Overview from the issue on Homeland Security (2/13/2009)

by Peter Katel

The attackers struck in the last days of November 2008. With terrifying precision, shooters in five two-man teams moved from target to target, unleashing lethal bursts of automatic weapons fire in the train station, an upscale restaurant, two luxury hotels and a Jewish cultural center.

By the time the terrorists had been killed or captured three days later, 173 people had been slain.

The massacre occurred in Mumbai, India, but 7,800 miles away, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly couldn't help but notice some troubling parallels. Mumbai, he told the Senate Homeland Security Committee in January, is “the country's financial capital, a densely populated, multi-cultural metropolis and a hub for the media and entertainment industries. Obviously, these are also descriptions of New York City.”

In the post-9/11 world, Kelly's job is to make such connections. But among Americans in general, beset by foreclosures, job layoffs and other manifestations of the global economic meltdown, terrorism fears have diminished in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

“There may be a false sense of security in the United States because we haven't been attacked in seven years,” says Bruce Hoffman, a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and former scholar-in-residence for counterterrorism at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Indeed, while the Mumbai attacks seem as distant from the United States as South Asia itself, Hoffman and others view Mumbai as a wake-up call for the United States.

The attacks have been linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), or the “Army of the Pure,” a Pakistani group with deep connections to Pakistan's intelligence service. LeT seeks to force India to cede Kashmir to Pakistan, which, like Kashmir is majority Muslim. The group shares longstanding ties with Osama bin Laden's jihadist group al Qaeda, which carried out the 9/11 attacks.

While the daily fear that gripped Americans after Sept. 11 may have faded, the nation nonetheless has remained on high alert ever since, its security infrastructure extensively strengthened.

Creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) the year after the attacks reflected officials' certainty that further terrorist strikes were imminent. Since then, increasingly intense airport screenings provide constant reminders of danger, along with warnings by terrorism experts that the United States' 361 ports and long borders leave the nation vulnerable.

“America's margin of safety against a WMD (weapon of mass destruction) attack is shrinking,” a blue-ribbon congressional commission reported in December, pointing specifically at Pakistan and the jihadist groups flourishing there. “Were one to map terrorism and weapons of mass destruction today, all roads would intersect in Pakistan. . . . Trends in South Asia, if left unchecked, will increase the odds that al Qaeda will successfully develop and use a nuclear device or biological weapon against the United States or its allies.”

Bin Laden is doing his best to keep fears alive. Five days before Barack Obama's Jan. 20 inauguration, a recording released by bin Laden said the new president was “inheriting two wars, in which he is not able to continue, and we are on our way to open other fronts, God willing.”

Thought to be holed up in the mountainous tribal-ruled belt of northwestern Pakistan, bin Laden and his top commanders — notably Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor who is considered al Qaeda's second-in-command — remain America's No. 1 counterterrorism targets. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee in January: “We will go after al Qaeda wherever al Qaeda is.”

Still, some veteran terrorism analysts say bin Laden's network no longer commands the funds, communications facilities nor technical expertise necessary to plan and carry out a major attack in the United States.

Marc Sageman, a former CIA officer in Pakistan, notes that the London subway and bus attacks in 2005 mark the last effective al Qaeda action outside Asia or Africa. “There has not been a single fatality from al Qaeda or an al Qaeda-linked group in the West since July 7, 2005,” Sageman, now a consultant to the NYPD's counterterrorism division, told a Washington conference sponsored by the Cato Institute think tank in January.

Another longtime expert on al Qaeda, Peter Bergen, noted recently that intensive investigations since 9/11 failed to uncover a single al Qaeda “sleeper cell” in the United States or any operatives on immediate missions. “While a small-bore attack may be organized by a Qaeda wannabe at some point, a catastrophic, mass-casualty assault along the lines of 9/11 is no longer plausible,” said Bergen, a journalist and a fellow at the nonpartisan New America Foundation, who interviewed bin Laden in 1997.

John Mueller, an Ohio State University political scientist, has been arguing for several years that U.S. officials have vastly exaggerated the extent of terrorism danger to the United States. “It's looking more and more that 9/11 was an outlier,” says Mueller, author of a 2006 book on terrorism. “Even if you assume that U.S. protection measures are 90 percent effective, that would mean that some al Qaeda agents would have been caught entering the United States. The fact that the government can't find any means that al Qaeda isn't trying.”

Even experts who question the need for some security procedures call Mueller's position extreme. Al Qaeda and its allies “would kill you if they could,” says James Jay Carafano, director of the conservative Heritage Foundation's Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies. Minimizing terrorism threats would be risky, he argues. “If you get a cold and just ignore it, then you get pneumonia and die.”

However, experiments conducted last year by journalist Jeffrey Goldberg suggest that domestic aviation security, at least, wouldn't stop terrorists. Goldberg got on a flight from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Washington with a forged boarding pass, no driver's license and a coat (in summertime) over an Osama bin Laden t-shirt. A security supervisor let Goldberg through. “ 'All right, you can go,' ” he said, pointing me to the X-ray line. “ 'But let this be a lesson for you.' ”

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Director Kip Hawley previously told one of Goldberg's key sources, security guru Bruce Schneier, that the agency's intelligence service effectively spots potentially dangerous passengers before they reach airports. “Our intel operation works closely with other international and domestic agencies,” Hawley told Schneier.

Other intelligence experts argue for paying close attention to the shared jihadist roots and operational ties between al Qaeda and LeT, the apparent Mumbai attack mastermind. “Bin Laden was an early supporter of the group and provided some of the initial funding,” writes Bruce Riedel, a former CIA expert on Pakistan now at the Brookings Institution think tank. He has noted that the first major al Qaeda operative arrested after 9/11, Abu Zubayda, was nabbed in an LeT safe house in Islamabad.

Riedel, author of a recent book on al Qaeda, predicts that Mumbai sets a pattern for future attacks. “I think this will become a role model for terrorists around the world,” he told the German news magazine Der Spiegel. “You will see the copycat phenomenon where others will try to imitate what has just happened in Mumbai.”

Some say it's an easy model to adapt. “In Mumbai, the terrorists demonstrated that with simple tactics and low-tech weapons they can produce vastly disproportionate results,” Brian M. Jenkins, a terrorism analyst at the RAND Corporation think tank, told the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Their weapons, he noted, amounted essentially to a 1940s-era arsenal — rifles, pistols and grenades.

By attacking a non-aviation transportation hub, the attackers reinforced another warning by many terrorism analysts — jihadists' adaptability. “I think what Homeland Security has done well up to this point is to prepare defenses to respond to the last attack,” says Roger Cressey, transnational threat director for the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. “If you look at TSA, it's more focused on aviation than on any other element of transportation.”

Many other terrorism experts point to al Qaeda's apparent obsessiveness about aviation and highly symbolic targets. Sept. 11 provided the clearest example. In addition to the hijackers aiming at the World Trade Center and Pentagon a fourth plane apparently had targeted the Capitol or White House. It crashed in Shanksville, Pa., after passengers rushed the cockpit.

In fact, jihadists had tried toppling the towers once before, exploding a bomb in the garage in 1993. After fast police work rolled up nearly the entire network of conspirators, counterterrorism expert Hoffman warned that the danger hadn't passed.

“The fact there haven't been any more attacks doesn't mean we're out of the woods,” he said. “Terrorism doesn't work in a predictable fashion.” He was speaking in 1994, seven years before 9/11.

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