National Security

Forget What You Think You Know

Would we even recognize an al Qaeda attack if we saw one?

When I heard about the Boston bombings, my heart sank -- but I also felt some part of my mind slip into battle mode. From past episodes, such as the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day in 2009, I can picture the way that my former colleagues at the National Counterterrorism Center, the CIA, the FBI, and many more are now rushing into action, moving swiftly and skillfully to sift the intelligence wheat from the collection chaff, pushing their own emotions aside or using them to fuel their efforts. 

Once upon a time, our first impulse would have been to blame al Qaeda. But soon after the attack, several respected experts suggested that the bombing smelled more like domestic terrorism, pointing to a venue of vast local significance, the timing, and the relatively low-tech pressure-cooker explosives. They may well be right -- and the FBI's announcement Thursday that it is looking for two men seen in photos and video footage before the attack means that we could soon know far more. Even so, the out-of-the-gates lean toward ascribing the Boston bombings to domestic terrorists seems to have been based not just on the fragmentary evidence at hand, but also on the conviction that the attack just didn't resemble what we think of when we imagine an al Qaeda attack. That image is no longer accurate -- it's based on what the group once was, not what's left of it today. 

Years ago, when my former colleagues and I spoke about a "typical" al Qaeda assault, we all knew what we were describing. We meant a plot that was centrally coordinated, well planned, and carefully scoped out; a plot that was technically advanced, perhaps involving innovative technology; a plot that had an identified and ambitious goal -- one that would have made the planners of 9/11 proud. These are the plots described in the documents that SEAL Team Six found in Abbottabad with Osama bin Laden -- big, spectacular attacks that had massive economic consequences, such as hijacking oil tankers, attacking multiple aircraft over the Atlantic, targeting financial institutions, killing hundreds or even thousands of people. The al Qaeda of old -- and, almost certainly, bin Laden himself -- would probably have scoffed at the scale, the simplicity, the randomness, and the seeming lack of political purpose behind the bombings in Boston.

The United States has eliminated generations of al Qaeda's leadership, forced it out of one safe haven in Afghanistan, hammered it in another haven inside Pakistan, and driven the organization to decentralize itself. These successes have made it virtually impossible to accurately describe anymore what we mean by "an al Qaeda attack." These changes mean my former colleagues in the counterterrorism world must consider a limitless universe of potential al Qaeda attacks and tactics, with a scattered and shadowy leadership structure to monitor.

The fact that we're dealing today with a diversified, decentralized, and diminished al Qaeda core is both good news and bad: Good news because al Qaeda seemingly has been forced to resort to smaller, simpler, and less spectacular attacks -- but bad news because such plots are far more difficult to penetrate and prevent than the types of grand, theatrical attacks that bin Laden dreamed of from his lair in Abbottabad. We've been enormously successful in preventing al Qaeda attacks, but if Boston does, in the end, turn out to have been conducted or motivated by al Qaeda, we'll need a new framework for understanding its operations and guarding against them. We'll have to change our way of thinking about the group's threshold and targets -- and reconsider our understanding of the way al Qaeda thinks about its own operations.

Some "understandings" should be reevaluated right away. It's not easy to know what to make of the lack of any claims of responsibility thus far for the Boston bombings. (Indeed, the only public claim seems to have come from the Pakistani Taliban, which insisted that they were not responsible.) So we're left with a mystery: Why would any group conduct such an attack and not claim it as their own? We may know more soon enough. But for now, contrary to what some experts have said, we simply have no reason to believe that the lack of any public claims argues for or against al Qaeda's culpability. 

We also need to let go of our culturally myopic assumption that dates are important to al Qaeda. As best we know, April 15 -- the date of the Boston Marathon -- holds no obvious meaning for al Qaeda. But that's evidence of nothing. Twelve anniversaries of 9/11 itself have come and gone without the expected al Qaeda sequel attack. (Although some are still debating whether the terrorist attack in Benghazi last year that killed our ambassador to Libya was related to the 9/11 anniversary, I come down firmly on the side that it was not; indeed, it's still an open question whether the Benghazi perpetrators had much at all to do with al Qaeda's North African affiliate, let alone its faraway core in Pakistan.) We've already passed one anniversary of the death of bin Laden -- and, again, no commemorative attack. Every date that was once believed to hold meaning for al Qaeda has come and gone without action. The most compelling argument to draw from all this is that al Qaeda attacks when it is good and ready, not on a predetermined schedule or on sentimental dates.

