It's never good news to hear about a new kind of terrorist bomb. That, the CIA says, is what it uncovered somewhere in the Middle East in recent days: a more sophisticated version of the underpants bomb worn by Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab when he tried to blow up a jet on Christmas Day 2009, apparently one that could have got through airport security without setting off any alarms. This is certainly an unnerving development.
As well, though, it's important to remember what it isn't. It isn't anything that has escalated the threat level against the United States, or against Britain. It isn't news of an imminent threat that was only foiled by a hair's breadth. It isn't a confrontation with a terrorist mastermind. And it certainly isn't anything that should make anyone lose any sleep at night.
Even compared to the hapless Abdulmutallab, whose incompetence in execution was second only to the wickedness of his intentions, this was small beer. At least Abdulmutallab managed to get the "holy weapon" that he imagined to be in his underpants on to his flight. This time, the device wasn't seized at an airport; those planning the operation hadn't even reached the stage of picking a plane to target, or worked out the logistics of how they would get their weapon aboard. The CIA had known about the plan for at least a month. They stepped in at a time of their choosing, not because of any sudden fear that an attack was imminent.
None of which is to say that we shouldn't be extremely thankful for their work, or careless about the threat that terrorism of whatever stripe will always pose. Still, whenever something like this comes to pass – the discovery and revelation of a threat so far from fruition that it's almost abstract – it also seems important to me to recall that a healthy disrespect for the failings of these bastards is just as important as a deep wariness of what they might do if they got it right. This seems, by any standard, to have been an utterly calamitous operation, indicative more of the weaknesses of al-Qa'ida in Yemen and of US intelligence's strength than of any great reason to be fearful.
Consider, too, the remarkable fact pointed out by David Shipler in the New York Times on Sunday, before this latest tale unfolded: of 22 major plans for terrorist attacks on US soil since 9/11, fully 14 were developed in sting operations organised by US intelligence, mostly being carried out by people just as incompetent as Abdulmutallab, even more isolated, and utterly removed from posing any genuine danger to civilians. That these people are malevolent scumbags is beyond dispute. That they are anything we should worry about, however, is not.