John Mueller on Zazi
I have refrained from commenting on the case against Najibullah Zazi, simply because it’s so often the case that the details reported in the press have very little do with reality. My suspicion was, that as in in so many other cases, he was an idiot who couldn’t do any real harm and was turned into a bogeyman for political purposes.
Recalls his step-uncle affectionately, Zazi is “a dumb kid, believe me.” A high school dropout, Zazi mostly worked as doughnut peddler in Lower Manhattan, barely making a living. Somewhere along the line, it is alleged, he took it into his head to set off a bomb and traveled to Pakistan where he received explosives training from al-Qaeda and copied nine pages of chemical bombmaking instructions onto his laptop. FBI Director Robert Mueller asserted in testimony on September 30 that this training gave Zazi the “capability” to set off a bomb.
That, however, seems to be a substantial overstatement—not unlike the Director’s 2003 testimony assuring us that, although his agency had yet to identify an al-Qaeda cell in the U.S., such unidentified entities nonetheless presented “the greatest threat,” had “developed a support infrastructure” in the country, and were able and intended to inflict “significant casualties in the US with little warning.”
An overstatement because, upon returning to the United States, Zazi allegedly spent the better part of a year trying to concoct the bomb he had supposedly learned how to make. In the process, he, or some confederates, purchased bomb materials using stolen credit cards, a bone-headed maneuver guaranteeing that red flags would go up about the sale and that surveillance videos in the stores would be maintained rather than routinely erased.
However, even with the material at hand, Zazi still apparently couldn’t figure it out, and he frantically contacted an unidentified person for help several times. Each of these communications was “more urgent in tone than the last,” according to court documents.
Clearly, if Zazi was able eventually to bring his alleged aspirations to fruition, he could have done some damage, though, given his capacities, the person most in existential danger was surely the lapsed doughnut peddler himself.
As I said in 2007:
Terrorism is a real threat, and one that needs to be addressed by appropriate means. But allowing ourselves to be terrorized by wannabe terrorists and unrealistic plots—and worse, allowing our essential freedoms to be lost by using them as an excuse—is wrong.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have all the facts in any of these cases. None of us do. So let’s have some healthy skepticism. Skepticism when we read about these terrorist masterminds who were poised to kill thousands of people and do incalculable damage. Skepticism when we’re told that their arrest proves that we need to give away our own freedoms and liberties. And skepticism that those arrested are even guilty in the first place.
The problem with these arrests is that the crimes have not happened yet. So these cases involve trying to divine what people will do in the future. They involve trying to guess as to people’s motives and abilities. They often involve informants with questionable integrity, and my worry is that in our zeal to prevent terrorism, we create terrorists where there weren’t any to begin with.
It follows that any terrorism problem within the United States principally derives from homegrown people like Zazi, often isolated from each other, who fantasize about performing dire deeds. Penn State’s Michael Kenney has interviewed dozens of officials and intelligence agents and analyzed court documents, and finds homegrown Islamic militants to be operationally unsophisticated, short on know-how, prone to make mistakes, poor at planning, and severely hampered by a limited capacity to learn. Another study documents the difficulties of network coordination that continually threaten operational unity, trust, cohesion, and the ability to act collectively. And the popular notion these characters have the capacity to steal or put together an atomic bomb seems, to put it mildly, as fanciful as some of the terrorists’ schemes.
By contrast, the image projected by the Department of Homeland Security continues to be of an enemy that is “relentless, patient, opportunistic, and flexible,” shows “an understanding of the potential consequence of carefully planned attacks on economic transportation, and symbolic targets,” seriously threatens “national security,” and could inflict “mass casualties, weaken the economy, and damage public morale and confidence.” That description may fit some terrorists—the 9/11 hijackers among them. But not the vast majority, including the hapless Zazi.
EDITED TO ADD (11/9): This is the Michael Kenney paper that Mueller cites.