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Another far-too-close call with airborne explosives

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Nov. 1, 2010 at 7:45 pm |
November 1, 2010 5:47 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Americans have been in a roaring argument with each other all year about the future course of the country.

But last week brought a chilling reminder that some see us not as Republicans, Democrats or whatever, but as infidel Westerners worthy of nothing but death.

Two high-explosive bombs expertly concealed in printer ink containers appear to have been designed to explode in flight en route to the United States. They’d been addressed to two Jewish centers in Chicago. In the minds of Islamic terrorists, all Americans deserve hatred, but some deserve more hatred than others.

The bombs came from Yemen, which in the last couple years has become a full-fledged base of operations for al-Qaida. The local franchise is called al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula; it consists of high-end professionals, like the man believed to have constructed these devices, as well as rank-and-file Islamist warriors who’ve fled a welcome crackdown on terrorists in neighboring Saudi Arabia.

Like last year’s attempted Christmas bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner, this was way too close a call.

Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a Saudi fugitive in Yemen, appears to have built all three devices using the same chemicals. Al-Qaida appears to have found it relatively easy to place the bombs aboard commercial flights.

The would-be Christmas bomber carried his explosives in his underwear and was caught trying to detonate it in flight; only his incompetence spared the passengers and crew. Last week’s bombs appear to have been intercepted through good intelligence and close international cooperation, a much more promising means of averting future attacks.

Yemen is a failed state, with a crippled government beset by armed rebellions. Al-Qaida puts down its roots in such anarchic conditions; it has done so in Somalia, in the remote Pakistani region of Waziristan – and it would like to do so again in Afghanistan if that country’s weak central government collapses.

There are no obvious fixes for nations that have become ungovernable. The Obama administration is doing damage control in Yemen with $300 million a year in military and civilian aid, but American aid in that part of the world tends to stigmatize the people who receive it – who are often corrupt and unpopular in the first place.

Extreme vigilance and competent intelligence are likely to remain our most reliable defense for the foreseeable future. Even that is a porous net, as the Christmas bombing demonstrated. As President George W. Bush once observed, we have to win every time; they have to win only once.

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