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Six Lessons from the London Airline Bombing Plot

What saved lives? Police work, not war.

John Tirman 17 Aug

John Tirman is executive director of MIT's Center for International Studies. His most recent book is 100 Ways America Is Screwing Up the World (Harper Perennial, 2006).

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Change a losing game?

What we now know about the London-based plot to destroy 10 civilian airplanes points to six conclusions.

First, what stopped this plot was law enforcement. Law enforcement. Not a military invasion of Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, or Iraq. Old-fashioned surveillance, development of human sources, putting pieces together and co-operation with foreign police and intelligence services.

Second, the conspiracy -- if it resembles the London bombings of last summer -- will likely be home-grown, another of the growing jihad "fashion" in Europe that comprises the new street gangs of this world. It is not a religious movement; it is not fundamentalism. These are thin veneers. It is at root sheer violence undertaken by young men resentful of many things (not least the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Lebanon) and ready to kill in return. Under different circumstances, it could be Tamils or Red Brigades or Michigan Militiamen, and has been.

Third, if al Qaeda was involved (allegedly from Pakistan), we can thank the failure of the war in Afghanistan and the cozying up to Musharraf to destroy them.

Fourth, there was no involvement by any American-based "cells," according FBI Director Robert Mueller. As many of us have been saying for nearly five years, and as the 9/11 Commission Report showed, there is virtually no plausible American jihad organization at work, and never has been.

Fifth, the plot again reveals how ill-equipped the U.S. government has been in anticipating plausible attack scenarios and taking steps to prevent them. Liquid bombs were so hard to figure out? Al Qaeda already tried it. DHS has almost completely missed the threat, just as they are missing the vulnerability of cargo holds and God knows what else. Thomas Kean, the former GOP governor and co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, called this liquid bomb error "appalling" and wondered, on an NBC program four months ago, why no progress had been made. What are the tens of billions being spent on? This is Katrina II.

Sixth, and most important, The U.S. must end its involvement in Iraq and sharply refocus its presence in the region. The war president's approach is not working. It's a diversion from the real threat. It's a spur to bitter revenge. It's a big feedback loop that will endanger us for years, if not decades. Our lives are now at stake because the Bush catastrophe has created thousands of new terrorists.

Reversing America's colossally destructive series of interventions in the Middle East -- a cause, a trigger, a recruitment fountain and a charity for jihad -- will require an entirely different mindset, not just an adjustment or a measured retreat. When America responded, after being prodded, to the tsunami victims in Indonesia early last year, it profoundly changed Indonesians' views of the United States. New attitudes of support and co-operation suddenly sprang forth. This "natural experiment" should be examined to learn from, possibly to emulate, in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere.

America is now viewed as a destroyer, and destruction is the retort. This is the "new Middle East" that is aborning -- one of relentless violence -- if we do not end our own relentless violence there. The would-be bombers in London are a reminder of how close it is.

John Tirman is executive director of MIT's Center for International Studies. His most recent book is 100 Ways America Is Screwing Up the World (Harper Perennial, 2006). This story was distributed by

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