As most of the world knows by now, the CIA and Saudi intelligence were successfully able to thwart yet another attempt by Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to detonate an "underwear bomb" on board a commercial airplane. While most of the details will remain classified for the foreseeable future (and a drone made sure most of those involved in the plot will not be talking), there are a couple of broad lessons that can be gleaned from this event:
1) Low-tech remains as important as high-tech
This may seem like a no-brainer, but with all the talk of drones, most people seem to forget that technology is not a cure-all to the problems posed by non-state actors. They’re relatively small size, network-like structure, and lack of permanent bases of operation make them incredibly difficult to track through only “high-tech” means such as drones and satellites. This means that human intelligence in the form of agents remains absolutely critical in gathering information on these groups and thwarting potential attacks such as this one. Indeed, this plot was foiled by the placement of an agent within the cell, who fed all the information back and kept the CIA and Saudi security forces well-informed.
AQAP’s unique position makes it unknown whether future agents can have the success this one did. Even though a small structure usually leads to fewer opportunities to place agencies such as the one that stopped this plot, Al-Qaeda’s position may ironically be more inviting of further agent penetrations. As Al-Qaeda has gotten smaller and its influence has waned, the success of this agent may suggest that the group is becoming more desperate to find willing martyrs. Their area of operations has become more predictable as well, with AQAP maintaining most of its operations in Yemen. On the other hand, AQAP now knows they have been penetrated by at least one agent, so their first instinct may be to close their ranks, making it more difficult to insert further agents. I’m not really in a position to say which is more likely, but either is a very realistic scenario.
2) Information sharing remains critical
Another no-brainer, but one that seems to have gotten lost in the headlines. An important note that seems to get lost is the fact that agent was not an agent working for the CIA, but rather for Saudi intelligence, who was very willing to cooperate with Langley. Despite all of our focus on the region now, the Saudis have a giant advantage when it comes to human intelligence in the region. Not only do they neighbor Yemen and share a common language, but Saudi Arabia also has long-standing ties to many of the tribes and has cultivated HUMINT networks within the country for many years. They may not be the most desirable of allies, but nevertheless Saudi Arabia is an ally, and their work in the region remains critical to thwarting future plots such as this one.
3) Al-Qaeda is not the threat it once was, but they’re still dangerous
There is no doubt the last decade has whittled down Al-Qaeda to a shell of their former organization. The central command that was largely in control of confirming targets and controlling operations is long gone, replaced by more scattered groups who have much more control over themselves. This has been beneficial because it means that large, coordinated attacks such as 9/11 are much less likely, but these instead have been replaced by smaller plots that, while not being able to do as much damage, could have a serious short-term political and societal effect.
These groups are not stupid, either. The now infamous "underwear bomber" failed only because of a poorly designed bomb, which this current plot had overcome, using a new detonator and material that could have possibly passed through security unnoticed. AQAP has so far been unable to successfully strike at Western targets due to both bad luck and good work by American intelligence agencies and their allies. The fact that they continue to try, however, should give us a moment of pause, and remind us that the money and time we put into combatting these groups is worth it, or next time we may not be so lucky.