AMU Homeland Security Opinion

Drowning in Rhetoric….and Completely Missing the Learning Points from the Drone Plot

By Jenni Hesterman

Rezwan FerdausRezwan Ferdaus, a U.S. citizen from Ashland, Massachusetts with a degree in Physics, planned to use a remote controlled aircraft packed with 25 pound of C-4 plastic explosives to attack the Pentagon.  Following the attack, he was also planning to use six people armed with AK-47s to shoot into the panicked crowd in the aftermath. He acquired one of the aircraft through a Paypal account under a false name. The drone was 6 feet long and capable of flying up to 100 mph.While planning this attack, he rigged IED detonators and gave them to FBI agents who he believed were al Qaeda operatives who would deliver them downrange. He was pleased to learn that his first detonator killed American soldiers.  Make no mistake about it – Ferdaus was determined to kill Americans and attack what he called the “great Satan”, which would be his own country of birth.

Upon his arrest last week, I’ve been in debates with colleagues regarding the following points

1)  He wasn’t actually a Lone Wolf because he received help from other people.
2)  The plot wouldn’t have worked anyhow based on the radio signal, weight of the C-4 load, detonator, etc.
3)  The FBI baited him into the plot and led him along. He might not have followed through otherwise.

We can’t afford to get bogged down in definitions, details and the legalities of the case- instead, I propose we examine the revelations from this case:

  • There are radicalized American citizens sitting at home right now, in our neighborhoods, thinking of ways to attack our government and kill us.
  • The number of uncovered terrorists plots is on the rise, meaning there are potentially many other undetected would-be terrorists or terrorist cells operating in our country.
    Radicalized Americans could be highly educated. We routinely underestimate the sophistication of terrorists.  Al Qaeda’s leadership and operatives have always been highly educated – engineers, doctors, scientists. We should expect no less from American jihadists.
  • They will move quickly along the continuum from contemplating, to planning, to execution.
  • They are being creative – for instance, using drones w/ C4 and buying components via paypal.
  • They are looking at alternate staging venues like parks.  They will accomplish surveillance (similar to the Mumbai terrorists). 
  • We need to understand how the switch is flipped from OFF to ON in the minds of Americans – how was Ferdaus radicalized?  How can we eliminate, or at least recognize and  mitigate these paths to radicalization? 

Now that the press has reported this tactic wouldn’t have worked — giving very specific reasons why, along with detailed commentary from our top engineers and scientists — we are once again perfecting our enemy. Feeding him valuable information that will likely be taken into account for the next plot.  

When the Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad left his vehicle with a smoking dud for a bomb, failing to stay and work on the device until it exploded, internal al Qaeda correspondence indicated this scenario would never happen again. Yet, on the 9/11 anniversary, when we were focused on the VBIED abandoned vehicle, it reminded me that we’ve learned very little. We keep expecting the last scenario. Do we really think the next attacker will run away from his vehicle without ensuring mission success like Faisal Shahzad?

The bottom line:  there is no such thing as a failed operation for al Qaeda or any terrorist group,  these are learning experiences to improve and perfect.  In fact, some recent events in our country sound very much like probes, including the suspicious package and its mailer in Alabama yesterday.  Our very public “celebration” over disrupting a plot should be tempered by the thought that the next bomber is American and in his/her home tonight, thinking of ways to kill us and destroy our way of life.

Although the American public should be educated on the threat, there is no reason to feed the public the amount of detailed information we have recently on operations abroad  (such as the tactics used to find and track Awlaki) and at home (the play-by-play on the disruption of home grown plots).  

We need to remember who may be reading…and learning.

Jenni Hesterman, is a retired Air Force colonel and counterterrorism expert. She is a senior analyst for The MASY Group, a Global Intelligence and Risk Management firm that supports both the U.S. Government and leading corporations. She is also a full-time professor at American Military University (AMU) teaching courses in homeland security and intelligence studies and is a contributing editor for The Counter Terrorist Magazine. You may contact the author at

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