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Al Qaeda and the Strategic Threat to the U.S. Homeland

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By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart

The July 17 release of portions of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) titled "The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland" has generated a great deal of comment from STRATFOR readers, many of whom contend it is at odds with our assessment published shortly before the contents of the NIE were leaked. In that report, we attempted to clarify what we mean when we refer to "al Qaeda" and we differentiate between the small al Qaeda core organization (what we call "al Qaeda prime"), the somewhat wider array of al Qaeda franchise organizations (such as al Qaeda in Iraq) and the broad assortment of grassroots jihadists who have no actual connection to the core organization. Our assessment also echoed an assertion we have been making for quite some time now — that al Qaeda lacks the ability to pose a strategic threat to the United States.

It must be understood that al Qaeda and other jihadists still pose a tactical threat to the U.S. homeland. In other words, they can still kill Americans. In fact, in looking at the jihadist shift in operations abroad, attacks against smaller, softer targets have actually caused more fatalities than large-scale strikes against hard targets. However, attacks against low-level soft targets, such as the November 2005 hotel attacks in Amman, Jordan, and the July 7, 2005, suicide bombings in London, do not have the strategic impact of a 9/11-style attack.

A number of tactical and strategic considerations have led us to conclude that al Qaeda does not pose a strategic threat.

Tactical Realities

As long as the ideology of jihadism exists and jihadists embrace the philosophy of attacking the "far enemy," they will pose a threat on U.S. soil. Though the U.S. government has tightened visa and asylum restrictions since 9/11, those processes still contain holes. Furthermore, given that even small, repressive regimes have been unable to control their immigration, it is not surprising that a country as large as the United States, one that must deal with the open nature of U.S. society, cannot hermetically seal it borders to prevent terrorist operatives from entering. Jihadist operatives still can reach the United States illegally, by committing immigration fraud or slipping across the border. Legally, they can obtain visas, use operatives from visa-waiver countries or those who are U.S. citizens. Of course, people residing in the United States who decide to "go jihad" also pose a threat. While some, perhaps even most, of these jihadist operatives will be caught before they can enter, some inevitably will get into the country. There undoubtedly are such people — both transnational and homegrown operatives — in the United States right now. That is a tactical reality.

Another tactical reality is that the U.S. government simply cannot protect every potential target. While insights gained from al Qaeda's targeting criteria have helped U.S. authorities protect high-value targets, there simply are far too many potential targets to protect them all. The federal government might instruct state and local authorities to protect every bridge, dam, power plant and mass-transit system in their jurisdiction, but the reality on the ground is that there are not nearly enough resources to protect them all, much less every shopping mall, state fair, Jewish Community Center, football game or other potential soft target where people concentrate.

Another tactical consideration is the ease with which an attack can be conducted. As Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung Hui and D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammed demonstrated, it is not difficult to kill people. In fact, Cho killed more people with handguns in his attack at Virginia Tech than Jemaah Islamiyah killed in Jakarta, Indonesia, in the August 2003 bombings of the Marriott Hotel and the Australian Embassy combined. University of Oklahoma student Joel Henry Hinrichs also demonstrated the ease with which someone can fabricate an improvised explosive device (IED) using TATP without being detected.

Given this reality and the fact that jihadists are committed to staging attacks on U.S. soil — and are willing to die in the process — it really is rather astounding that we have not seen more jihadist attacks in the United States.

Strategic Considerations

There are, however, some strategic considerations that help explain why we have not seen al Qaeda prime execute the long-expected follow-on attack. The first is that strategic attacks are difficult to pull off. A strategic attack is one that results in significant geopolitical policy shift by its target. An attack that destroys a strategic-level target such as the U.S. Capitol or that causes mass casualties — kills 1,000 or more people — would certainly rise to this level.

One problem is that most strategic targets are large and well-constructed, and therefore hard to destroy. In other words, just because a strategic target is attacked, that does not mean the attack has succeeded. Indeed, many such attacks have failed. Even when a plot against a strategic target is successfully executed, it might not produce the desired results, and therefore would be considered a failure. For example, despite the detonation of a massive truck bomb in a parking garage of the World Trade Center in 1993, that attack failed to achieve the jihadists' aims of toppling the two towers and producing mass casualties, or of causing a major U.S. foreign policy shift.

Many strategic targets also are well protected against conventional attacks. Their large standoff distances protect them from vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, while these and other security measures make it difficult to cause significant damage to them using smaller IEDs or small arms.

To overcome these obstacles, jihadists have been forced to look at alternate means of attack. Al Qaeda's use of large, fully fueled passenger aircraft as guided missiles is a great example of this, though it must be noted that once that tactic became known, it ceased to be viable — as Flight 93 demonstrated. There is little chance that a flight crew and passengers of an aircraft would allow it to be seized by a small group of hijackers now. However, concern remains over the possible use of large cargo aircraft or even some of the larger general aviation aircraft in this fashion — especially given al Qaeda prime's fixation on aviation.

