Underwear Bomber #2

As everyone knows, the CIA reportedly has disrupted a plot that originated in Yemen and involved an “underwear bomb” that was described as potentially undetectable:

The CIA thwarted an ambitious plot by al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner using a bomb with a sophisticated new design around the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, U.S. officials said Monday.

The plot involved an upgrade of the underwear bomb that failed to detonate aboard a jetliner over Detroit on Christmas 2009. This new bomb was also designed to be used in a passenger’s underwear, but this time al-Qaida developed a more refined detonation system, U.S. officials said.

This device didn’t contain any metal, so it presumably could have made it through conventional metal detectors at airports. As usual, the plot hadn’t advanced very far when it was broken up:

The would-be suicide bomber, based in Yemen, had not yet picked a target or bought a plane ticket when the CIA stepped in and seized the bomb, officials said.

Officials said the plot posed no threat to the public. I am sure that is true. But it could lead to more inconvenience for travelers, as the plot, several years ago, that involved mixing bottles of fluids in the bathroom precipitated a ban on liquids exceeding three ounces in carry-ons. The real moral of this story is one that we have seen over and over again during the last decade: the key to defense against terrorist attacks is intelligence. We are unlikely to foil serious efforts at terrorism through routine screening at airports and other locations. Rather, plots are best broken up long before the plotters check in for their flights. This is especially true since the large majority of targets–malls, etc.–lack the elementary security precautions that prevail almost uniquely with regard to air travel. So, kudos once again to the CIA and to America’s intelligence professionals who, using methods that thankfully haven’t been exposed lately by the New York Times and the Washington Post, manage to infiltrate or eavesdrop on one terrorist plot after another.

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