Diego de Deza and Reynald Krak may have died hundreds of years ago, but they were the addressees on two packages containing explosives bound for the United States that were intercepted last week. Deza took part in the Spanish Inquisition and Krak was a Crusader knight, both responsible for the deaths of many Muslims.
"They fundamentally believe the U.S. is at war with Islam," former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke said Thursday about the thwarted al-Qaida plot. "We now know it was designed to blow up large cargo aircraft over Chicago. To literally bring fire on the American President's hometown to prove they could still attack us on our homeland."
Speaking at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts as part of the 2010-2011 Bridges to the Future lecture series on 9/11: Ten Years After, Clarke said that President Obama's declaration in his inauguration speech that the United States will never be at war with Islam helped America's image in the Muslim world for only a short time. But many Muslims interpret American forces throughout the region as a new crusade in an attempt to suppress Islam and steal oil, Clarke added.
"We're not good that fighting an ideological battle," he said. "Burning Qurans and stopping the construction of mosques gets a great deal of attention in the Middle East press. But the truth is, we are not trying to suppress Islam. There was a mosque at the World Trade Center. But these stories don't make it through to Iraq and Yemen and Saudi Arabia."
So nine years after 9/11, al-Qaida is still a major threat and becoming increasingly better at finding gaps in U.S. security measures, as the most recent terror attempt and the last Christmas underwear bomber.
"They're trying to find holes in our security and they're very good at it," Clarke said. "And there will always be holes. We don't really screen air cargo on cargo planes or passenger jets."
While the United States spends billions of dollars on security systems, Clarke said that al-Qaida spends only a few thousand finding ways to get through that security.
"They target our vulnerabilities and weaknesses," he said.
The packages, which contained the explosive material, PETN, hidden in toner cartridges in printers, originated in Yemen and did not reach their final destinations in Chicago in large part due to a tip from Saudi intelligence. Clarke said this was the good news about the terror attempt.
"Prior to 9/11 we couldn't get the Saudis to do anything about al-Qaida," Clarke explained. "Now they're one of the most active."
This is because in 2001, al-Qaida turned its attention to the Saudi royal family, which the terror organization believes has too close of a relationship with the United States. But it took a failed suicide bomb attack against the head of Saudi intelligence for the Saudis to be more cooperative.
"Now the head of Saudi intelligence has a new priority," Clarke said.
And that priority is close to home. Clarke explained that al-Qaida in Yemen is now the largest branch of the terror organization with up to 600 active fighters. Their ideological leader is the American-born Anwar al-Awlaki, who Clarke said is very good at reaching out to an American audience and attracting lone wolves who are staging attacks in the United States.
"The only reason they haven't succeeded is because the FBI and other intelligence agencies pick them up and stop the attacks," Clarke said. "A lot of it's been luck, but a lot's been skills. We have prevented a number of attacks and have a very good track record in recent years but we should not conclude that that will continue. The underwear bomb was just badly designed."
But at the end of the day, Clarke said it will ultimately be up to Muslims to stop al-Qaida.
"The only way to beat down this radical perverted view within Islam if the Muslims do it themselves," he said. "We will not defeat them. We will only hold them at bay. What we can do is stop doing stupid things like burning Qurans that make is so difficult for our Muslim brothers and sisters to fight against al-Qaida."
-M. Schwinn, MA candidate in International Security
Josef Korbel School of International Studies