Delayed warning?

Rumours that the US government may soon issue a public warning about a new aircraft terror threat are difficult to decipher. Is the threat credible or are the much-criticised intelligence bureaucrats just covering themselves?

Sources have told STRATFOR that Washington may soon make an announcement pertaining to an ongoing terror plot against the United States by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The warning is reportedly based on information that additional operatives are preparing attacks similar to the one attempted by Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to destroy a Detroit-bound airliner on December 25 using a bomb concealed in his underwear.

There could be a couple different reasons for the announcement of this threat. First, the threat information might be considered reliable, but the authorities do not have enough actionable intelligence to readily thwart it. For example, they may have reliable information that there are individuals inside or heading to the United States who are travelling on fraudulent documents, but cannot locate them and thwart the plot because they lack the information required to identify the suspects. In such a case, the US government would be hoping that by publicising the threat, they could cause those involved in planning or executing it to panic and call off their mission thinking it had been compromised. Such a warning could also place the public on alert in the hope of identifying and locating the suspects.

Alternatively, the government may not be sure of the veracity of the information they possess but are disseminating the information in an effort to cover themselves bureaucratically. In the wake of the Christmas bombing plot, several government agencies have been heavily criticized in the media and on Capitol Hill for not acting on or properly sharing the information they possessed on the suspect in that case prior to the flight. Bureaucrats do not want to risk making the same mistake twice and taking even more political heat. They want to create the impression that they are aware of the threat and are now taking active steps to prevent the next attack.

Aircraft-related threats are more complex than other types of threats because of the Aviation Security Improvement Act of 1990, which specified that civil aviation threats could not be passed along to select groups of travellers unless the threat applied only to those specific travellers. In other words, this law requires that threats be disseminated to the public in addition to government employees. There can be no double standard when it comes to providing such warnings. The no double-standard policy was to be applied to timely, credible, corroborated and specific threats, but over time it has been applied to almost any and every threat – even those not involving aircraft.

It is inevitable that in the weeks and months following a major or failed attack, the number of false threats rises. This is especially true in cases where government employees have been criticized for not sharing information, or have been accused of making a bad analytical assessment of a threat. And during such periods, there is a reaction that results in nearly every potential threat being reported, regardless of its veracity. This overreaction then leads to the release of many more alerts – many of which are not well founded. This flurry of non-credible alerts then results in alert fatigue as the public tires of the little boy who constantly cries wolf.

As long as there are individuals who seek to attack innocents, there will be threats. As long as there are bureaucrats concerned about being grilled by Congress, there will be vague and unspecified terrorism threat warnings. In such an environment, it is difficult for the public to decipher which of the warnings issued by the government are being issued by bureaucrats to cover their backsides, and which are based on timely, accurate and specific intelligence. Due to this difficulty, the public needs to maintain a heightened sense of vigilance at all times, because in many attacks – like the attempt on Christmas – there is no warning.

Stratfor provides intelligence services for individuals, global corporations, and divisions of the US and foreign governments around the world.

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