I was walking in New York City recently and overheard a very earnest and exasperated young man saying to his companion, “Somebody has to stand up and say it–there is no terrorist threat!” I don’t know how he had come to this conclusion, though it probably has something to do with the fact that there have not been any recent successful domestic terror attacks, at least not on the scale of 9/11. I supposed that this was someone who feels that the terrorism issue is being cynically used by the Bush administration to justify policies that otherwise would not be justifiable, that 9/11 was a one-shot deal to which we have adequately responded and that the United States is back to being as safe as it was on September 10 (which come to think of it was not very safe). I might have tried to educate this unfortunate person, being an educator and all, but I already write extensively on threat issues–and anyway: There is only so much one can do to save people from NPR addiction. I do not write about every threat I hear about, because most of it is probably noise. But between new al Qaeda statements, the increased tempo of the war generally, and the level of detail I have been picking up in descriptions of potential attacks, it seemed prudent to pass some of this information along.
Al Qaeda has made several recent threats against the United States. One, by Abu Salma al Hijazi, who claims to be an Osama bin Laden lieutenant, indicates that “a huge and courageous strike” will take place probably during or very near Ramadan (which means in the next few weeks). He says that they estimate 100,000 people will die. Al Qaeda spokesman Abu-Muhammad al-Ablaj has also stated separately that the group will strike a mortal blow at the United States during Ramadan, and that active planning has been underway for a month. “Time is running fast,” he said. “We are preparing for a great day in the Arab region and in a place in the Western countries that Abu-Abdallah [Osama bin Laden] referred to in his message to the American people.” Bear in mind though that al-Ablaj has been threatening the big strike for some time. Last June he said, “the strike must be well prepared. This means that it must be timed to occur when the giant starts staggering in his blood. At that time, he is ready for the fatal strike.”
What form would the attack take? One source says that there is a high probability of near-term attempted attacks on airliners using shoulder-fired anti-air missiles (MANPADs). The betting is that the attacks will take place simultaneously in New York, D.C., L.A., Houston, and perhaps Detroit. Another scenario is an attack at a fuel terminal or depot, where a massive explosion or series of explosions could be ignited. The model would be the May 23, 2002 attempt at the Pi Gilot fuel depot in Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest facility, and located near heavily populated areas. Terrorists, probably from Hamas, strapped a bomb on a tanker truck that was detonated inside the depot. Luckily, the terrorists had chosen the wrong target–they bombed a diesel fuel truck that burned rather than exploding. Had they planned the attack better the terrorists might have killed an estimated 20-40,000 people. A strike at similar facilities in the United States, such as at the Port of Houston, would have tremendous human and economic costs.
People I have spoken with recently who are in a position to know say that there is a very minimal sense of “being at war” in the White House. The dominant motif is “No War in ‘04,” i.e., for the election year it would be best if the United States was not projecting power but focusing on domestic issues and at most keeping a lid on the various foreign threats. After all, there are too many variables in war, too many things can go wrong, and one would not want to bet an election on it. However, to the extent the White House downplays the terrorist threat, the issue becomes stronger for the Democrats. Despite what that fellow I overheard in New York thinks, saying “there is no threat” is poor politics for the opposition. To the contrary–they should play up the threat, because the greater the threat the greater the implicit failure of the president to defeat terrorism. No matter what the President points to as an indicant of progress, the Democrats can just say it isn’t enough. Not enough has been spent, the wrong things have been done, the President is threatening our liberties without solving the problem, Bin Laden is still at large, and so forth. They don’t need to come up with their own solutions, all they need is to be well positioned rhetorically following the logic of triangulation. If nothing happens, which ironically is the definition of success, they continue the critique. And if the terrorists pull off a successful domestic attack, they say it validates what they had been saying, that the president had not been as successful as advertised, that the war in Iraq diverted resources that should have been devoted to defending the homeland, that the war has been mismanaged, and that we need a new commander in chief. If anyone did not understand the point of Al Gore’s recent speech, please reread it with this in mind.
The terrorists will definitely try to attack us. The strike is coming. It is inevitable. The attack may not succeed; it may be broken up by our counterterrorist forces, it may fail because of poor planning, poor execution, or maybe we will just get lucky. But the attack is out there. Maybe it is coming soon; maybe not. As al Ablaj said in September, “Either it does not happen and we are lying or it happens and we are telling the truth.” Take it from a terrorist, would he lie to you?