There also has been a major strategic shift in the way al Qaeda and jihadists are viewed. Prior to 9/11 they were considered more or less a nuisance and little attention was paid to them. They operated from safe and relatively comfortable bases in Afghanistan and were able to train and dispatch operatives abroad with ease. They also were able to take ready advantage of the global financial system to transfer money, and they were able to hold "regional conferences" in places such as Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In fact, we know that prior to 9/11 al Qaeda was planning a number of strikes at the same time, including the follow-on plot to attack the Library Tower and other West Coast targets with aircraft, and a plot to attack U.S. Navy targets in Singapore that was put on hold so it did not interfere with the success of the 9/11 operation. With all that surveillance and planning going on, it is no wonder the 9/11 Commission Report called the summer of 2001 "The Summer of Threat." Since 9/11 and the launching of the "global war on terrorism", however, the U.S. government's anti-terrorism tool kit has been turned against the organization in full force.

Although no strategic attacks have occurred since 9/11, it is not for lack of trying on the jihadists' part. Indeed, many attempts have been discovered and thwarted. While the United States and its allies were not really focused on the al Qaeda threat prior to 9/11, they are almost over-focused on the threat today, labeling even grassroots wannabe jihadists like the Miami Seven as al Qaeda. Still, this intense focus, the policy of disrupting plots and the increase in public awareness have made it more difficult for jihadists to operate in the United States today.

As we said, U.S. authorities will not be able to stop every attack — and they know the next attack is a matter of when and not if. Because of this, they have taken great pains to attempt to limit the impact the long-expected attack will have. They have done this by raising awareness about the items that can be used in terror attacks and by limiting access to these items. Today, when a gasoline tanker truck goes missing, a quantity of dynamite is stolen from a quarry or a suspicious person attempts to buy a quantity of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, people quickly report these incidents and alerts are issued. This simply did not happen prior to 9/11.

Another factor is public reaction. The American public was shocked by 9/11. Not only by the scope and devastation of the attack, but by the very fact it happened. Prior to 9/11, Americans considered terrorism as something that happens "over there" and not at home. Today, the American public has been anticipating a follow-on attack on the U.S. homeland since the minute the towers fell. This means that when the next attack happens, there will be sadness, anger and a healthy round of political finger-pointing — but it will not come as a surprise.

Unconventional Weapons

Al Qaeda also has considered overcoming security measures to launch strategic strikes by using chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons (CBRN). We know al Qaeda has developed crude methods for developing chemical and biological weapons. It also is possible al Qaeda prime was behind the anthrax mailings in 2001. However, as STRATFOR has repeatedly pointed out, chemical and biological weapons are expensive, are difficult to use and have proven to be largely ineffective in real-world applications. A comparison of the Aum Shinrikyo chemical and biological attacks in Tokyo with the March 2004 jihadist attacks in Madrid clearly demonstrates that explosives are far cheaper, easier to use and more effective at killing people. The failure by jihadists in Iraq to use chlorine effectively in their attacks also underscores the problem of using improvised chemical weapons.

Of course it is not unimaginable for al Qaeda or other jihadists to think outside the box and attack a chemical storage site or tanker car, using the bulk chemicals to attack another target — much as the 9/11 hijackers used aircraft as the means to attack the end target. However, while such an attack could release enough of a deadly chemical to kill many people, most people would be evacuated before they could receive a lethal dose, as past industrial accidents have demonstrated. Therefore, such an attack would be messy but would be more likely to cause panic and mass evacuations, rather than mass casualties.

The same can be said of a radiological dispersion device (RDD), sometimes called a "dirty bomb." While RDDs are easy to deploy — so simple that we are surprised one has not already been used against the U.S. homeland — it is very difficult to immediately administer a lethal dose of radiation. Therefore, the bomb part of a dirty bomb would likely kill more people than the device's "dirty," or radiological, component. However, use of an RDD would result in evacuations and could require a lengthy and expensive decontamination process. Because of this, we refer to them as "weapons of mass disruption" rather than weapons of mass destruction.

The bottom line is that a nuclear device is the only element of the CBRN threat that would create mass casualties and guarantee the success of a strategic strike. Al Qaeda, however, would find it very difficult to obtain (or manufacture) such a device while it is under the intense pressure it faces today. If the organization had possessed such a device since before 9/11, as some have claimed, we believe operatives would have used it long before now.

The Al Qaeda Shell

Clearly, jihadists want to hit the U.S. homeland. In fact there has not been a time in the last 10 to 15 years when some jihadist somewhere hasn't been plotting to attack the United States. There likely are homegrown and transnational jihadists in the United States right now plotting attacks. There also are a wide variety of vulnerable targets in the United States and, as we have said, attacking them is not that difficult.

We believe the United States is long overdue for a jihadist attack. Like U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, we believe the elements are likely in place for such an attack in the near future. However, we do not believe the attack will be of the same magnitude as the 9/11 attacks.

The problem for al Qaeda is that the core group, in the words of the NIE, is "likely to continue to focus on prominent political, economic and infrastructure targets with the goal of producing mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, significant economic aftershocks and/or fear among the U.S. population." It is one thing to launch an attack against the Sears Tower, for example; it is quite another thing to succeed in bringing it down. We believe al Qaeda can attack a target like the Sears Tower, but our assessment is that the organization currently lacks the ability to launch a devastating strategic attack — one that would destroy the target.

Does this mean al Qaeda will lack this capability forever? No. If the United States and its allies were to cease pressuring the organization, and the jihadist movement as a whole, it could in time regenerate the capability. However, we disagree with the NIE assertion that the group already has regenerated to that point. Al Qaeda prime is still dangerous at the tactical level, but strategically it is only a shell of its former self.

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