It may also be time to let go of the old assumption that al Qaeda attacks are characterized by a high degree of technical ability. Al Qaeda made clever strides to slip explosives past U.S. screening mechanisms, such as the 2009 underwear bomber; they developed their own recipes for explosives, like the liquid explosive that first appeared in 2006. But it may well also be true that the ready availability on the Internet of recipes, tactics, and devices has ushered in an era of more advanced "lone wolves" and domestic terrorists -- at just about the same moment that counterterrorism pressure on al Qaeda has sapped its capabilities. To be sure, al Qaeda still has the means to produce the tools of terrorism, but their operational ability has long been depleted.

As a former senior counterterrorism official, my mind rushes naturally to such considerations. But precisely because I'm now out of government, I have time -- without the old adrenaline and the old pressure -- to step back for a moment from the "whodunit" questions. And that drives me to something that may be both more simple and more true. The Boston bombings are a reminder that there are evil, violent people out there who are willing to murder an 8-year-old boy, maim innocent bystanders, and deliberately target ordinary citizens. I expect we'll know more soon about their motives -- but on some level, I'm not even sure I care that much. What's the difference if they ascribe this atrocity to a neo-Nazi, radical Islamist, or separatist anti-government ideology? Whatever their motive, they're cowardly murderers who need to be brought to justice.

The reflexive question -- "Was this terrorism?" -- shouted out so expectantly during the first press conferences after attacks on our fellow Americans, whether in Boston or Benghazi or elsewhere, reveals a certain cultural, even national, neurosis that we have about terrorism. Of course this is terrorism, even if it turns out to have lacked a familiar motive -- and I'm glad people acknowledged that immediately this time. But why should we care that much? Does it matter to the victims or their loved ones what warped ideology the perpetrators believed in? No. Will it make it any easier to stop the next attack? I doubt it, though motive certainly helps make solving attacks easier. Maybe next time, rather than indulging our appetite for gruesome details, uninformed and premature speculation, and round-the-clock coverage, we could all pause and try to deprive the perpetrators -- whoever they are -- of the thing they most crave: attention.

For the people in government charged with protecting the homeland against terrorist attacks, the job has never been more difficult. Defending against spectacular attacks like 9/11 is one thing, but the Boston attack demonstrates how our definition of terrorism has changed -- and how the job of defending ourselves has become all the harder.

FBI via Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Why I'm Flying Back to Malaysia to Vote

When absentee voting just isn’t good enough.

I'm a Malaysian citizen who's been living in Switzerland since I married my German husband two and a half years ago. Ever since I made the move to Europe, though, I've been keeping an eye on the political situation back in my native country. Earlier this year, when it became apparent that a general election was imminent, I flew back to Malaysia -- 6,200 miles away -- just so that I could vote.

Unfortunately, after my arrival, the government decided to hold off on calling the new election, so when I couldn't wait any longer I flew back to Zurich -- only to hear the news that Prime Minister Najib Razak had dissolved parliament. Soon after that the date of the new election was set: May 5.

So I turned around and flew back to Malaysia.

Yeah, it's crazy. But I'm not the only one. Many of my compatriots in Malaysia's far-flung expat community -- it's estimated that there are around one million of us around the world -- are doing the same thing. That's a reflection of how high the stakes are in the upcoming election -- and how strongly many of us want to vote for change.

The 2013 general election (or "GE13," as Malaysians like to call it) is shaping up to be one of the most decisive battles in the country's modern history. The ruling National Front Coalition (Barisan Nasional or BN) has run Malaysia for the past 56 years. The opposition People's Pact (Pakatan Rakyat or PR) believes that the chance may have finally come to challenge BN's hold on power.

I don't think it's important to tell you which candidates I'm voting for. Suffice it to say that I don't think it's a goodthing when one group of people run a country for so long, and that I believe we desperately need change. In my own life as a Malaysian I've experienced far too much in the way of discrimination, injustice, bureaucracy, and inefficiency. And I don't want others who live in Malaysia to go through the same things.

So why not just vote absentee? Can't I just sign up to send in my vote by mail? Why do I need to go to the trouble of taking a sixteen-hour flight just so that I can be there in person at the polling place? After all, there's plenty of evidence that the government won't shy away from tampering with the vote even if you're physically present in Malaysia.

