Politics & Policy

Gone “Soft”?

Al Qaeda's plans of attack.

“If they are hell-bent on sending suicide bombers at hotels, restaurants, and social clubs, there may not be much we can do about that.” These were the ominous words of a U.S. counterterrorism official interviewed by CNN after Islamic terrorists launched a coordinated suicide bombing in Casablanca that targeted a hotel, a community center, and a social club. Many terrorism analysts have grouped the Morocco attacks with the bombings of the Djerba synagogue, the Bali nightclub, and the hotels in Mombasa and Jakarta when highlighting what they claim is al Qaeda’s new focus: small-scale attacks on soft targets. Arguing that security has been sufficiently tightened to “harden” major targets, such as embassies, military bases, and airports, these analysts say that al Qaeda has thus been forced to concentrate its efforts on more accessible civilian targets that still enable the group to attack Western interests. While al Qaeda has undoubtedly demonstrated a willingness to launch attacks against soft targets, an examination of some of the multitude of plots that have been thwarted or uncovered since 9/11 reveals that, in fact, al Qaeda remains thoroughly committed to carrying out large-scale attacks on high-value, heavily fortified Western targets.

Al Qaeda has planned to attack Western embassies in at least 25 countries, including Australia, Singapore, Canada, France, Jordan, and Kenya. In the wake of the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings and 9/11, security at Western diplomatic facilities is extremely tight, as heavily armed guards patrol facilities that are protected by concrete barriers, high-security fences, and numerous cameras. Many embassies are also set back from the street at a considerable distance. Yet this tight security has not deterred al Qaeda. In one of the more brazen plots since September 11, investigators discovered that terrorists had cut holes in a tunnel beneath the U.S. embassy in Rome and planned to poison the water supply with cyanide. In what would have been an even more spectacular attack, terrorists in Karachi intended to crash a small aircraft, loaded with explosives, into the U.S. consulate. Other planned attacks, while lacking the showmanship of the Karachi plot, could have been just as devastating. For example, in May 2002, arrests thwarted a truck bombing of the U.S. embassy in Mali, and, recently, officials in Yemen prevented bombings of the German, British, and U.S. embassies in Sanaa.. The Turkish and Jordanian embassies in Baghdad, however, were not as fortunate. On Tuesday, a suicide bombing left two dead at Turkey’s embassy, and, in August, ten people were killed when a car bomb exploded at the Jordanian embassy. Islamists have targeted Turkey and Jordan because of their collaboration with the West. The Turkey bombing, for instance, followed last week’s announcement by the Ankara government that it would send troops to Iraq.

Further evidence contradicting analysts’ soft-target theory is the frequency with which al Qaeda has plotted against military targets since 9/11. On September 13, 2001, authorities broke up a cell planning to bomb NATO’s Kleine Brogel air base in Belgium. Three months later, arrests in Singapore interrupted preparations to attack U.S. naval vessels. Even in 2002, with additional security measures fully in place to address the new threat environment, the terrorists did not change their strategy. That year, U.S. and British ships were targeted in the Straits of Gibraltar, and American intelligence learned of a plan to crash an explosives-laden glider into the naval base in Bahrain. In addition, terrorists plotted against the NATO base in Bosnia and used a shoulder-fired missile against a U.S. fighter jet at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. In 2003, the trend has continued. Early this year, authorities uncovered plans to poison the food supply for British troops in the U.K. And, recently, 13 people were charged with planning to attack military bases in Jordan in an attempt to kill Americans stationed there.

Just as al Qaeda continues to plot against heavily guarded embassies and military bases, airports remain a central target for the terror group. Most important, al Qaeda is still intent on hijacking commercial airliners, as a few examples demonstrate. In May 2003, three armed men were arrested in Jeddah before boarding a Saudi Airlines flight; they planned to gain control of the plane and fly it into a building. And in August, after the raid of an al Qaeda safe house, officials learned of a plot to hijack a plane in England and crash it into an unnamed target. Intelligence indicated that operatives might conceal weapons in everyday objects, such as a camera flash, in order to sneak them onto the plane. Al Qaeda has also exhibited a desire to attack passengers on the ground. As a case in point, authorities in Thailand recently arrested a man planning to attack El Al passengers at Bangkok International Airport.

Although this compilation of terrorist plots is inherently incomplete due to the large amount of highly sensitive information that remains classified, it is still very clear that security improvements have not led al Qaeda to shift its focus away from hard targets. Placing too much credence in the soft-target theory is dangerous because it leads to a sense of resignation, encapsulated in the counterterrorism official’s assessment that “there may not be much we can do.” Not only must there continue to be a heavy emphasis placed on aggressive intelligence gathering, but there must also be a sustained drive to continue to improve security at high-value targets such as embassies and airports. Recently documented security gaps at U.S. airports, including a breach of the runway at New York’s JFK airport and the admission by Transportation Security Administration chief James Loy that box cutters can still be smuggled onto airplanes, highlight the work that remains to be done.

Josh Lefkowitz is a terrorism analyst at the Investigative Project.


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