Sending The C-Teamer For The A-Team Job

Over at my old stomping ground, Justin Elliott has an excellently framed piece about Faisal Shahzad. How well framed? So well framed that the key point arrives in before he gets to quoting anyone.

What kind of terrorist training results in what was by all accounts an extremely crude bomb that not only failed to go off, but also included 250 pounds of nonexplosive fertilizer?

That’s the fact-in-plain-sight here. It’s to look at the worst-case scenario here, that the Pakistani Taliban was able for the first time to export violence halfway around the world, preparing an operative for an attack in the middle of Times Square, and this is the best that results. Something not just inept but giggle-inducing and goofy. “If you’ve handled explosives a lot … you’d just understand that he just doesn’t really understand how all these materials work in concert,” Justin quotes a former ATF agent observing.

Now we get into facts-not-in-evidence territory. It’s possible the TTP provides absolutely great training in fertilizer-based explosives. JIEDDO, the counter-IED military command, is increasingly concerned with the fertilizer-based IEDs on display in Afghanistan, capable of circumventing the detection devices used by U.S. troops hunting for metal. Stands to reason that TTP could be applying that learned lesson. So maybe Shahzad didn’t understand the concepts involved and the next operative will. That’s certainly the safer assumption to build a plan around.

But maybe TTP doesn’t understand the concepts involved. Or maybe TTP doesn’t have the caliber of disciplined recruit who understands the concepts involved; is willing to give up his life or his freedom halfway around the world to pull off an attack; or is capable of successful implementation. It’s too early to draw responsible conclusions. But from Shahzad to Abdulmutallab to Zazi, the C-list operative is given the A-team job, and that’s starting to say something about current al-Qaeda-and-allied capabilities.

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Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman