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US: Where have all the terrorists gone?
By Ashraf Fahim

NEW YORK - Two years and eight months after September 11, 2001, no one knows for certain why al-Qaeda hasn't succeeded in carrying out another attack on the US homeland. While strikes on Western-associated targets overseas have multiplied, and some have argued that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have swelled al-Qaeda's ranks, not a single attack has been carried out inside the United States, nor has any major plan to do so been upset.

Now, with a presidential election approaching in November, fears that the next wave is imminent have peaked. "We soon enter a season that is rich with symbolic opportunities for the terrorists to try and shake our will," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said on April 19. Ridge cited Memorial Day on May 30, Independence Day on July 4, the coming Group of Eight (G8) Summit on Sea Island in Georgia in June, the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer, and the November presidential election as potential zero hours. The public seems to agree. A recent Associated Press (AP) poll indicated that 67 percent of Americans thought an attack was likely before the November 2 election.

Given the proliferation of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups and the consensus among security analysts that the US homeland remains vulnerable, explaining the 32-month hiatus since September 2001 is difficult.

Terrorism analyst Mark Burgess of the Center for Defense Information in Washington, DC, believes several factors could be in play. Al-Qaeda, he says, "have shown themselves to be capable of and prone to large-scale attacks", and may not have struck US soil simply "because it takes a long time to plan such operations. [September] 11, we know, was in planning for some time." Burgess believes that whatever assets al-Qaeda may have inside the US won't wish to expose their network by carrying out small-scale operations.

John Pike, director of, points to other possible factors. "They currently do not have a clearly identifiable liberated zone from which to operate," he says, referring to the loss of al-Qaeda's so-called "safe haven" in Afghanistan. "Also, we've taken out some significant fraction of their leadership," he notes, referring to the arrest of figures such as Abu Zubaydah, al-Qaeda's onetime operations chief, in March 2002. And whatever deficiencies that remain in the various US security services' efforts to combat terrorist groups since September 11, there has undoubtedly been a quantitative and qualitative increase in those efforts, an improvement Pike says may have "given [al-Qaeda] pause" about planning attacks on the US mainland.

A key improvement in that regard has been the breaking down of the so-called "artificial wall" that divided competing US intelligence agencies. As a result, the frequency, scope and breadth of joint intelligence gathering by federal, state and local agencies has been boosted through a number of multi-agency forums such as the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC). In addition, the USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act, despite its chilling effect on civil liberties, has empowered law enforcers. Likewise, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), though belated (it was "stood up" on March 1, 2003) centralized 22 government agencies responsible for securing America's borders and undoubtedly made it more difficult for would-be attackers to enter or operate in the US.

Both Pike and Burgess cite another possible reason for the absence of al-Qaeda attacks on US soil: Iraq. Iraq is an attractive destination for al-Qaeda operatives, says Pike, because it "is a lot easier to get to" than the United States "and you don't have to learn to talk American - you don't have to assimilate". For Burgess, transporting the battlefield to Iraq could be a double-edged sword. "The death and destruction we see on TV is not death and destruction in New York or the Pentagon, it's death and destruction in Iraq," he says, "but to some degree there are probably grievances which are being fueled, and these old chickens come home to roost eventually."

Death by a thousand pinpricks
As comprehensive as the post-September 11 security reorganization appears, many analysts say it has been too slow and that the changes have not addressed crucial vulnerabilities. Some of the more comprehensive programs have not yet or have only recently been put into place. The TTIC only began operating last May. Indeed, it took the administration of President George W Bush 18 months, from September 11, 2001, until March 2003, to create DHS.

John Pike suggests that this process has been somewhat misdirected in that it has overly prioritized the prevention and mitigation of mass casualty attacks, such as those caused by weapons of mass destruction (WMD), as well as attacks on high profile targets. Meanwhile so-called "soft targets" have been left largely unprotected. "We have super-hardened commercial airports," he says, "they're not going to pull that stunt again. We are going like gangbusters on container ports because everybody saw that Tom Clancy movie [The Sum of All Fears]. But they're not doing squat about Amtrak."

After the March 11 train bombings in Madrid that killed 192 people and swung the Spanish election, an unprecedented overhaul of US train security might well have been expected. It hasn't happened. The US rail network is vast, of course, and protecting it entirely would be daunting - 500 Amtrak stations are not staffed, for example. But the response has nevertheless been underwhelming. Last week a pilot project to screen passengers for explosives did begin in a single train station in suburban Maryland. For one month, commuters will have to pass through the type of "puffer" machine already in use in power plants and military installations, which detects traces of explosives. As long as al-Qaeda operatives avoid New Carrollton, Maryland, however, they should be able to board any Amtrak train in the United States unmolested for the foreseeable future.

It isn't that the Bush administration doesn't recognize the threat to soft targets. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director Robert Mueller recently warned that in the buildup to the election, al-Qaeda may not only try to "revisit missed targets" such as the White House and Capitol Hill, but "the subways and bridges in major cities, as well as the airlines, have been a continual focus for al-Qaeda targeting". Mark Burgess agrees that the coming political season will be fraught, but says in this high-stakes atmosphere virtually anything qualifies as a "high profile" target. "I think every sort of target, even a shopping mall, is going to be a high-profile target," he says, adding that "a train in Madrid was a high-profile target in the run-up to Spain's election".