It should be noted that this is the first time in Malaysia's history that citizens living overseas have the chance to vote (with the exception of some Malaysians in a few other Southeast Asian countries). But very few -- only about 0.6 percent -- have actually signed up to vote absentee. Thousands have decided instead to return home solely for the election.

Some of them may have opted to do this because the absentee voting law doesn't actually make it very easy for overseas Malaysians to register. But I think the far more important reason is that most of us don't trust the government to tally our votes, especially when we're not there to stand up for our right to be counted.

Over the past few years Malaysias have witnessed the astonishing growth of the Bersih ("Clean") reform movement, a grassroots initiative that has galvanized the longing for free and fair elections. (The most recent Bersih demo a year ago drew up to a quarter of a million people onto the streets of Kuala Lumpur.) That's a response to widespread and credible reports of vote tampering that traditionally plague Malaysian elections.

Government meddling spans vote buying, ballot box stuffing, multiple voting (including busing of pro-government voters to other constituencies), and even the granting of quick citizenship (with voting rights) to illegal immigrants who are instructed how to vote. Many of us fear that there will be even more such shenanigans this time around, given the government's obvious nervousness about its eroding support in recent by-elections. (The minister of education, for example, recently called together teachers and told them to vote for the BN-led government.) Our distrust extends to the national election commission, which has uncomfortably close ties to BN and offers little in the way of independent oversight.

Overseas Malaysians offer particular opportunities for fraud. There have been recent reports of Malaysian citizens living in China who have been registered as postal voters without their knowledge. In one case, a businessman residing in Shanghai for over nine years discovered that he'd registered as a voter in Kelantan, although he has never been to the state. In fact, he's never even registered as a voter. Such tales of "phantom voters" reinforce the notion that the best way to prevent such fraud is by showing up at the polls. (The Election Commission has already admitted that some 42,000 names on the electoral roll are actually "phantoms," and civil society organizations fear that the number is far higher.)

So far I've spoken with Malaysians in Afghanistan, Australia, and the United Kingdom who are planning to fly home to cast their ballots. Two university students in Taipei each spent a sum equivalent to a month of living expenses in order to purchase tickets home. One middle-aged Malaysian lady posted a photo of herself online at Los Angeles International Airport as she prepared to head pack to her hometown of Perak. "I am flying home from Los Angeles to cast my precious vote!" she wrote, "I refuse to be dumb anymore for my grandchildren and next generations. I love my country. I love the land where I have grown up ~ Malaysia! Change!"

Some Malaysians have responded by getting together to help others make the trip. The local branch of Bersih in Shanghai has initiated a "Go Back to Vote Campaign" that is offering 500 renminbi (about $82) for airfare to Malaysians in the city who might not be able to afford the trip home. Bersih Shanghai's Weng Liew estimates that a total of 3,000 people have confirmed flying home from China. Bersih's Hong Kong chapter has launched a similar campaign, offering 500 Hong Kong dollars (about $60) towards a plane ticket "A high turnout will minimize fraud and offers a better chance of stability in the event there is regime change or hung parliament," says Lee Willson of Bersih Hong Kong.

Of all the Malaysians living abroad, by far the biggest group -- some 300,000 to 5000,000 -- is in Singapore. Two travel companies, and, have jointly launched a promotion bus fare for all Malaysians working in Singapore to go home to vote. One company says it will be doubling the number of coaches making the trip (from 50 to 100). Some Malaysians working in Singapore are also arranging carpools or offering lifts to compatriots through social media. That prompted the Electoral Commission to warn foreigners not to drive Malaysians cross the border in cars with foreign plates.

Norman Goh told me that he'd decided to fly back from Singapore to vote in his home state of Sarawak. He told me that the journey home to vote for some of his friends from there will only be beginning when they get off the flight from Singapore. They still face another two hours by bus and then another three by boat in order to arrive at their destinations deep in the jungles of Borneo.

This all might sound rather extreme. But it's actually pretty reasonable. Many of my compatriots are tired of the corruption and racism that rule over public life in our country. We want to establish a truly bipartisan system that encourages real checks and balances. And we want a country that's clean, green, safe, and progressive. To get there, we have to vote.

Samsul Said/Flickr Vision