Here's a fact about the underwear attack that you might have missed in the media shoutfest: it failed. It failed, first of all, because Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was just one terrorist. Once upon a time, al-Qaeda's modus operandi was to launch multiple, simultaneous attacks. That way, even if one attack failed, the entire operation wouldn't. On 9/11, the network deployed 19 hijackers on four planes; on 12/25, by contrast, it managed only one. Second, the underwear attack failed because Abdulmutallab wasn't particularly well trained. The 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were personally selected by Osama bin Laden from the tens of thousands of potential killers who went through al-Qaeda's Afghan training camps in the 1990s. The ringleaders got extensive training on the design of airplanes and the behavior of aircraft crews, even before they enrolled in U.S. flight schools. The grunts were made to slit the throats of camels and sheep to overcome their inhibitions about murder. Abdulmutallab, by contrast, reportedly used a syringe to try to detonate a notoriously hard-to-detonate explosive called PETN. "To make this stuff work," says Van Romero, an explosives expert at New Mexico Tech, "you have to know what you're doing." Abdulmutallab, it appears, did not.
What's more, even if Abdulmutallab had succeeded in blowing up Northwest Flight 253, he would have killed only one-tenth as many people as died on 9/11. Yes, using the word only is ghoulish when you're talking about hundreds of lives. But after Sept. 11, George W. Bush warned about terrorists killing "hundreds of thousands of innocent people" in "a day of horror like none we have ever known." The conventional wisdom was that the next terrorist attack would not merely equal 9/11 but be worse.
In fact, terrorists have not pulled off another attack on the scale of 9/11 anywhere in the world. A 2007 study by Canada's Simon Fraser University found the global death toll from terrorist attacks has substantially decreased since 2001. While al-Qaeda plots do sometimes succeed — like the double-agent operation that killed seven CIA officers in Afghanistan last month — they have become, Rand terrorism expert Brian Jenkins points out, less frequent and less potent.
Why can al-Qaeda no longer pull off the big one? For one thing, it's under more pressure. In preparing the 9/11 attacks, the hijackers and their bosses took dozens of international flights and repeatedly opened U.S. bank accounts under their own names. Al-Qaeda operated a document center at the Kandahar airport. All that would be virtually impossible today, as hordes of counterterrorism officials scrutinize financial transactions and cell-phone calls, and drones track al-Qaeda leaders around the clock. And while government no-fly lists remain flawed, at least they exist. Today, the number of suspected terrorists prohibited from boarding a plane in the U.S. is about 4,000. Before Sept. 11, according to al-Qaeda expert Peter Bergen, it was 16.
Al-Qaeda is not just under more pressure from the West. It's also under more pressure from fellow Muslims. Across the greater Middle East, notes Jenkins, governments that once took a passive, or even indulgent, view of al-Qaeda have been frightened into action by jihadist attacks on their soil. Al-Qaeda's butchery has wrecked its image among ordinary Muslims. After jihadists bombed a wedding in Amman in 2005, the percentage of Jordanians who said they trusted bin Laden to "do the right thing" dropped from 25% to less than 1%. In Pakistan, the site of repeated attacks, support for al-Qaeda fell from 25% in 2008 to 9% the next year. In 2007, the Pew Research Center found that in Pakistan, Lebanon, Indonesia and Bangladesh, support for terrorism had dropped by at least half since 2002.
All this means that even in places like Pakistan and Yemen where al-Qaeda or its affiliates retain some organizational presence, it is much harder to train lots of would-be terrorists for complex, mass-casualty attacks. In response, al-Qaeda seems to be relying more on solo operators, people like Abdulmutallab, Fort Hood gunman Major Nidal Malik Hasan and Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan American arrested last year for allegedly plotting to blow up buildings in New York. These lone wolves are harder to catch, but they're also less likely to do massive damage. Al-Qaeda's new motto, according to New York City police commissioner Raymond Kelly, seems to be "If you can't do the big attacks, do the small attacks." Not exactly cause for celebration, but certainly not cause for the hysteria that has gripped Washington since Christmas Day.