Pike agrees, saying that "a spectacular attack does not have to be a single mass-mortality event to be significant". So numerous are the remaining vulnerabilities that he is puzzled al-Qaeda hasn't exploited them. If al-Qaeda were, for example, to "send multiple teams over to Mexico and have them just walk across the border ... most of them would make it" into the United States, he believes. "If they sent a bunch of them in with MANPADs [Man Portable Air Defense Systems - shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles], could they shoot down one airliner the first day, and two the second day, and three the third day? Yes." The economic impact of such an attack would be crippling, he says, shattering the airline industry. Alternatively, "If they blew up some shopping-mall food courts it would take a big hit out of the economy because people just wouldn't go shopping anymore."

The existing gaps in US homeland security result from an inertia toward funding programs that could prevent more mundane attacks. The focus to date has been on expanding intelligence networks, interdicting potential operatives, and funding First Responders rather than hardening protection of soft targets. There has also been lavish spending on Bush administration priorities such as WMD, or more obvious programs such as the training of air marshals or protecting ports and nuclear and chemical plants.

But not nearly as much has been spent to counter less apparent but no less genuine threats. To address the very real MANPAD contingency (al-Qaeda operatives in Kenya used such a weapon to try, unsuccessfully, to shoot down an Israeli charter airliner in November 2002), DHS announced on January 6 "an aggressive 18-24-month analysis, prototype demonstration and testing phase" to "adapt military technologies to civilian aviation". Not only does this give al-Qaeda a two-year window to attempt such an operation unimpeded, but the predicted US$10 billion to $15 billion price tag was labeled as "prohibitive" by DHS in advance. In contrast, $13 billion has already been earmarked for First Responders, while the President Bush's Project BioShield has been slated to receive $5.6 billion over 10 years. Only $5 million, on the other hand, has been allocated in 2005 to research the interdiction of truck and suicide bombs.

Burgess, however, cautions that there is only so much that can be done. Intrusive inspections in such places as shopping malls, for example, are impractical, he says, and would have profound economic consequences. "It's a cost-benefit analysis," he says. "And it's not easy to say that because it's such an emotive subject - it's lives you're talking about. But ... you can't make all targets secure. If the terrorists wants to get through [they'll] find a way through."

An exaggerated threat?
So while analysts maintain that significant gaps remain in US homeland security and few people challenge the Bush administration's contention that al-Qaeda has the motivation, and perhaps the ability, to strike the United States, the question lingers as to why they haven't attacked the large and tempting US homeland for almost three years.

Across Europe numerous cells have been wrapped up and plots have been exposed by the security services, while devastating operations have succeeded: elaborate schemes involving chemical weapons in London, train bombs in Madrid, and the bombing of HSBC bank in Istanbul, for example. Nothing similar has been exposed in the US, which Ridge contends is the terrorists' "No 1 target".

On April 14, FBI assistant director John Pistole told the 9-11 Commission that "since September 11, the FBI has investigated more than 4,000 threats to the US". But by his own admission these threats were "primarily terrorist financing operations". No attacks or operational plans for attacks on the United States have been made public. The numerous sleeper cells of which Attorney General John Ashcroft has repeatedly warned have, if they exist, remained asleep. "We are disrupting some cells here in America," Bush said on April 21. "We're chasing people down."

So far, however, the only "cells" to have been chased down are the so-called Lackawanna Six, a group of Americans of Yemeni origin who trained in al-Qaeda camps, and the Portland Six, arrested for providing "material support" to al-Qaeda. Both groups were charged in the autumn of 2002, but neither "cell" was actively planning attacks. According to Mueller's testimony to Congress in February, of the arrests in 2003, two were of separate persons charged with providing "material support", another was charged with "direct associations" to the al-Qaeda leadership, and three others were charged with attempting to smuggle an SA-18 shoulder-fired missile into the US.

Part of the explanation for the paucity of tangible threats on US soil may be that the scope of the threat the US was facing was exaggerated in the months after September 11. Originally, says Pike, "the president spoke in terms of 100,000 trained terrorists. I always thought that number was just way too high." Even if the number was as high as 20,000, he says, "you figure that the average career span of a terrorist is 20 years, and that none of them want to die by natural causes. Well, that would mean that 1,000 of them ought to be embracing martyrdom every year. So where are they?"

It is a question no one has been able to answer. "My working hypothesis," says Pike, "would be that the longer we go without a domestic spectacular attack, the greater the presumption that they aren't here." Burgess says that, in any event, the sheer numbers aren't important. "It doesn't really matter if there are only two or three sleeper cells if they manage to carry out two or three 9-11s," he says.

Both the Bush administration and al-Qaeda have arguably had an interest in overstating the capacity of terrorists to strike the US homeland. The reasons for the administration's exaggeration may not have been entirely selfish or political - the challenge of motivating preparedness on the vast US soil is staggering. If, however, al-Qaeda hasn't attempted an operation by the time the presidential election rolls around on November 2 - an opportunity "too good to pass up" in the words of Condoleezza Rice - real questions may be asked about the actual size and nature of the terrorist threat the US is facing.

Ashraf Fahim is a freelance writer on Middle Eastern affairs based in New York and London.

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May 18, 2004

How al-Qaeda keeps its secrets (Apr 20, '04)

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(Apr 10, '04)

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(Apr 7, '04)


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