In his recent book, former CIA Director George Tenet expressed "surprise" that terrorists haven't attempted a suicide bombing campaign in the United States. We expressed similar thoughts over two years ago, noting how an "evacuation" of buildings in Washington D.C. (in response to an airspace intrusion) could provide a tempting target for a car bomber or suicide bombers.
Other intelligence professionals have voiced similar fears. After all, it doesn't take a counter-terrorism expert to understand the potentially devastating economic and psychological impact of even a single, successful suicide bombing in the United States. A string of successful attacks, executed over the span of a few hours or a single day, would leave the nation reeling, chasing millions of shoppers and vacationers from retail stores, amusement parks and other locations that could be targeted by terrorists.
Apparently, Al Qaida and its allies have had the same thought. Brian Ross of ABC News has obtained a videotape of a recent "graduation ceremony" for suicide bomber teams being dispatched for attacks against targets in the United States and Western Europe. A Pakistani journalist was apparently invited to the ceremony and took photographs of the graduates--some of them boys as young as 12. The Pakistani reporter provided the tape to ABC. The "leader" of the team assigned to strike Great Britain spoke in English:
"So let me say something about why we are going, along with my team, for a suicide attack in Britain," he said. "Whether my colleagues, companions and Muslim brothers die today or tonight, every drop of our blood will invigorate the Muslim (unintelligible)."
U.S. Intelligence officials told Mr. Ross that the video is another example of "an aggressive and sophisticated propaganda campaign." However, the network's resident expert," former White House counter-terrorism official Richard Clarke, believes the threat is more serious, noting that only a handful of suicide bombers could inflict significant damage in the United States and Europe. Readers will note that ABC never asks Mr. Clarke about his own record in directing our counter-terrorism efforts in the Clinton and Bush Administrations. Had Mr. Clarke been a bit more proactive in the late 1990s, we might not be facing this sort of threat today.
Equally curious is the reaction of the anonymous intelligence officials who spoke with Brian Ross. Focusing on the "propaganda" element of the videotape suggests several things: first, the reliability of this production is somewhat suspect, particularly in the absence of corroborating information. It would be relatively easy for Al Qaida and the Taliban to assemble 300 men and describe them as suicide bombers. Getting them to their targets--and actually carrying out the attacks--presents a completely different set of challenges.
While the the intelligence community's benign reaction is designed (in part) to mitigate public fears, it may also indicate that western operatives and special operations forces already have a bead on some of these terrorists, and some of those "graduates" will never reach their western targets. Additionally, some of the bombers--namely those 12-year-old boys--will likely be assigned to local attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, not long-range missions in New York, Berlin or London. Fact is, we really don't know how many of the 300 have been specifically earmarked for western operations, and whether Al Qaida has the ability to deploy (and support) large numbers of suicide bombers in Europe and North America.
On the other hand, it would be foolish to dismiss this threat outright. Homicide bombers operating in the United States could chose from literally hundreds of thousands of targets, ranging from schools and hospitals, to shopping malls, "big box" retail outlets, office buildings and public transit stations, to name a few. And, almost six years after 9-11, security at many of these locations ranges from poor to virtually non-existent.
I was on vacation over the weekend, spending part of my time at a favorite amusement park. As a roller coaster enthusiast, I've been to this particular park many times. It's remarkably clean; the grounds are immaculate, the crowds polite and orderly. There's always a security presence, too, consisting of park staff, local police officers, and surveillance systems, both visible and hidden. But, comparing the security posture to the throngs of people, spread out over dozens of acres, it seemed evident that this particular park is unprepared for a suicide bomber, who could easily penetrate the ticketing and gate areas, killing scores of people.
In fairness, I should point out that security at this particular park is no worse than I've seen at similar venues around the country. And, I wouldn't describe the corporation that runs this park as negligent. Rather, they've become complacent to the threat of terrorism, as have most Americans. We don't want to be inconvenienced in our travel, shopping or leisure, so you won't find some of the stringent security measures that should be in place, at least not yet.
At this stage, it's difficult to assess the threat "posed" by that recent terrorist graduation ceremony. But sooner or later, suicide bombers will visit America. And perhaps the carnage from those attacks will finally convince us that we are not immune to the threat, prodding our government (and the private sector) into providing the security measures needed to negate the threat. As we observed back in July 2005, a strategy for defeating homicide bombers already exists. Over a three-year period (2002-2005), Israel reduced the number of suicide bombings and similar attacks within its borders by almost 90%. Some of the Israeli tactics were severe--indefinite detention of suspected terrorists, assassination of their leaders, construction of security fences--yet the success of those measures seems obvious.
We've tried some of those techniques in the War on Terror, but key aspects of our "plan"--including our own "security barrier" along the nation's southern border--are conspicuously lacking. So too, is the attitude of most Americans toward the prospect of terrorists in our midst. When The New York Times buries coverage of the "Fort Dix 6" deep inside its pages, civil libertarians worry about the "profiling" of Muslim Americans and the courts try to kill the NSA surveillance program, it's hard to convince the average Joe that we're actually at war, and the bad guys want to kill him, too--in his neighborhood, at the shopping mall, or during a pleasant day at an amusement park.