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Terrorism Experts Weigh In: What Kind of Attacks Might We Expect?

Hijackings, bombs on planes, bombings of military and diplomatic facilities, and using planes as weapons are just some tactics that radicalized Islamists have used against Americans. The 1970s and 1980s saw the hijacking of a TWA flight and the bombing of a Pan Am flight. During the 1980s and 1990s, more Americans were killed in the attacks on the Beirut Marine barracks, the Beirut embassy, the Kenyan embassy, and the Tanzanian embassy, as well as the bombing of the USS Cole.

Terrorists became more brazen in the 1990s, when they attempted to attack within America. CIA headquarters were attacked in 1993, the first attack on the World Trade Center also occurred in 1993, and letter bombs from Egypt were sent to a Kansas prison in 1997. The evolution of these terrorist acts led to the horrific attack on September 11, 2001.

The goal of al-Qaeda and its splinter groups is to kill Americans as part of the global jihad. They have been described as an adaptive, determined, resourceful, constantly evolving enemy, willing to die for their cause. They constantly react to new counterterrorism measures. James Loy, a retired Coast Guard admiral, gives examples of how terrorists adapt: cockpit doors were reinforced, so the terrorists tried a shoe bomb; shoes were screened, so the terrorists tried liquid explosives; liquids were not to be carried on planes, so the terrorists tried an underwear bomb. The latest attempt involved bombs placed in cargo compartments.

It seems America can never achieve checkmate, because the terrorists are studying the possible vulnerabilities. Fran Townsend, former Bush Homeland Security advisor, comments:

[The] enemy watches us and understands what we do, and develops ways to work around us and exploit our vulnerabilities.

Because of these vulnerabilities, former CIA Director Michael Hayden feels America might suffer Mumbai-style attacks that will be “less sophisticated, less organized, less lethal, less [detectable], but possibly more numerous.” A former Bush official asks:

Al-Qaeda’s game plan is to create panic, damage our economy, and make us weaker. Was the attack in Mumbai, India, a rehearsal for something here?

What makes these types of attacks harder to detect is the ability to use radicalized American operatives. Al-Qaeda adapted by attempting to recruit U.S. citizens such as Farooq Ahmed, who targeted the transportation systems in Washington, D.C., and Virginia. This is a great cause of concern since these people are receptive to the propaganda easily spread through the internet. Townsend notes:

[Using radicalized Americans] takes away one of their vulnerabilities. Every time [terrorists] have to cross a border they become vulnerable, so these types of operatives are their most valuable resource. It is harder to detect their communication and travel plans. Let’s also not forget the legal burdens and restrictions that come with trying to capture these Americans since collection of intelligence data on U.S. citizens is limited.

A powerful tool to thwart these attacks is the cooperation of moderate American Muslims. Clare Lopez, a terrorism expert, wants to see more American Muslims “break ranks and speak up in their own communities condemning shariah-justified violence,” as was done when someone turned in Ahmed.

Stewart Baker, former assistant for Homeland Security whose book Skating on Stilts covers past and future terrorist attacks, told PJM that the terrorists still have a fascination with bringing down planes.

In August of this year, a cell phone taped to a Pepto-Bismol bottle and multiple cell phones and watches taped together were found in luggage on a passenger plane. After the package bomb discovery, a former high-ranking CIA official said that he considers the August discovery “ a very plausible and possible trial run. It was a test to see how far they could go. It seems very suspicious.”

To combat this threat, Townsend wants “a 100% worldwide baggage screening on all passenger planes. These problems can be solved with good technology, but the private sector must be in the solution process.”

Is there still a need to worry about the nuclear and biological threat? A former high-ranking CIA official believes it is still a possibility:

We need to assume they could still do a big one. These little things could be a diversion, a distraction, so we would believe all they can do are the small attacks. There is the possibility of an attack using a bomb with radioactive material, or the use of a surface-to-air missile against an aircraft. The absolute consensus is that if al-Qaeda gets their hands on one of these, they will use it. That is a real danger. Although [risk of] nuclear war is decreased, nuclear terrorism is increased.

Townsend explains that there are states which do not provide adequate security for their nuclear arsenal. The scenarios she gives:

Nuclear capability transferred from a state — Iran — to a terrorist organization — Hezbollah, or a radical working inside a nuclear complex of a satellite state, such as Pakistan. The terrorist group can then build a nuclear IED. It can turn into a very dark world. I frankly think there is a need to deal with these threats before they manifest themselves at home and I don’t see it.

All those interviewed believe the answer is to keep the pressure on by capturing and interrogating the terrorists. Hayden summarized everyone’s feelings:

The way to counter them is not to think solely in terms of defense. We must keep on the offensive, attacking them and keeping them off balance. What we have done under the two administrations is make the [terrorist] senior leadership spend the day thinking about their survival and less time thinking about threatening ours. We have taken the fight to the enemy.