The details of the latest failed Islamist plot against America are disturbingly familiar. A group of ethnic Pakistanis plot for months to blow up, simultaneously, multiple jet airliners en route to the U.S. using odorless, colorless liquid explosives contained in carry-on luggage. The resemblance to a failed effort in 1994, codenamed "Operation Bojinka," is unmistakable.
In that episode, Ramzi Yousef, also of Pakistani origin who was schooled in chemistry in the U.K., moved to the Philippines after failing to destroy the World Trade Center in 1993 and hatched another plot, this time to destroy 12 jets en route from Asia to the U.S. Yousef's cell fashioned detonators from wristwatches and other appliances that would have passed airport screening. The detonators and liquid explosives were to be assembled on board. After a December 1994 test run of the bomb failed to bring down the plane as anticipated (one person was killed and 10 wounded), Yousef enhanced the explosive by using acetone peroxide, an odorless, colorless liquid that was to be placed in bottles of contact-lens solutions. But the plot was revealed when a fire erupted in his Manila apartment and his plot-filled computer was found. He fled to Pakistan, where he was eventually betrayed and arrested.
The latest alleged plot was foiled thanks not to an accidental fire, but, if early reports prove accurate, to Scotland Yard's successful infiltration of the terrorist group and its arrest of some 21 members of a cell, both in Britain and in Pakistan, that could include as many as 50 people.
While thwarted, however, both the similarities and differences in the plots are ominous. First, the casualties in both plots, had they succeeded, would have been not only largely American, but equal in number to, or greater than, 9/11. Second, the plots show that militant Islamists remain fixated not only on planes as potential weapons, but on perpetrating the catastrophic terrorism that has long been the hallmark of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda. Taking pride in its status as the reigning "superpower" of terror, al Qaeda and the likeminded young Islamists it either directs or inspires -- it is still unclear which is the case in this latest conspiracy -- strive for terrorist extravaganzas, mega-death rather than a series of more modest attacks that might more effectively devastate America's economy and its citizens' fragile sense of security over time.
Coupled with the thwarted airplane bombing plot of British-born "shoe bomber" Richard Reid and last summer's deadly attacks on London's subways and buses, the plots also demonstrate the emerging centrality of Britain -- or "Londonistan," the subject of Melanie Phillips's recent book -- as a breeding ground for Islamofascist terror. Unlike Bojinka, many of those arrested in the latest alleged plot were not displaced refugees but British-born. And many of these home-grown plotters, unlike Yousef, whose goal was to live to kill another day, were apparently willing to kill themselves to strike a blow. The fact that British-born nationals are willing to commit suicide suggests that the universe of Islamic terrorists is growing rather than shrinking.
Steven Simon, a counterterrorism official under President Clinton and coauthor of "The Age of Sacred Terror," which contains the earliest detailed account of Bojinka, argues that the latest plot suggests that Islamic terrorism is in a transitional phase between "your father's al Qaeda," a highly centralized group whose relationships were forged in the Afghan crucible, and the new world of "self-starters," European citizens who "see themselves as avengers."
The latest plot should concern Washington because it suggests that militant Islamist terrorism is likely to continue to grow, and that its targets continue to be American. That said, there is something of a silver lining to this terrifying trend: The alienation felt by many Muslims in Western lands is not common in the U.S. And given the integration of Muslims from many Arab and non-Muslim lands in American life, the Muslim rage that devastated Parisian suburbs last summer and shredded the tolerant culture of the Netherlands is not widespread here.
Another reason not to despair is the tough-minded approach adopted by the police department of the al Qaeda's No. 1 target, New York. With 1,000 of its 37,000 uniformed officers and 15,000 civilian employees assigned to counterterrorism, the New York Police Department has become an urban model for fighting terrorism.
Under Commissioner Ray Kelly, it has embedded officers in London, Amman, Tel Aviv, Lyons, Singapore and other cities that have much to teach Americans about fighting terror. Because New York is the world's most ethnically diverse city, its police force, Mr. Kelly said earlier this week, has "more Arabic speakers than any other law enforcement agency in the country," and, terrorism experts say, more Pashtu, Urdu and Farsi speakers than the F.B.I. Though its "Nexus" program, police officers have had 25,000 contacts with businesses in and outside New York that might be unwittingly used to facilitate a terrorist attack. A recent trial demonstrated the effective work of undercover operatives, always a tricky business when building trust among minority communities.
None of this should produce complacency. Defenders need to be both skillful and lucky all the time; terrorists need to be lucky only once to kill hundreds, if not thousands. The odds of another successful attack in the U.S. are clearly in the terrorists' favor. But New Yorkers should be somewhat comforted by the fact that this city, so far, has reveled in its ethnic and religious diversity and is doing all it can to ensure that those who want to harm America feel unwelcome here. New York isn't "New Yorkistan."