Al Qaeda's Next Major Domestic Attack On The United States
The fact that the United States has not experienced a major domestic attack since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 is firm testament to the relentless work by the Western intelligence community in identifying potential threats and preventing them from reaching fruition. In fact, a number of such attempts have been detected and eliminated in recent years, some of which may not even be known by the general public. Moreover, several of Al Qaeda's top leaders have been killed (including Osama bin Laden), but new leaders have emerged to take their place and Al Qaeda continues to represent a major threat to American interests at home and abroad. Indeed, many authorities maintain that such a major domestic attack it is not a matter of "if" but "when," making the need for ongoing surveillance of domestic terrorist activities a national priority. To this end, this paper provides a review of recent intercepted terrorist message traffic together with the relevant literature concerning terrorist forecasting and the use of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives to identify the next major domestic attack on the United States. A summary of the research and important findings are presented in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Description of Threat Scenario
Based on intercepted message traffic purportedly from Al Qaeda, the following scenario was reconstructed with missing gaps being filled in where appropriate based on an extrapolation of past practices by Al Qaeda and the forecasting methodologies available to intelligence analysts. Based on this analysis, the main themes that emerged from the intercepted traffic that have specific implications for forecasting included the following:
1. The attack will take place on New Year's Eve (January 1) on or about midnight in Times Square, New York City.
2. The perpetrators will be five Afghani nationals with forged Lebanese passports traveling under Christian names, suggesting some level of coordination with terrorist groups in Lebanon. According to Merari, "It is practically impossible to arrest terrorists in countries where they enjoy the protection of the government, and it is almost as difficult to apprehend them in unruly territories such as Lebanon."
3. The five Afghani nationals may be living in a safe house in New York City. This strategy has been used in the past by Al Qaeda to conceal terrorists from Afghanistan in safe houses in the United States where they received instructions on "Americanized" English, as well as training in building detonators and explosive devices.
4. A faked heart attack in the midst of the enormous crowd will prompt the dispatch of an ambulance to the scene.
5. The "ambulance" that responds to the faked heart attack will contain 100 liters of sarin (about 26 gallons) and will be manned by Al Qaeda "suicide bomb" operatives.
6. The perpetrators may seek escape following attack via Canada or through LaGuardia International Airport.
The source of the intercepted transmission remains unclear, but the message content was considered sufficiently credible to warrant preparatory action pursuant to CBRNe terrorist activity as discussed further below.
Based on their enormous "bang for the buck" in terms of total human devastation caused, so-called CBRNe devices may be the weapon of choice for some terrorist organizations in the future, assuming they are able to develop the expertise to use them. According to Interpol, "Terrorism that makes use of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives (CBRNe) materials is commonly conceived as the worst case scenario of all terrorist attacks."
Despite the rarity of these types of attacks, though, the potential devastation that could be exacted through the use of CBRNe methods by terrorist groups demands diligent oversight, with prevention of the attacks being the major priority.
Although just a small percentage of terrorists possess the skills and resources needed to manufacture sarin, the process itself is not so difficult that it cannot be accomplished by committed individuals. In reality, making sarin is about on the level with making good methamphetamine, and just about as difficult to secure the requisite ingredients. For instance, according to Emsley, "Sarin is easier to make from the commercially available chemical methylphosphonic dichloride, but sales of this are carefully monitored around the world for this reason."
Likewise, its potential for causing widespread casualties is well documented when aerosolized, but like meth, regulation of the ingredients needed to manufacture sarin cannot prevent diligent chemists from securing them in sufficient quantities to manufacture enough of the toxin to kill half a million people or more, especially if they are in a concentrated area such as New York City's Times Square on New Year's Eve as shown in Figure 1 below. In this regard, Emlsey adds that, "Because of such restrictions, it is difficult to obtain supplies of the ingredients necessary to make sarin, but a skilled chemist could, given time, make them from quite innocuous materials and produce sarin in kilogram quantities, in other words enough to kill or disable tens of thousands of people."
Figure 1. New York's Times Square 2012 New Year's Eve Crowd Photo
As noted above, the intercepted message traffic indicated that the potential terrorist attack on New York City's Times Square New Year's Eve celebration would involve around 26 gallons of sarin. While the likelihood of a terrorist organization possessing the requisite materials and skills that are needed to produce this quantity of the deadly compound is somewhat remote, the devastation that is possible to cause with this much sarin is mind-boggling and demands a timely response. According to Emsley, "Indeed, a tablespoon of sarin would be enough to wipe out a town of 25,000 inhabitants if it were sprayed from the air in a fine mist."
Although the use of sarin in a terrorist attack is rare, it is certainly not unprecedented with one of the most well-known being the Tokyo subway attack in 1995. According to Ackerman and Moran, for example, "The use of the toxic chemical sarin by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo in the Tokyo subway system in 1995 drew the attention of both policymakers and counterterrorism experts to the possibility that at least some terrorists and other non-state actors may indeed be willing and able to engage in mass-casualty attacks using unconventional weapons."
In this regard, Cronin (2004) notes that, "The group's efforts, which fell far short of its goals, attracted widespread attention and helped increase focus on the so-called weapons of mass destruction terrorist threat."
Likewise, Merari (2003) reports the outcome of the Tokyo attack could have been much worse if things had gone according to the group's original plans. In this regard, Merari (2003) advises that, "The possible use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by terrorists has been a subject of concern for decades and has seemed more pressing since March 1995, when a Japanese cult known as Aum Shinrikyo spread the nerve gas sarin in the Tokyo subway system."
The Aum Shinrikyo cult members had intended to spread the sarin by injecting it into the air-shafts of Tokyo's subway system, but were subsequently forced to resort to a more straightforward method that tended to localize the effects of the sarin gas to individual railcars.
With hundreds of thousands of revelers gathering for the New Year's Eve celebration in New York's Times Square each year, security measures have been tightened in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks in an effort to prevent such a recurrence. For example, although not all security measures have been made public for obvious reasons, what is known for certain is that thousands of law enforcement authorities are deployed through the city to help protect New Year's Eve revelers, metal-detector checkpoints are used, manholes are sealed and nearby mailboxes are removed; in addition, a 12-hour flight ban is used to prevent pilots from flying below 2,000 feet over the Times Square area.
These heightened security measures are deemed absolutely essential because of the high-profile nature of the Times Square New Year's Eve celebration where the event is witnessed by billions of people around the world on television and the fact that this area has been allegedly targeted at this time of year by terrorists in the past.
Beyond these conventional security measures that are already in place, the need for careful analysis of collected intelligence is paramount in preventing future terrorist attacks and these issues are discussed further below.
Because terrorism analysts do not possess a magic crystal ball that can tell them what is going to happen in the future, there is a need to analyze existing intelligence information to discern as much accurate and timely information as possible. Based on their analysis of global terrorist activities, Davis, Latourrette, Mosher, Davis and Howell (2003) emphasize that contingency planning for terrorist attacks requires a careful examination of past practices, but contingency planners should ensure that they take into account the fact that future terrorist attacks may not follow conventional patterns or involve known approaches. According to these authorities, "Future terrorist attacks…