It's tempting to look at Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's foiled attack on a Detroit-bound airplane as an isolated incident. But the frightening fact is that the Nigerian suspect is far from alone.
Since 2001, there have been 28 failed terrorist attacks against the United States. That averages out to about three foiled attempts per year. And would-be attackers are ramping up. There were six failed attempts in 2009 — the most in a single year.
And these attackers aren't acting alone. Abdulmutallab must have been recruited by someone. He must have worked with a bomb maker. He must have had a "terrorist travel agent."
Further, we can't take much solace in Abdulmutallab's failure. To be blunt, the survival of Flight 253 was a Christmas miracle. The attacker had enough explosive to bring down the plane, and he was in the process of setting it off. He failed only because alert passengers stopped him. In stopping No. 28, America just got lucky.
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The fact is that despite plenty of the warning signs, authorities did nothing to impede Abdulmutallab's travel. He was on watch lists, but was allowed to fly. His father warned American authorities he was a danger, but he was issued a visa. People failed to do their jobs. This represents a failure in homeland security and a failure in leadership.
Tragically, this isn't the first time that visible warning signs were ignored.
In November, Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan gunned down a dozen of his fellow soldiers and wounded 20 more at Fort Hood. Despite his contact with a radical Islamic cleric, Hasan had been allowed to treat patients (some complained he attempted to convert them). Despite the fact that he openly questioned his country and its military mission, he was going to be deployed to service in Afghanistan. "The system" ignored these and other red flags, and good people paid with their lives.
Others were recruited here to carry out attacks overseas. They include five young men from northern Virginia who shipped off to Pakistan; youths from Minneapolis enticed to fight for Al-Shabaab (an al-Qaida affiliate); and David Coleman Headley, who allegedly helped plan the Mumbai attacks and other potential strikes.
In short, the system failed repeatedly in 2009. There's a global terrorist network out there and we don't know what it is doing to get us.
To make matters worse, Washington hasn't shown that it cares very much. "This administration prefers to avoid using the term 'Long War' or 'Global War on Terror' (GWOT)," a Defense Department memo explained last spring. "Please use 'Overseas Contingency Operation.'"
But a war by any other name is just as deadly.
The Obama administration simply doesn't seem to care that some powers granted by the USA Patriot Act are due to expire in two months. Instead, the Department of Homeland Security is pushing for a mass amnesty bill that would do nothing to thwart terrorists.
Detroit is a wake-up call. It highlights a failure in counterterrorism operations, and a failure in leadership.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano now agrees that the system did fail. History will judge her on whether or not she does enough to prevent it from failing next time. Because next time we may not be as lucky.