Textbook warning signs present for holiday attack

By Douglas J. Hagmann, Director

18 December 2006: Intelligence analysts from various agencies are quietly concerned, talking within their own circles about the higher-than-normal probability of a terror attack occurring this holiday season. This weekend, I talked casually with two analysts, one who monitors activities and incidents in the United States, while the other does the same for Europe. (This is perhaps a poor summary of their official job descriptions, but it is essentially accurate). This will be the fourth Christmas the U.S. analyst will have under his belt, while the man who monitors European activity has an additional year at his position. Both admitted that they are always concerned around this time of year, but they both expressed a heightened level of concern of terrorist attacks for this year.

One could correctly argue that this anticipatory sentiment has been present since 2001, but events throughout 2006 have the analysts a bit more concerned. Some of the events referenced include the following, in no specific order:

1. The large-scale plot to crash airliners originating in the UK into US cities (or exploding them in mid-flight, if one is to believe major media sources), was exposed in August and stopped before its planned execution. There are concerns that despite the sweeping arrests, an unknown but perhaps significant number of operatives remain engaged in advancing these objectives. If successful, their status as Islamic martyrs will rival, if not eclipse, those of the 9/11 attacks.

2. The very public admission by the head of MI5 of the terrorist cells and known Islamic terrorist operatives under surveillance in Great Britain. Well over 1500 Islamic terrorists continue to plot attacks in that country following the July, 7, 2005 attacks on their transit system, which remains a very enviable target as crowds increase with holiday traffic.

3. The ire of the Islamists over the academic discussion of Islam by Pope Benedict XVI has yet to fully abate, despite his attempts to defuse the situation through his public back-peddling. If his apologies were to be depicted in cartoon style, one might picture His Holiness on his hands and knees kissing the ground at Mecca - sans the papal aircraft. Continued rioting but Muslim youths, downplayed or outright improperly portrayed by the media, continue to ravage Paris and are now beginning to break out in other European cities. The youthful emissaries of the “religion of peace” continue to spread the ministry of Islam throughout Europe.

4. In the United States, the despicable and ever-bloated Islamic icon, Omar Abdel-Rahman, is having health problems and reports are that his short-term prognosis is poor. Abdel-Rahman, known as “the blind Sheikh,” has been held in a federal prison since his conviction in the New York City landmark plot. His condition, of course, is being downplayed by federal officials who understand that when he assumes room temperature from his self-induced overdose of Bon-Bons, he will also assume martyr status by dying while in U.S. custody. As we previously reported, his Islamic followers continue their vigil and could attempt to avenge his death at his own request.

5. The case of Ahmed Ressam, who was part of a plot to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on or about January 1, 2000 was discussed on its merits of both target and effect. Ressman was the Muslim terrorist trained in Afghanistan in the use of cyanide gas. Specifically, Ressman was taught how to place cyanide gas near the intake system of a ventilation system to achieve the greatest number of causalities. He spent most of the 1990’s supporting himself as a petty criminal in Canada, then traveled to Afghanistan in early 1999 to prepare for the attack against U.S. targets - ultimately LAX - and traveling from Afghanistan back to Canada with chemical components to be used for explosives disguised in toiletry bottles, a notebook containing bomb assembly instructions, and $12,000 in cash. It was the eagle eye of an INS agent at the pre-inspection station in Victoria, British Columbia who caught Ressam with a genuine but fraudulently obtained Canadian passport, and explosives and other items concealed in the spare tire well of his rented car. Ultimately, the plot to bomb LAX was thwarted, but by the admission of intelligence officers, LAX and other airports remain high on the list of terrorist targets. In addition to the tragic loss of life and its psychological impact, an effective terrorist attack at an airport during the holiday travel season would cause an unimaginable log-jam of holiday travelers and cause near-disastrous economic consequences. According to both intelligence agents, plans for successful attacks in those venues always seem to be close to the top of terrorists’ wish lists.

With regard to airports and air travel, the many situations involving Muslims at airports and on aircraft raise legitimate questions pertaining to the motivation of their actions. In frank discussion with both intelligence agents, there are many more incidents not unlike the US Air Flight 300 incident that are reported internally but never make headlines. Based on further discussion with the analysts, history will show that Annie Jacobsen, the astute airline passenger and author who wrote Terror in the Skies was (and I am quoting one U.S. government analyst here), “dead-nuts accurate” in her conclusions about the curiously coordinated actions of certain passengers aboard aircraft. The astute and tenacious investigative reporting by The Washington Times reporter Audrey Hudson will also be identified as instrumental in a post-mortem tactical analysis of the next attacks against airlines by Islamic terrorists. As I stated in the The Washington Times interview the day following the incident aboard US Air Flight 300, that incident would be a “water shed event” for a number of reasons, not the least of which are the “profiling” of Muslim passengers and the erosion of airport security.

One extremely important tactic to the events at airports and aboard airplanes needs to be addressed: the propositioning of men (or women) who do not appear to be of Middle Eastern origin, are innocuous in their physical appearance, and are seemingly unrelated to the more visible operatives aboard an aircraft where an incident might be in progress. As authorities escort the obvious suspects from the aircraft, the Caucasian “sleepers” remain behind to continue their duties, perhaps in the act of surveillance or possibly something more sinister.

Today, U.S. analysts forecasting potential terrorist attacks are very uneasy for many of the reasons referenced above. Lacking specifics, however, their “best guess” scenario seems to be targets associated with retail and mass transit. Other variables, especially involving what the U.S. does with troop levels and military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, only murky the intelligence waters. One thing appears certain, however: our government analysts and agents are on a higher state of alert this year than in all previous years, and their concern is global.