Terrorism to Avenge Bin Laden Death a Worry for 9/11 Anniversary

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WASHINGTON — President Obama’s national security advisers remain concerned that terrorists will use the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks to stage new acts of violence — this time possibly with an eye toward avenging the May 2 killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (see GSN, Aug. 17).

(Sep. 6) – New York City police officers participate in a “dirty bomb” exercise in April near U.N. headquarters. U.S. officials have expressed concern that terrorists might attempt a revenge strike against the nation at the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks (Mario Tama/Getty Images).

The four months following the U.S. special operations raid in Pakistan might have provided violent extremists just enough time to plan and assemble at least a rudimentary strike, just as Americans pause to reflect on the loss of nearly 3,000 people to terrorism a decade ago, according to government officials.

“If you have an organization like al-Qaeda, it’s not like they keep [bombs] around in a hangar,” a senior U.S. military official told Global Security Newswire in a July interview. “So it’s likely that there is a delay after having this [bin Laden killing] happen” before a significant revenge attack could occur, said the official.

The high-level military figure requested anonymity to allow more candor in discussing sensitive national security issues.

Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a video message four weeks ago asserting that “America today is staggering” and urging followers to “hunt her down wherever you may encounter her” (see GSN, Aug. 16).

If there is any specific new intelligence pointing to a viable terror plot, though, administration leaders are not discussing it publicly (see GSN, Aug. 4).

Al-Qaeda would like to retaliate against the United States for killing bin Laden, but there are no signs that the organization is ready to exact revenge using either conventional means or weapons of mass destruction, according to Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator (see GSN, June 14).

Violent extremists have carried out several attacks in Pakistan described as acts of vengeance for the loss of the al-Qaeda leader, including a protracted May offensive by the Taliban against a naval air base in Karachi (see GSN, May 23).

Just last week, the FBI and Homeland Security Department issued warnings about al-Qaeda interest in loading small aircraft with explosives as a potential means of attack. A fresh assault might alternatively be patterned after a right-wing extremist’s apparently solo attacks in Norway on July 22 that killed 77, U.S. leaders are saying.

Obama last month called on Americans to exercise “heightened awareness” as the Sunday anniversary approaches, noting in a CNN interview that a difficult-to-detect “lone wolf terrorist” is “the most likely scenario that we have to guard against right now.”

“You have to reckon that there is a greater chance that an enraged individual might try to act on his own,” Benjamin similarly told reporters two months earlier. By definition, a lone-wolf perpetrator has few to no communications about the plot with other individuals, so “those are clearly harder to collect [intelligence] on,” he said.

Bin Laden himself had begun mulling the idea of an anniversary attack, but U.S. officials said there was no indication that any detailed planning had taken place before the al-Qaeda mastermind was slain at his Abbottabad hideout (see GSN, July 15).

“As best we can tell, he wasn’t getting a lot of encouragement” to believe that such an attack was “getting put together and was going to succeed,” John McLaughlin, a former CIA deputy director, told GSN in an interview. Still, he said, U.S. counterterrorism officials would be “prudent and smart” to search hard for plots and prepare for the possibility that one or more might play out.

Another prominent terrorism expert said he views the odds of an attack occurring on or around September 11 as “zero to less than zero.”

“The United States has to make a decision,” said Larry Johnson, a former State Department counterterrorism office deputy. “Either we’ve been effective in the war on terror, or we’ve wasted billions and billions of dollars.”

Even if the funds for bolstering homeland security were well spent, there is no such thing as 100 percent effectiveness in preventing terrorism attacks, he acknowledged in an interview.

Johnson asserted, though, that even a limited attack by a solitary actor remains unlikely because the United States has had enormous success in weakening al-Qaeda and its affiliates through capture-and-kill operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.

Additionally, he said, the United States has ramped up its law enforcement and homeland security measures since 2001 to such an extent that it has become an enormous challenge for a prospective terrorist to amass the knowledge and materials to build a bomb inside the nation’s borders.

