Suspicious Minds
Being on alert for terrorism is our reality.


How would you like to be an employee of the World Bank or IMF this morning? Maybe you are. Did you call in sick? You are probably not alone. It cannot be encouraging to hear that one’s office has been under surveillance by al Qaeda. But the rest of Washington is under threat too, and always has been. The difference is that the terrorists know that the buildings identified by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge as terrorist targets are going to be strongly defended, so the bad guys will probably shift their focus, or abandon their plans altogether. So go back to work.

The New York Times report on the background to the current terror alert noted that al Qaeda had carried out extensive reconnaissance of their planned targets, examining the best means of access, and the number of people present at different times of day (no doubt seeking to maximize casualties). It is easy enough to reconnoiter in Washington, given the number of tourists, and people with cameras. A surveillance team can just blend right in. Living and working in the city one sometimes sees things and tries not to be paranoid; but on the other hand there is a large group of determined psychos out there who want to damage this country. It is hard not to read bad intentions into what might be a harmless situation. For example, while driving on the Washington Parkway recently I noticed two young Middle Eastern-looking fellows, one of whom was taking a picture of the other. The latter was standing on a bike path, the photographer a few feet away. No big deal, but they were far from the sites that tourists usually visit, and they were not in workout gear and did not have bikes. What most got my attention was that the Reagan National Airport radar tower was directly behind the subject of the photograph. O.K., maybe these two guys wandered out there from who knows where and just decided to take a picture. Or, maybe not. Several weeks earlier and a few hundred yards down the road I saw another man of the same demographic profile who had pulled his car over near the gated entrance to an airport service area. Maybe he had car trouble, and if so, this was a natural spot to pull off the parkway. But why was he out of his car and halfway up the berm around the service area peering through the bushes? If he wanted to get someone to help him, he could have stood in plain sight at the gate. Again, maybe it was nothing, or maybe something.

Last fall I was on a local military post and I saw another person in the profile group, though slightly older, taking pictures. Occam’s Razor would lead me to conclude this was a visiting foreign officer in civilian clothes taking snapshots to show the folks back home. In fact that is a common enough sight. But this gentleman was taking photos of numbered, reserved parking spaces used by flag and general officers on the post. I watched as he carefully snapped several of them. What could he possibly want with pictures of parking spaces of high-ranking officers? I went to the nearest gate and notified an MP, who agreed that this was unusual behavior that merited a few questions. I do not know what happened afterwards. Maybe the man had a good explanation but I cannot guess what it might be.

Look folks, I am not saying I see terrorists in every woodpile. Nevertheless, since 9/11 I notice things that I would not have thought much of before the war. What surprises me is how many people do not take the terror alerts seriously, or worse, see them as a cynical form of manipulation. It is a widely held belief in left-wing circles that politics, not intelligence, drives the warning cycles. Howard Dean said Sunday, “I am concerned that every time something happens that’s not good for President Bush, he plays this trump card, which is terrorism.” This line also came up at the Democratic convention, and it is an important theme in the political campaign against the president. In this respect, little has changed since the campaign season started last fall. Whenever the terror alert level is raised, someone on the left will find a reason to say the timing is suspicious. Then, if nothing happens, this is taken as proof that the alert was a bogus. Clearly, the critics do not understand the purpose or meaning of the warnings. They are not (usually) indications of imminent attack. They advise the American public and the security community to increase their vigilance, and send a message to the terrorists that we are aware of their plans. Hopefully this will have a deterrent effect; the terrorists cannot know exactly how much we know, which might cause them to call off the operation. Thus if nothing happens after an alert is issued it does not mean that nothing was going to happen; it more probably means the planned attack was either aborted or otherwise thwarted. It is paradoxical to blame Tom Ridge when attacks do not occur. After all, his job is to help prevent them. Would the critics be less critical if the terrorists were more successful? Surely not. It is noteworthy that al Qaeda has not pulled off any large-scale attacks in this country since September 2001. I think the administration should get some credit for that. After all, the definition of victory in the war on terrorism is when nothing happens. We have not won yet of course, as the current alert indicates, but the homeland has been kept remarkably secure thus far.

To the extent politics is involved in the threats it is because the terrorists interject it. They are seeking to influence the American election in the same way they did in Spain last March. The Spanish operation was long planned and well executed, and the terrorists knew exactly what they were doing. A recently discovered al Qaeda strategic document written last September stated that “in order to force the Spanish government to withdraw from Iraq, the resistance must deliver painful blows to its forces and accompany that with a media campaign to clarify the truth of the situation inside Iraq. It is essential to make the utmost use of the approach of general elections in Spain in the third month of next year.” This was written six months before the March 11 bombings. Similar planning is no doubt underway to strike the United States at a time and in a place to have a similar impact. For example, an attack in New York against the Republican Convention would be the most significant incident since 9/11, and have tremendous propaganda value. Whether this would help or harm the president’s reelection effort is a moot point. However, it is certain that the terrorists are going to try to do something, and soon. So it only makes sense to keep your eyes open. It is not paranoia when they are out to get you.

James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and an NRO contributor.


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