Thursday, October 18, 2007

Summer 2007: The Attack that Never Occurred

Fred Burton and Scott Stewart, writing at Stratfor, describe the ominous silence of the attack that never happened.

The summer of 2007 was marked by threats and warnings of an imminent terrorist attack against the United States. In addition to the well-publicized warnings from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and a National Intelligence Estimate that al Qaeda was gaining strength, a former Israeli counterterrorism official warned that al Qaeda was planning a simultaneous attack against five to seven American cities. Another warning of an impending dirty bomb attack prompted the New York Police Department to set up vehicle checkpoints near the financial district in Lower Manhattan. In addition to these public warnings, U.S. government counterterrorism sources also told us privately that they were seriously concerned about the possibility of an attack.

All these warnings were followed by the Sept. 7 release of a video message from Osama bin Laden, who had not been seen on video since October 2004 or heard on audio tape since July 2006. Some were convinced that his reappearance -- and his veiled threat -- was the sign of a looming attack against the United States, or perhaps a signal for an attack to commence.

In spite of all these warnings and bin Laden's reappearance -- not the mention the relative ease with which an attack can be conducted -- no attack occurred... Although our assessment is that the al Qaeda core has been damaged to the point that it no longer poses a strategic threat to the U.S. homeland, tactical attacks against soft targets remain simple to conduct and certainly are within the reach of jihadist operatives -- regardless of whether they are linked to the al Qaeda core.

...we must note that the lack of an attack against the U.S. homeland since 9/11 has not been the result of a calculated decision by bin Laden and the core al Qaeda leadership. Far too many plots have been disrupted for that to be the case. Many of those foiled and failed attacks, such as the 2006 foiled plot to destroy airliners flying from London to the United States, the Library Tower Plot, Richard Reid's failed attempt to take down American Airlines flight 63 in December 2001 and Jose Padilla's activities -- bear connection to the core al Qaeda leadership.

So, if the core al Qaeda has desired, and even attempted, to strike the United States, why has it failed? Perhaps the greatest single factor is attitude -- among law enforcement and intelligence agencies, the public at large, the Muslim community and even the jihadists themselves.

....Prior to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the FBI denied the existence of an international terrorism threat to the U.S. homeland, a stance reflected in the bureau's "Terrorism in the United States" publications in the late 1980s and early 1990s... Yet, even after that bombing and the disruption of other plots -- the July 1997 plot to bomb the New York subway system and the December 1999 Millennium Bomb Plot -- the apathy toward counterterrorism programs remained. This was most evident in the low levels of funding and manpower devoted to counterterrorism programs prior to 9/11...

...the follow-on plot to that attack, the 1993 New York bomb plot -- for which Abdul-Rahman and some of his followers were accused of planning strikes against the Lincoln Tunnel and other New York City landmarks -- was thwarted. This led many to believe that the government had a handle on terrorism and that the United States was protected from such attacks. The second plot was thwarted before it could be executed, and most Americans never saw the gigantic crater (nearly 100 feet across) that the February 1993 truck bomb created through several floors of Building One's reinforced concrete parking garage. Instead, they saw only a bit of smoke billowing from the damaged building. The 1993 cases lacked the stunning visual displays of the 9/11 attacks.

...[Since 9/11, there are] changed attitudes of law enforcement officials, who not only have issued appeals in the press but also have made community outreach visits to nearly every flight school, truck driving school, chemical supply company, fertilizer dealer and storage rental company in the United States. Through media reports of terrorist plots and attacks, the public also has become much more aware of the precursor chemicals for improvised explosive mixtures and applies far more scrutiny to anyone attempting to procure them in bulk.

...This change in attitude is particularly significant in the Muslim community itself. Contrary to the hopes of bin Laden -- and the fears of the U.S. government -- the theology of jihadism has not taken root in the United States. Certainly there are individuals who have come to embrace this ideology, as the arrests of some grassroots activists demonstrate, but such people are very much the exception. In spite of some problems, the law enforcement community has forged some strong links to the Muslim community, and in several cases Muslims have even reported potential jihadists to law enforcement.

...The U.S. security environment has indeed improved dramatically since 1993, largely as a result of the sweeping changes in attitude, though also to some extent due to the magnet effect of the war in Iraq. Success can engender complacency, however, and the lack of attacks could allow attitudes -- and thus counterterrorism resources -- to swing back toward the other end of the spectrum.

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