (albeit frightening) one.

  2. Charlie, thank you for your post. I agree: At the time I posted this analysis, it was unsure when exactly Abdulmutallah purchased his ticket. I heard, as JD noted in his post, that it was purchased on Dec. 16.

    If the second point is true, than I think we have a lot to strategize about. In order to do so successfully, I think a business recruitment campaign would be the first step: get the resources and intellectual assets first while the second step is building.

    Speaking as clearly as I can about such a "frightening" scenario: The playing field would become more like a checkers game than a chess game, meaning that having more pieces at one time would be the goal as opposed to having one very important piece.

    If this transition occurs (and I think it is fermenting), then local transit systems will become more susceptible to attacks (i.e. buses, trains, subways) along with stationary sites (i.e. hotels, theaters, sport arenas/fields) than inter-local ones (i.e. bridges, ships, airlines).

    What say you, or others who wish to comment?

  3. DP, thanks for your response. Yes, it was Dec 16, I made an error in my initial response. You raise some interesting points: once I have had a chance to digest it all (and a moment to spare to draft a response!) I will endeavour to post something here.

    Also, I'd be interested to here the views of Al-Sahwa on Gordon Brown's recent announcement regarding the 'Yemen Summit' (and general CT efforts) and whether you believe this is an effective approach.

    It is slightly off-topic but is nevertheless an issue I'm sure you have all thought about!

  4. Charlie, since it was purchased Dec. 16, now we know Abdulmutallah was part of a larger scheme. The question we are trying to answer now: what is the larger scheme, who is involved, where are they targeting, and how will they do so.

    My colleague, Josh, and I have attempted to answer mainly the "how" of an emerging strategy involving Al Shabaab and AQAP which may be connected in some fashion to Christmas and/or Christmas-like attacks.

    You can check out Josh'd posting entitled, "On the Rise: Al Shabaab's Transnational Jihadist Efforts". Mine is a follow-up post 6 January.

    I have not had time to directly address the Yemen Summit, but am forming a post on it for the coming days.

    In the meantime, keep commenting...

  5. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.