The fog of terror [Updated]

On Monday, the AP broke the story that the CIA had disrupted a plot to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner with a similar explosive to the one used by the notorious "underwear bomber" in 2010. We know that like that failed bombing attempt, the plot was likely tied to the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and that the bomb bore the signature of master bombmaker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri. But beyond that, the accounts seem to differ on what exactly happened. Here's the AP's version:

The CIA thwarted an ambitious plot by al-Qaida's affiliate in Yemen to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner using a bomb with a sophisticated new design around the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, The Associated Press has learned.[...]

The would-be suicide bomber, based in Yemen, had not yet picked a target or bought his plane tickets when the CIA stepped in and seized the bomb, officials said. It's not immediately clear what happened to the alleged bomber.

But according to the L.A. Times, there was no evidence that U.S.-bound airliners had been targeted:

U.S. officials said Monday that no one was captured by U.S. agencies as part of the operation. The officials emphasized that they found no sign of an active plot to use the new bomb design against U.S. aviation or U.S.-bound jetliners.

The device was given to the CIA by a government outside Yemen, officials said. The White House said President Obama was informed of the discovery in April by John Brennan, his top counter-terrorism advisor, and was assured it "did not pose a threat to the public." 

The New York Times version makes it sound as if the plot was much further along:

The intelligence services detected the scheme as it took shape in mid-April, officials said, and the explosive device was seized in the Middle East outside Yemen about a week ago before it could be deployed.

It appeared that Qaeda leaders had dispatched a suicide bomber from Yemen with instructions to board a flight to the United States with the device under his clothes, but that he had been stopped before reaching an airport. Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said counterterrorism officials had said of the bomber: “We don’t have to worry about him anymore.” He is alive, officials said, but they would not to say whether he was in foreign custody.

And according to an ABC news report today, the device was given to U.S. officials not by a foreign government but by an "inside source who secretly worked for the CIA and several other intelligence agencies" and brought the device to Saudi Arabia.

As all the accounts note, officials say the plot was not connected to the anniversary of the Osama Bin Laden's death and therefore does not contradict earlier statements made by officials that they were aware of no active plots connected to the anniversary. White House counterterrorism John Brennan went a step further on ABC News's "Good Morning America" today, saying that the plot was not itself an "active threat." The Department of Homeland Security was also quoted in the Times saying yesterday saying it was aware of “no specific, credible information regarding an active terrorist plot against the U.S. at this time."

From all indications, this isn't a case like the series of recent domestic "terror plots" in the United States that were encouraged and pushed along by FBI informants. There was a real bomb made by a real bombmaker and, according to the Times at least, instructions from al Qaeda leaders on using it. I think some clarity on what an "active" plot is would probably help, though.

Update: A new L.A. Times article provides some clarity

Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency, working closely with the CIA, used an informant to pose as a would-be suicide bomber. His job was to convince the Al Qaeda franchise in Yemen to give him a new kind of non-metallic bomb that the militants were designing to easily pass through airport security.

But the double agent instead arranged to deliver the explosive device to U.S. and other intelligence authorities waiting in another country, officials said Tuesday. The agent is now safely outside Yemen and is being debriefed. 

According to the article, the same operation provided the intelligence that led to the drone strike that killed AQAP operative Fahd Mohammed Ahmed Quso on Sunday. This would definitely clear up the "active plot" question.


Why China expelled Al Jazeera

Yesterday, Al-Jazeera English announced that it would be closing its bureau in Beijing after the Chinese government refused to renew the press credentials and visa of its China correspondent, Melissa Chan. Chan, based in Beijing since 2007, has an excellent reputation as a journalist, reporting hard-hitting stories on black jails, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and Chinese land grabs. (Disclosure: I worked with Chan on the board of the Foreign Correspondent's Club of China and consider her a friend.)

Chan's expulsion is believed to be the first for a foreign journalist based in China since the 1998 deportation of a Japanese journalist; writing in the New Yorker, Evan Osnos described it as the revival of "a Soviet-era strategy that will undermine [China's] own efforts to project soft power," and a clear step backwards for Beijing.

That it is, no doubt. But Chan also fits into the troubling pattern of the foreigners Beijing has targeted over the last decade: those the Chinese government views of having less protection because of their ethnicity and nationality; often with Chinese backgrounds. It appears that someone in the Chinese government wanted to give a warning to journalists without causing an international incident; Chan, a Chinese-American working for a Qatari-based television station, seemed to be an appropriate target. The thinking seems to be that a foreign government will more loudly protest the mistreatment of a citizen who is both born and raised in its own country and working for a domestic company.

It's not just journalists who are affected. In December 2009, China executed Akmal Shaikh, a British citizen accused of smuggling eight pounds of heroin into China. The execution of Shaikh, the first for a European in China in 50 years and despite protests from the British government, came as China wanted to appear tough against crime; Shaikh also happened to have been born in Pakistan.

In 2010 the Chinese government sentenced Stern Hu, a Chinese-born Australian who formerly ran Rio Tinto's iron ore operations in China, to 10 years in prison for accepting bribes and stealing trade secrets, in a case widely viewed as political; his former boss said Hu had been "thrown to the wolves." Xue Feng, a Chinese-born American citizen was sentenced to eight years in prison in July 2010 under China's menacingly vague state secrets laws for purchasing an oil database.

Following the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, a handful of journalists, including Americans working for American papers and Brits working for British papers, were expelled. British-born Andrew Higgins was expelled from China in 1991 while working for London's Independent newspaper for supposedly possessing confidential information. Some journalists expelled around that time were let back in, like John Pomfret, a former Washington Post bureau chief, kicked out in 1989 for what authorities called "stealing state secrets and violating martial law provisions" and what he called writing "about Tiananmen Square." Unlike Pomfret, Higgins, who now works for the Post, has not been given the standard long-term visa to report in China, and instead covers the region from Hong Kong.

The pattern seems to be that powerful countries like the United States will be less likely to protest the mistreatment of an American working for a non-American company, or a foreigner working for an American organization, when it becomes a more complicated procedure of coordinating responses between embassies and ministries. Executives and reporters with Chinese backgrounds have many advantages operating in China. Besides language skills and local networks, they can blend in a country where different color skin clearly identifies one as an outsider. Anecdotally speaking, they seem to be given less leniency when they don't follow China's laws; like they're supposed to "know better." 

Many foreign news bureaus are hosted in two diplomatic compounds in the Jianguomen neighborhood. As a reporter based out of the compound for two years, I entered freely, while foreign reporters who looked Chinese (and, of course, those that were Chinese),  often had to show their IDs to get in. Injustice in China affects more than just the locals.