Monday, July 02, 2007

The Next "Spectacular"

In the wake of last Friday's foiled car bombing attempts in London-and Saturday's bizarre, "drive-in" attack at the Glasgow Airport in Scotland--ABC News is reporting that Al Qaida is planning a "summer terror spectacular," according to a classified law enforcement report.

ABC's source--a senior official with access to the document--didn't say if the planned attack would be aimed solely at the United States, or be part of a larger strike, involving targets in America and western Europe. According to the official, "This is reminiscent of the warnings and intelligence we were getting in the summer of 2001."

ABC's Brian Ross also claims that U.S. law enforcement officials received intelligence reports two weeks ago warning of terror attacks in Glasgow and Prague, the Czech Republic, against "airport infrastructure and aircraft." However, the information apparently wasn't passed to British officials who said over the weekend that they had received "no advance warning" that Glasgow might be a target."

Some analysts have expressed puzzlement that the information wasn't shared with the Brits, but there are at least three potential explanations. Either (a) the data wasn't deemed credible at the time; (b) the information was derived from intelligence sources/methods that are withheld from foreign countries--including Great Britain, or (c) it was some sort of bureaucratic mistake.

The idea that Al Qaida wants to stage another 9-11-style "spectacular" is hardly new. A number of analysts who focus on the terrorist organization have long held that Al Qaida needs another, large-scale success, for a variety of reasons. As Strategy Page recently observed, the organization is hardly on a roll; the number of operations tied to the group has declined, and the U.S. troop surge in Iraq is forcing Al Qaida to devote even more resources to that battle--resources that might otherwise be allocated to attacks in western Europe and the United States.

But the bad news doesn't end there. The loss of Al-Anbar Province as a logistical and operations base was a devastating set-back for Al Qaida. Recent clearing operations in Dialya are having a similar effect, and American troops are now moving into terrorist safe-havens in the Baghdad security belts. While the battle for Iraq is far from won, Al Qaida finds itself increasingly on the defensive, in areas that were once terrorist sanctuaries.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban's spring offensive never materialized, despite the availability of training and support facilities across the border in Pakistan. Instead of taking the fight to NATO, Al Qaida's Afghan allies found themselves squarely on the defensive, taking heavy casualties from aggressive U.S., British, Canadian and Dutch incursions into terrorist regions. The success of recent NATO attacks has prompted a change in tactics by the Taliban, who are now relying more on suicide attacks that sometimes cause significant civilian casualties, but accomplish little else.

Earlier this year, Al Qaida also suffered a major setback in eastern Africa, when Ethiopian troops, backed by U.S. airpower and special operations forces, routed the Islamic Courts in Somalia. The expulsion of those militants from Mogadishu effectively dashed Al Qaida's hopes for re-establishing a major terror base in the region.

Collectively, these defeats suggest a terrorist network that has--at best--achieved a bloody stalemate with the U.S. and its allies. And, that lack of progress affects other, critical aspects of terrorism, most notably fund-raising. Successful tracking and prosecution of Al Qaida's financial networks has made it more difficult for sympathizers to give money to the cause, and with the lack of apparent progress in Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa and elsewhere, some donors may be re-thinking their contributions.

In short, Al Qaida is in something of a squeeze, and needs to prove that it's still capable of large-scale, "spectacular" attacks on the enemy's home soil. Conducting that sort of strike would not only bring in more money, it would also relieve pressure on the battlefield. In the U.S., another attack on the scale of 9-11 would intensify the debate over the Iraq War, spurring new calls for a troop withdrawal, to provide more security here at home.

Clearly, Osama bin Laden and his minions have much to gain from another, large-scale attack inside the United States. The issue (obviously) is how far along such a plot might be, and what sort of indications we have regarding potential target sets, and the timing for a strike--or multiple strikes.

And that's where ABC's reporting gets a little murky. Their "source" is drawing a parallel with the run-up to 9-11, but there's one problem with that scenario. During the summer of 2001, The National Security Agency (NSA) and other signals intelligence organizations picked up numerous references to an upcoming "match" or "wedding," code words for the pending attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. In the aftermath of of the failed London bombings last week, media reports suggested that their had been no prior "chatter" by terrorists or their sympathizers--just a brief, cryptic warning posted on the internet hours before the first bomb was discovered in the West End.

Have the terrorists changed their tactics? Possibly, but no organization--even Al Qaida--has perfect operational security. In the information age, even terrorists still like to talk, so there's the likelihood that we are hearing rumblings about the next "spectacular," but our spooks aren't giving away the details.

That could be an indication that we're already on the trail of terrorists who might be involved in such a plot, and we're planning to roll them up at the appropriate time. As we saw with the "Fort Dix Six," it's sometimes beneficial, even necessary, to let a terror plot move along (under careful FBI observation), to see who's involved, and examine the links between "local" operatives and overseas networks.


Unknown said...

I believe you missed another possibility. That of (d) The warning was passed along, but it was too vague to suggest any useful course of action. If all you get is "Terrorists planning to attack Glasgow and Karachi airports" then you do... what? When? More guards at the gate? More random inspections of passengers? Metal detectors for all staff, not just contractors?

Dan Hossley said...

Consider another possibility - that Brian Ross got it wrong or reported it wrong.

You figure which is more likely.

Nancy Reyes said...

Heck, everyone knows they are trying to hit the US with a big bang, just like every patient in my clinic knew it was Osama the minute the second plane hit.
What I wonder is how many attacks have been stopped?
Here in the Philippines, two car bombs were found before they blew up, and there was no publicity...

David Barry O'Connor said...

Let's face it. Polciy makers, and even witting pedestrians, know that the public can yawn out with 'Alert Fatigue'. Considering that, even among colleagues it doesn't take much for any intelligence organ to sag in credibility.
There is such an air of complacency that few realize that we've been damn lucky.
But most important of all among the invisible factors is the vetting of intelligence, a process the 'mouth-across-the street' will never understand. It takes careful planting, watering and nuturing to develop an asset.
Our contemporaries not only demand instant gratification, but add-water-and-stir solution as well.

But, the times are fast moving and desparate. As Cicero lamented, "O' Tempores! O' Mores!"