To uncover and derail the plot, German authorities executed a remarkable feat of inter-departmental and inter-jurisdictional coordination in a country where wounds from the days of Communism and Nazism make counter-terrorist surveillance difficult and unpopular.
To break up a terrorist cell bent on amassing and purifying a huge cache of highly explosive hydrogen peroxide, the German authorities looked not only far and wide, but right in their back yards. Over the course of many months, hundreds of security agents worked together to uncover the plot, overcoming hurdles of logistics and imagination that tripped up American authorities in the months before September 11th, 2001.
The three suspects do not fit the stereotypical mold of “suicide bombers”—none are Arabs, and two are German citizens (though all are Muslims)—and thus wouldn’t have been snared by a simplistic campaign of racial profiling. Complicating things further, the preliminary stages of the plot were conducted in the neighboring towns of Ulm and Neu-Ulm, which, despite being on opposite banks of the Rhine river, are in different states and are policed by separate departments. But unlike in America, where, before 9/11, FBI agents in Minneapolis couldn’t easily communicate their concerns about a terrorist plot with their counterparts in Phoenix AZ, Washington D.C., or at the CIA, who could have acted against the threat, the Germans saw to it that jurisdictional boundaries were nothing more than lines on a map.
Despite these challenges, the German authorities kept a watchful eye on the three would-be bombers, allowing the evidence to mount while ensuring that the public was never threatened—even secretly swapping concentrated hydrogen peroxide with a much more dilute mixture.
But the state of security on this side of the Atlantic is less reassuring.
More than three years after the release of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission’s report in the summer of 2004, a lot of titles have been juggled and a lot of agency flowcharts have been reworked, but we only have one hint that the American security apparatus is better at handling its monumental task: We haven’t been hit again.
Meanwhile, we have had some pretty unimpressive terror “catches.” Jose Padilla, who then-Attorney General John Ashcroft labeled a “dirty bomber” with much fanfare, was recently convicted of charges unrelated to any plot to harm Americans directly. Two other terror cells supposedly smashed by American security services seemed both inept and far from able to carry out the frightening attacks that the Department of Homeland Security said they planned, including an attack on Chicago’s Sears Tower and a tunnel into Manhattan.
Of course it’s better to stop terror plots early than never (provided innocent citizens don’t get caught up in the mix), but the recently broken-up plots seemed more like efforts to shore up a political image than to halt a ticking time bomb.
I hope that the skilled professionals who handle the day-to-day business of protecting this country are allowed to display their skill just as those in Germany did recently, rather than having all the talent and effort they devote to this cause squandered in the name of politics.
Jonathan B. Steinman ’10, a Crimson sports editor, lives in Winthrop house.