Expect the neocon-national-security-hawk-complex to start raising the hysteria level to purple following the foiling of the latest-and-greatest underwear-bomber attack. The plot, they'll say, is a chilling reminder of the grave threat that the Islamist enemy still poses to the U.S. of A.
But if this episode proves anything, it is just how overblown this threat is. The best person that al Qaeda could find for the job wasn't an authentic recruit but a double agent masquerading as a jihadist.
That al Qaeda and its affiliates wish to hurt America was never in doubt. However, intentions don't alone deliver results. Successful transnational terrorist attacks need quality individuals who, as I wrote last year, would have to be:
radicalized enough to die for their cause; Westernized enough to move around without raising red flags; ingenious enough to exploit loopholes in the security apparatus; meticulous enough to attend to the myriad logistical details that could torpedo the operation; self-sufficient enough to make all the preparations without enlisting outsiders who might give them away; disciplined enough to maintain complete secrecy, and—above all—psychologically tough enough to keep functioning at a high level without cracking in the face of their own impending death.
Al Qaeda might be able to put together a team of heavy weights once in a blue moon, as it did with the 9/11 attacks. But it is not something it can pull off on a regular basis. Indeed, the average al Qaeda foot solider is a peasant who knows little of life outside his province. According to Glenn Carle, Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Transnational Threats on the National Intelligence Council, at its height al Qaeda had just about 20 members who could be regarded as officer grade.
Indeed, if the latest underwear bomber is the best that al Qaeda can do, then Americans have more to fear from their TSA agents than from whatever latest boogeyman their country's venerable leaders are cooking up.
Incidentally, the documents seized from Osama bin Laden's compound corroborate that a big obstacle to his goals was the lack of talent. Like the CEO of a company, he was constantly looking for skilled individuals, carefully screening resumes before hiring. He fretted about the "incompetence" of his recruits, even, notes The New York Times, "looking askance at Faisal Shahzad, who tried unsuccessfully to set off a car bomb in Times Square, and Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born propagandist who was killed by an American drone strike." He also distrusted fellow leaders, all of which made for internecine battles royale. Yet these are the people we are supposed to spend $2 trillion –and counting—to protect ourselves from.
Might have made for a good laugh if we were not actually footing the bill.