Skip to comments.Can it happen again? Pick a nightmare; Scenarios are endless, intelligence experts agree
Posted on 08/25/2002 4:32:26 AM PDT by badfreeper
We are fortifying airports, airliners, borders and critical facilities. There are sharp new anti-terrorism laws. Al-Qaeda is bloodied and on the run.
Could Sept. 11 ever happen again?
Maybe not as spectacularly. Certainly not as easily. And, quite possibly, not involving al-Qaeda.
But the answer, say security and intelligence experts, is yes.
The bar has been set. Sooner or later, someone with the right combination of sophistication, fanaticism and malevolence will try to jump over it.
They will exploit our vulnerabilities -- an open society, crowded cities, public transportation -- to inflict maximum damage. With the possible exception of commandeering airliners, the potential scenarios are endless. Pick a nightmare.
A year after Sept. 11, it seems, we are not much better off. The United States is so certain of another cataclysmic attack it has dispatched 100 federal employees to work shifts in underground bunkers with instructions to form a "shadow government" in the event official Washington is wiped out.
Canada is clearly a lesser target. But the true extent of our vulnerability is difficult to gauge given the closed world of security-intelligence.
Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a recently retired senior counter-terrorism officer with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, has this assessment: "Al-Qaeda is not dead. We are, unfortunately, still extremely vulnerable. And if not al-Qaeda, it'll be something else."
To use Churchill's famous line, we are at the end of the beginning.
- - -
It is reasonable to assume al-Qaeda terrorists would have launched a post-Sept. 11 attack on U.S. soil if they could have. So why haven't they?
Maybe the organization has been grievously wounded, militarily in Afghanistan and by counterterrorism crackdowns in North America and Europe.
Key people, perhaps including leader Osama bin Laden, have been killed (or captured); they've probably lost command and control systems; financial channels are being squeezed; much more is known about their ideology and operations; and foot soldiers who aren't dead or behind bars are in hiding.
That's the bullish view.
The cynical take is that al-Qaeda is licking its wounds, reloading and regrouping. More than a dozen top commanders, perhaps including Mr. bin Laden, remain at large; not all of their infrastructure has been destroyed; and an estimated 3,000 "made" al-Qaeda members have swarmed around the globe and are awaiting marching orders.
"Try to hit hornets with a baseball bat when they're flying around, it's almost impossible" says Mr. Juneau-Katsuya, now head of The Northgate Group, an Ottawa corporate security-intelligence firm. "That's exactly the situation with al-Qaeda. They're flying around ... we see them ... we lose them. It's just a matter of time. Somehow these guys will reconnect."
Maybe al-Qaeda is plotting something more complex and evil than Sept. 11, something requiring patience and planning, another high-value target rather than a quick-hit opportunity.
Perhaps a crucial component or key person involved in a big followup attack has been interdicted or arrested.
Or maybe, there never was a plan for another attack.
Maybe al-Qaeda shot its bolt on Sept. 11. Maybe the biggest talent the group has left are bumblers such as Richard C. Reid, the alleged airline "shoe bomber."
Or maybe we're anticipating an attack in the wrong place, says Wesley Wark, a University of Toronto history professor who specializes in security and intelligence issues.
The energy and capability al-Qaeda put into the Sept 11. attack seems to have shifted, he says. The focus is smaller-scale, globally dispersed assaults on U.S. and European embassies, military bases and tourists, from Sarajevo to Singapore.
And on this continent, al-Qaeda may switch to classic counter-insurgency tactics.
"Something that might use some form of low-level chemical of biological agent against a transportation system, military base or military personnel," says Mr. Wark, a fellow with the Munk Centre for International Studies.
"The United States is loaded with targets of that kind, and it would seem a sensible al-Qaeda activity to try and keep the United States off-balance and to prove that they can be back on the offensive ... which thins out the American defense and keep the United States very anxious."
Daniel Goure, a senior fellow and national security specialist with the Lexington Institute think-tank near Washington D.C., agrees.
"They may see this next round as simply one of indicating they're still alive and they're still here. So rather than going upscale -- the next 'Big One' -- they may decide that they want to push something that's lower-end but bloody, and just indicate that they haven't gone away."
An al-Qaeda strategist "with a competent view of the West," adds Mr. Wark, might even think about attacks against Canada near the U.S. border, if only to stir up distrust and suspicion within Fortress North America.
Whatever al-Qaeda chooses, an essential worry is the group will turn into an earthworm -- you can chop it up but the the pieces live on and regenerate.
- - -
U.S. journalist, author and terrorism expert Steven Emerson is one of the few people who sounded the al-Qaeda alarm before Sept. 11.
One of his final warnings was May 31, 2001. In a Wall Street Journal article about four al-Qaeda men convicted by a New York City jury of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, he wrote:
" ... the trial transcript(s) provide a full and revealing picture of al-Qaeda, showing it to be the most lethal terrorist organization anywhere in the world ... al-Qaeda is not only planning new attacks on the U.S. ... the leaders of al-Qaeda aspire to ... victory over America."
"I was surprised by 9-11," Mr. Emerson says today.
"But was I surprised that they ultimately struck here? No. Did I think that they were going to strike here? Yes. Could I have told you that I knew anything about 9-11? Absolutely not.
"The problem was, I couldn't generate the same concern with the law enforcement or intelligence community."
