It doesn't take an intelligence analyst to understand that the terror threat to the U.S. (and its allies) has increased significantly over the past six weeks.
True, there has been only a slight increase in the official "threat" levels in both the United States and the U.K. But a look at events since late December affirms that terrorists are launching a new attacks against the west--and security officials are scrambling to defeat them.
The latest campaign began on Christmas Day, with the attempted bombing of that Northwest Airlines flight between Amsterdam and Detroit. During a brief interrogation, the Nigerian suspect, 23-year-old Farouk Abdulmutallab, freely admitted his terror connections and suggested that other operatives had trained with him in Yemen, in a camp run by the local Al Qaida affiliate.
U.S. officials (and their counterparts in the United Kingdom) claim there is no hard evidence of pending attacks. But their actions also suggest that neither government is willing to gamble on the absence of definitive information. Not long after Abdulmutallab's failed bombing, the U.S. reportedly shifted 3,000 air marshals from domestic service, to international flights bound for this country. The move has put such a strain on the air marshal service that personnel from other law enforcement agencies--including the Secret Service and the Border Patrol--are being used to provide security on domestic flights.
The Obama Administration is also trying to plug holes in our intel collection and analysis efforts--gaps that allowed Abdulmutallab to board that flight, despite warnings from his father; terrorist chatter about a Nigerian's involvement in a possible airliner plot, and the suspect's presence on a "no entry" list in Great Britian. There were also missed clues at the Amsterdam Airport, including Abdulmutallab's purchase of a one-way ticket--with cash--and his lack of luggage.
Since then, there have been other, disturbing indications of other attacks in the offing. Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (which sent the young Nigerian on his mission) has promised more strikes, in retaliation for U.S. drone attacks on terror leaders.
After the failed bombing attempt, FBI agents began tracing a Ghana-to-Yemen pipeline that took Abdulmutallab to the Al Qaida training camp. They also initiated efforts to find other terrorists who may have trained with the Nigerian. Earlier this month, British intelligence sources told CBS News that at least 20 other terror operatives might have finished their training at the same time, and departed for locations--and assignments--unknown. Other estimates put the number of terrorists trained with Abdulmutallab at more than two dozen.
Reacting to these events, the British government raised its terror threat to the second highest level (severe) last Friday, saying that an attack was "highly likely," despite the lack of firm evidence. But the threat picture became more clear over the weekend, with the U.K. Mirror reporting that an "unusually high" number of people on no-fly lists had tried to board U.S.-bound jets over the past week. Given that revelation, Britain's elevated security policy seemed entirely justified.
We should also note that the U.K.'s heightened posture was implemented after a conversation between President Obama and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, suggesting that the increased security measures may have been influenced by U.S. concerns.
And, if that weren't enough, Osama bin Laden himself weighed in over the weekend, releasing an audio tape that praised for Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed attack, and promising that more will follow, as long as the U.S. continues to support Israel.
While it's highly unlikely that the Al Qaida leader had advance knowledge of the bombing attempt, his message was considered noteworthy for an important reason. In the tape, bin Laden repeats some of the same language heard in tapes that preceded the 2005 terror attacks in Britain, and the 2008 strike on the Danish Embassy in Pakistan. Use of identical phrases in the latest tape suggests it could be a prelude to a new attack, although bin Laden's warnings are sometimes issued up to a year in advance.
Is the U.S. prepared for a new Al Qaida attack--or perhaps, a wave of terrorist strikes? The Obama Administration has issued the usual statements of reassurance, but recent events have exposed holes in our defenses. The decision to "Mirandize" Abdulmutallab after limited interrogation deprived our intelligence agencies of valuable information. Unless the suspect decides to resume his cooperation (don't hold your breath), our spooks and security personnel will be at a disadvantage in trying to determine the limits of Al Qaida's new campaign, and the status of specific attack plans within that framework.
The coming months are shaping up as some of the most decisive--and dangerous--since 9-11.