Generally speaking, terrorists would find it difficult to pull off a major bomb attack without being detected in advance, according to the senior military official.

“Even if they had a plan on the books, pulling the pieces together — and then focusing against somebody with that plan — generally has a pretty big signature,” the defense leader said. “Big bombs have big signatures, just moving them around and whatnot.”

That said, last year’s would-be Times Square bomber demonstrated that a significant strike against innocent civilians is a very real possibility in the United States for an extremist acting alone or with minimal support.

Pakistani-born Faisal Shahzad has confessed to setting off a car bomb in the heart of Manhattan in May 2010. The device failed to detonate, though, and police — alerted by street vendors to smoke escaping the vehicle — disarmed the bomb before any damage could be done (see GSN, May 5, 2010).

The presence of a “sleeper cell” — one that quietly stands ready to carry out a strike — would make it more likely that covert preparations for a strike could proceed undetected, according to experts.

However, the absence of a major attack immediately following the bin Laden raid might be an indication that no terrorist sleeper cell was on standby inside the United States, awaiting a triggering event.

U.S. officials are hopeful that any terrorist desire to harm the United States following the al-Qaeda leader’s demise might simply wither on the vine. Despite wishing otherwise, the terrorist organization was unable to generate much hue and cry in the Muslim world over bin Laden’s death.

“The delay works in your favor because it also tends to cool people off,” the senior military official said. “And the ones that don’t get cooled off tend to generate a big signature of, ‘Come here, we’re going to have a big powwow and then we’re going to move a bomb someplace.'”

Of course, the stunning 2001 attacks against iconic business and government buildings in New York and Washington and on an airliner over Pennsylvania involved no bombs at all, but instead a deadly combination of box-cutters, passenger aircraft and a highly disciplined team of suicidal Islamist militants.

Many terrorism experts are confident that this particular form of attack could not be duplicated today, thanks to a wide array of counterterrorism and homeland security measures put in place over the past 10 years.

After seeing violent extremists attempt to hide explosives in printer cartridges, underwear and sneakers over the past few years, though, the lesson that Washington and its allies continue to face ingenuitive and resourceful adversaries has not been lost on senior U.S. leaders.

A U.S. security official in July said today’s most active al-Qaeda affiliate, based in Yemen, was considering surgically implanting bombs inside operatives to avoid airport detection systems, according to news reports.

“With all this uncertainty … what can we be certain about?” McLaughlin said. “We can be certain that they are thinking about ways to defeat our countermeasures. If they can come up with something, they will try it.”

He said the new warnings should not instill a sense of panic, but rather be used for reinforcing homeland security measures and cultivating public resiliency.

“My concern right now is the anniversary of 9/11 [and] any number of holidays that are coming up in front of us,” the military leader said. “And that we’re just going to have to be vigilant.”

Terrorism expert Johnson asserted that the idea of a looming threat from al-Qaeda and its disparate affiliates has been overblown.

A college fraternity typically exhibits “more organization than al-Qaeda” has been able to achieve, he said, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Without state sponsorship, “they would have no capability of any consequence,” said Johnson, who has worked with U.S. military special operations forces for 18 years.

He acknowledged that the 2002 sniper attacks in and around Washington, D.C., and the 2009 Fort Hood, Texas, shootings had at least a short-term effect of heightening fear and unease in the targeted communities, ostensibly a measure of success to a terrorist. Further incidents on that scale of violence could still occur, Johnson said.

A lone bomber in a suicide vest or a bomb planted at a crowded cafe, for example, could yet be seen, Johnson said. Thus far, though, no one has been able to pull off even this seemingly plausible form of terrorism inside the United States.

“If you’re somebody like that who’s willing to do that, then you can,” Johnson said. “But we’ve seen not a ramping up of that kind of individual, but a diminishment over time.”

Isolated terrorist events have never coalesced into the kind of broader radical movement that has been a focus of much apprehension over the past decade, he noted. In fact, the Obama administration recently announced its confidence that the end of al-Qaeda is now in sight (see GSN, June 30).

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