A year ago Dubai, London, and perhaps Chicago apparently escaped disaster through a mix of timely intelligence, careful investigation and ultimately, good fortune. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's imaginative hiding of explosive material in computer printer cartridges fell before alert security, particularly in Dubai. A number of reports drew attention to the fact that the British investigating team failed to find anything suspicious during the initial search of the UPS aircraft at East Midlands Airport and that it was only after the Dubai investigators had discovered the explosive device embedded in a computer printer that the British took a further look and discovered the second device rumoured to be just 17 minutes from detonation by one French minister.
Two key conclusions emerged. First, AQAP had identified a weakness in security checking of air freight. Second, air freight and passenger luggage could mix but faced differing forms of clearance. Accordingly, security officials subsequently warned British ministers that in their assessment, up to 65% of all air freight may travel on passenger aircraft at some stage in its journey. If plotters could put enough devices into the air freight system, one might slip through the security net. This realization triggered substantial changes in air freight handling.
The second and equally worrying conclusion was that AQAP had become sophisticated at building bombs that are difficult to detect using existing monitoring equipment. Not only was this apparent in the printer cartridge case but also in the device that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab the man the Western media likes to call "the underpants bomber" smuggled aboard a Detroit-bound aircraft.
From the perspective of the UAE, two points are worth contemplating. First, international intelligence agencies were impressed that only Dubai's diligent security checking of the FedEx air cargo in Dubai averted success of the two air-borne terrorist attacks. British police were quietly embarrassed that they missed the parcel in their first look and found it only after Dubai told them what to look for. Less reassuringly, because Dubai is the major global air hub closest to Yemen, it will remain the principal conduit for terrorist attempts to send air freight around the world.
In the wake of these terrorist attempts, media gave extensive coverage to the next edition of the AQAP on-line publication "Inspire" which celebrated AQAP achievements: that the two failed parcel bombings cost only $4,200 to mount and will without a doubt cost America and other Western countries billions of dollars in new security measures. This supported a view that AQAPs main intent is to achieve global recognition for itself and for its extremist ideology through the threat or indeed reality of low-cost operations.
The struggle to prevail over Al Qaeda is primarily ideological a trial of ideas rather than of muscle. That said, AQAP or other wings of Al Qaeda will surely mount a serious attack whenever they can, if only for the buzz of conversation it would bring them.