If you want to understand why the jihadist movement is losing its appeal, consider the body bomb. Reports surfaced last week that al Qaeda has been considering trying to slip a suicide bomber through airport security by surgically implanting explosives in the prospective martyr's belly, rectum or breast. Yes, women can be homicidal maniacs, too.
On Wednesday, the Transportation Security Administration issued a warning containing an oblique reference to the bizarre threat that was picked up. Because planes and airports are better defended these days after the billions spent on airline security, terrorist groups have "repeatedly and publicly indicated interest in pursuing ways to further conceal explosives," the alert stated.
Richard Clarke, the former white House counterterrorism adviser for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, told ABC News that al Qaeda associates have been working for more than a year on such bomb implants and that "they may now have actually done that."
Counterterrorism officials tell me they have seen no specific evidence that al Qaeda has managed to plant a lethal bomb in any body cavity; they still regard the threat as largely "aspirational." But al Qaeda is nothing if not persistent, so homeland defenders are taking no chances.
The generic belly bomb has been the talk of the intelligence community since August 2009 when Ibrahim Asiri, the infamous, inventive al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula bomb maker now living in Yemen, planted an explosive device on his 23-year-old brother Abdullah for a suicide mission. When that failed, he recruited another would-be martyr, Mohammed Al Awfi, a former Guantanamo Bay inmate who nearly killed Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who heads the kingdom's counterterrorism effort.
Initial reports said that Asiri had planted the bomb inside Al Awfi's rectum. But Anthony Kimery, a veteran analyst and editor of Homeland Security Today reported soon after the incident that Asiri had planted from 100 grams to 1 pound of explosives (expert opinions vary) not in the bomber's rectum but in his underwear, which he assumed (correctly) Saudi security would not check.
Prince Nayef survived the attack and presumably has now insisted on more thorough Saudi body searches. But Asiri has gone on to evermore creative if still unsuccessful exploits, including supplying an underwear bomb to yet another 23-year-old Islamist, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried but failed to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas in 2009. Asiri also made the two ingenious but unsuccessful air cargo bombs hidden in printers being shipped from Yemen to Chicago.
Experts say that body bombs would probably not be detected by the expensive body scanners still being installed in American and international airports or by the dogs used to sniff out explosives. And although a bomb's force would be somewhat suppressed by the body, a more powerful explosive — or more of a less powerful one — might conceivably kill the next Saudi prince or bring down a plane.
Harvey Kushner, chairman of the criminal justice department at Long Island University in Brooklyn, N.Y., said that such constant innovations in killing show that militant Islamic terrorists are becoming "exponentially smarter." More likely, though, it shows that terrorists are getting exponentially more desperate. Resorting to such stomach-churning tactics is hardly likely to enhance the al Qaeda brand.
While al Qaeda remains an "agile and adaptive" threat, President Obama wrote in the preface to his new 19-page National Strategy for Counterterrorism, the killing of Osama bin Laden shows that al Qaeda has been placed squarely "on the path to defeat."
Recent polling by the Pew Charitable Trusts shows the growing disdain for al Qaeda among Muslims. More than 94 percent of Muslims in Lebanon expressed negative opinions about bin Laden. So did 74 percent of Muslims in Turkey, 72 percent of Egyptian Muslims and 56 percent of Indonesians.
Every reliable poll since 2007, wrote journalist Robin Wright, in her new book, "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World," shows steadily declining support for the destructive and disruptive jihadis. What she calls the "counter-jihad" is even stronger among Sunni Muslims, who account for more than 80 percent of the Islamic world. "Al Qaeda has killed many, mostly its own brethren," she wrote. "But it has otherwise achieved nothing." The counter-jihad, she predicted, will define the next decade.
Whatever else it may produce, the Arab Spring so far has proved a powerful rebuke to al Qaeda. The reform movements have already toppled long-reigning autocrats and brought reform to several Middle East and North African nations whose people al Qaeda sought to recruit but largely failed.
"It is time for the devout, silent, peace-loving Muslim majority to speak for Islam," Wright quoted Saadia Dehlvi, an Indian Muslim and noted feminist. "Let us become louder than the radical voices that claim to represent us."