New York Times
November 2, 2010
The discovery of two explosive devices packed aboard airplanes was a testament to American intelligence, and to the efforts of Saudi Arabia, which has played an ambiguous role in global antiterrorism operations. But the near disasters remind us that Al Qaeda remains eager to attack the United States and other nations. They highlight the need for constant vigilance, improved security — and economic and political reforms in Yemen that could counter Al Qaeda’s appeal.
The two air packages — both sent from Yemen and addressed to synagogues in Chicago — were intercepted in Britain and Dubai. In both cases, the powerful explosive PETN was concealed in printer cartridges and experts said the force of these sophisticated bombs would have been enough to bring down the planes.
Saudi Arabia deserves credit for averting the disaster. It alerted Washington to the threat so that officials could locate and defuse the packages. Once known as the home base of Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the country too often has been a reluctant ally in the fight against extremists. It seems to appreciate the problem more acutely now that Al Qaeda’s branch in the Arabian Peninsula is growing in strength. The Saudi monarchy needs to do more at home, where extremism is tolerated and even encouraged in mosques and schools.
The Obama team was justifiably criticized last December when a Nigerian man trained in Yemen tried to blow a hole in the side of a Detroit-bound flight. But a staunch Obama critic, Representative Peter King, a Republican of New York, said: “On this particular matter, I think the administration has handled it perfectly.”
Still, the incident exposed continued security lapses. Since 9/11, countries have been more rigorous about inspecting passenger planes, but cargo planes — which initially carried the two bombs — are largely ignored. The United States, Britain, Germany and France have halted cargo shipments from Yemen, but that cannot continue indefinitely. Washington missed a deadline last August to require inspections of cargo on all passenger planes and must put the system in place.
The Obama administration almost certainly will have to escalate its war against Al Qaeda in Yemen, while guarding against strikes that kill civilians. And it must work with the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and with Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s main Arab ally and benefactor. The United States also must continue to lead international efforts to support Yemen with economic and development aid so that the people of the Arab world’s poorest country are not drawn to extremists.
It is impossible to rule out terrorist attacks. It is possible to be more vigilant and to learn from each failed attempt how to better prevent the next one.