It was one of the most ominous prewar fears: That a military offensive against Saddam Hussein would lead to terrorist strikes on U.S. soil or overseas. And in the weeks leading up to the war, warnings of an imminent wave of terrorism came from the administration, the media, and individuals close to terrorist groups.
“The intelligence community believes that terrorists will attempt multiple attacks against U.S. and Coalition targets worldwide in the event of a U.S.-led military campaign against Saddam Hussein,” said Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said in a statement announcing the raised threat level on March 17.
During his speaking tour, former senator Gary Hart said there should be no war with Iraq, until the country is prepared “for the inevitable retaliatory attacks” he forecasted will come.
Knight-Ridder reporter Ron Hutcheson wrote that the president “is preparing to roll the dice on a high-risk gamble that could remake the Middle East in America’s image or trigger an explosion of violence, chaos and terrorism that shakes the world, shocks the economy and destroys his presidency.”
The London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al-Majallah reported that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden would appear after the start of military operations against Iraq. The Saudi-owned weekly stated Feb. 2 that Abd al-Rahman al-Rashid, who operates a pro-al Qaeda Internet site, said bin Laden will surface to “incite the Arab and Muslim nations to strike at U.S. interests and repulse the U.S. military presence in the Gulf.”
But as of this writing, the terrorist response to the war has been limited — knock on wood.
On March 31, a pickup truck crashed into the perimeter wall of the British Embassy in Tehran, exploding in flames in what one witness said appeared to be a suicide attack. Iranian authorities said it was an accident, and there were no casualties besides the driver. On April 3, a close ally of Afghan President Hamid Karzai was gunned down in southern Afghanistan in an attack provincial officials blamed on the Taliban. On April 4, a car exploded in a terrorist attack at a U.S. checkpoint in western Iraq, killing three soldiers, a pregnant woman, and the car’s driver.
And the promised bin Laden tape appears to have arrived. On Tuesday, the AP was given a tape from an Algerian national, identified only as Aadil, who said he had slipped across the border from Afghanistan, where the tape was apparently recorded. The tape called for suicide attacks against the governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.
A few attempted attacks have been foiled by intelligence agencies and foreign governments. Captured al Qaeda operations chief Khalid Sheik Mohammed reportedly told interrogators that his organization had plans to attack the Metrorail system in Washington, possibly by igniting a fire. Last week, Jordanian officials arrested four Iraqis who were plotting to bomb a luxury hotel in Amman used by westerners and to poison water used by U.S. troops. Authorities also said another unspecified Iraqi plot was thwarted in Yemen.
“Our intelligence systems have broken up a number of terrorist attempts,” Rep. Scott McInnis, a Colorado Republican, said Wednesday.
“We have taken them apart, one by one,” said McInnis, who has been regularly attending congressional briefings on Iraq and other fronts in the war on terror. “When you take out those leaders, it’s like any other organization. You interrupt the chain of command and the communications network. When you combine that with the fact that we have slowly chipped away at their foundation and killed many of their members, while they’re still a threat, they are a threat that is manageable.”
Terror experts are pleasantly surprised that the attack predictions have proven wrong so far.
“I’m surprised that al Qaeda hasn’t really struck back since Afghanistan inside the United States,” said James A. Phillips, a terrorism expert at the Heritage Foundation. “They rolled up that one cell near Buffalo, and had the guy who was interested in a dirty bomb in Chicago, but I would have thought there would have been another big operation by al Qaeda by now.”
Phillips is less surprised by the Iraqis’ failure so far to strike back at Americans, recalling that Hussein’s intelligence, tried to mount a series of terror attacks out of their embassies and “failed miserably.”
“Many of their intelligence people were thrown out, unceremoniously declared persona non grata, and one operative may have blown himself up in the Philippines,” Phillips said.
But it’s not just al Qaeda and overseas Iraqis that have been quiet. Phillips calls Hezbollah “the dog that didn’t bark” in the early weeks of the war.
Experts speculate that the silence from terrorist groups may be a sign that the U.S. is winning the psychological war against terror networks — and that terrorist sympathizers and supporters in Syria and Iran are learning that their game has gotten a lot riskier.
“People have seen the capabilities of our intelligence network and our military, and some people lose their excitement because of that, and they’ve fallen out,” McInnis said. “People always imagine these people bigger than they are, and think that they can’t be influenced psychologically, but they can.”
“I think — and this even goes back to Afghanistan — Iraq reinforces the message that it’s dangerous to awaken a sleeping giant,” Phillips said. “The United States and democracies are slow to go to war, but when they do, they’re relentless.”
Ridge said Tuesday that U.S. officials are beginning to consider lowering the national terrorist threat level from orange, or “high risk,” in part because the war in Iraq is going well.
— Jim Geraghty, a reporter with States News Service in Washington, D.C., is a regular contributor to NRO.