What does his crystal ball show now?
"Their ingenuity is boundless, their dedication is boundless and their ability to hide under the radar screen is boundless. It's not a question of 'if.' It's a question of 'when.' It could be in a year, or two. It could be in France or in Washington, D.C."
But until the U.S. can plant spies within Islamic terrorist organizations -- a capability widely believed to be critically missing -- "they're not going to be able to find this out."
What risks and terrors do we protect against in the meantime? Which ones do we just live with?
Obviously, the principal goal is to protect the most people and the most critical infrastructure with the least disruption to an open, working society.
Do we accept the risks of "low-level" terrorism -- madmen with machine-guns and grenades, for example -- so finite government and police resources can be directed at higher-order threats, like people plotting to blow up nuclear power plants or unleash lethal germs and toxins?
"The low-level stuff is a pain. You want to try and interdict it, but frankly, even in its worst day, hell, we've had lunatics kill 30 people," says Mr. Goure. "What you really don't want is to see is 10,000, 20,000, 50,000, 100,000 dead."
- - -
The colossal failure of the intelligence community to anticipate Sept. 11 has triggered an almost-obsessive public quest for more physical security. Yet increased security is not necessarily improved security.
Airline passengers are being searched for box-cutters, knitting needles and other potential carry-on weapons, while check-in luggage at many major airports, including Toronto's Pearson, is still not screened for bombs.
And even the best physical security has its limits: World Trade Center security was dramatically beefed up following the 1993 terrorist parking garage bombing, and al-Qaeda still took down those towers.
The post-Sept. 11 obsession with security, especially airport security, is understandable. But it is "an illusion, a little bit of window-dressing," says Mr. Juneau-Katsuya, who retired in 2000 as national co-ordinator of one of CSIS's counterterrorism programs.
"We are as vulnerable, in a certain sense, as we were back on Sept. 11."
And we may, in fact, being making a classic military mistake -- preparing for the last battle.
"This overwhelming focus on al-Qaeda, on the possibility of cataclysmic attacks may have blunted our capacity to see (other) things coming," says Mr. Wark.
What, he asks, has happened to the pre-Sept. 11 worries about cyberterrorists, international drug trafficking, environmental pollution and degradation, nuclear weapons proliferation and Japanese economic stability, to name a few?
"We're probably getting quite good at fighting the last terrorist attack, but the real question is, are we ready for the unexpected, the unanticipated terrorist attacks, or all those other threats that we've temporarily put off the table?
Ultimately, concludes Mr. Juneau-Katsuya, we need to extinguish the hatred and anger that can inspire people to fly commercial airliners into skyscrapers.
"We can turn Afghanistan into a parking lot. We can turn Iraq into a parking lot. That will not solve the issue. It is an illusion. We have to tackle the roots of terrorism. It will take a generation."
© Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen
You can only do that when you're dealing with sane people. In this case, we're not.
Here's a happy thought from Middle East expert Daniel Pipes:
Islamists constitute a small but significant minority of Muslims, perhaps 10 to 15 per cent of the population. Many of them are peaceable in apearance, but they all must be considered potential killers.
How does 400,000 to 800,000 -- in our country -- potential killers sound?
America's Fifth Column ... watch PBS documentary JIHAD! In America
New Link: Download 8 Mb zip file here (60 minute video)
Somebody needs to yell at the editor for that one and a couple more little grammatical errors in the article. That's all it ever takes to discredit a reasonable article and make the writer seem an amateur.
I found the article to be interesting though. Particularly when thinking about the embassies world wide. Do you ever stop to think just how much our embassy buildings themselves are "ambassadors" in the world? Foreigners are looking at a little piece of America when they take a gander at our embassy.
Certainly, we can make them impregnable. But then the message the fellow on the street gets is not of an "open and free" society but one that must go to such elaborate measures to protect itself- a sort of self imposed restrictiveness. We could put the embassies underground- completely sheltering them from attack from the open street- the message there of America not being strong but in hiding.
Our embassies must be very cleverly thought out. They must combine expressing our values of freedom and freedom of individual movement (among others) while portraying our strength as well. They must inspire but also instill awe at our power. And they must still fit into the city in which they reside. Tricky bit of engineering but a worthwhile one I believe.
It might be an expensive endeavor but the gov't might look into completely relocating our embassies in every nation. And not just relocating to another existing building but rather have a structure built by an American architect. The buildings' facades could be designed to blend in with existing architecture but the core structures of the buildings would be designed specifically to counter all manner of attacks. They would have to sit on an appropriately large enough plot of land to allow for plenty of underground building and expansion, helicopter takeoffs/landings and also to allow for a proper ground defense to be implemented in case of attack. Corners of the building angled so that key marksmen from inside can protect large swathes of the property, lots of open kill zone, hedges built over concrete blast baffles- this sort of thing.
It is an interesting project to think about- even if only for your own personal imagination. Modern day castles if you will.
Maybe they could institute that idea in downtown Washington, DC, which has increasingly come to resemble a third-world banana republic since about 1995.
Maybe not, but it's a good start.
And parking lots not only provide much needed parking space, but also don't make good hiding places or training camps. I personally like parking lots. It's the American way to have parking lots.
Need to be hunted down to a man and exterminated. What they call themselves does not matter. And the terrorist states which support them--the list is well-known--need to be crushed into particles of dust.