They Will Strike Again ...
Is Al Qaeda capable of carrying out another Sept. 11 attack in the United States?
The terrorist organization doesn’t appear to have sleeper cells in the country able to perform such a mission, or even capable of launching a smaller-scale operation against a “soft” target such as a mall. If Al Qaeda had this capability, its cells would have attacked either at the beginning of the Iraq war in spring 2003 or during the recent presidential election. Almost without exception, the “terrorism” cases in this country since 9/11 have involved wannabes and malcontents accused of “material support” for terrorism, not planners of terrorist acts. Moreover, to its enormous credit, the Muslim American community since 9/11 has rejected Osama bin Laden’s ideas.
The most pressing threat to Americans from Al Qaeda is not from within, but from without: its cells and affiliated groups based in Europe.
The attacks on three Madrid trains on March 11, which killed 191 commuters, demonstrated that Al Qaeda-inspired jihadist groups on the Continent are a real threat. And just as it is hard to imagine 9/11 without the “Hamburg cell,” future terrorist attacks damaging to U.S. national security probably will have a strong European connection. For example, European members of Al Qaeda could sneak into the United States to launch an attack on the scale of the one in Madrid or they could detonate a radioactive “dirty” bomb in London’s financial district, an event that would have a devastating effect on the global economy and, by extension, the U.S. economy.
How Al Qaeda succeeds or fails in Europe is critical to its future in the West. Although few American Muslims have embraced Al Qaeda’s ideology, that is not the case with Europe’s 20 million Muslims.
Part of the reason is alienation. In general, Muslims in Europe face more discrimination than their U.S. counterparts. Algerians in France and Pakistanis in Britain, for example, are often treated as second-class citizens and are less integrated into their host countries than Muslims in the U.S. As citizens of the European Union, however, adherents of Al Qaeda’s ideology have considerable latitude to move around Europe and visit other countries in the West.
A suicide attack in Israel illustrates the threat. On April 30, 2003, two middle-class Britons of Pakistani heritage walked into a popular cafe near the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. One of them had attended meetings of Al Muhajiroun, a British Islamist group broadly sympathetic to the goals of Al Qaeda. Once inside the cafe, the younger man detonated a bomb, killing himself and three bystanders and wounding dozens. The other man fled. It was the first time that a citizen of Britain had committed an act of suicide terrorism in Israel.
If such an attack can happen in Israel, a country with the most rigorous counter-terrorist defenses in the world, it can happen in the United States. The so-called shoe bomber, Richard C. Reid, who failed to blow up an American Airlines flight between Paris and Miami in December 2001, is a British citizen. And the July 2004 terror alert in the United States was sparked by word that a British Al Qaeda operative, alias Issa al Britani, had scoped out U.S. financial institutions in New York and New Jersey before Sept. 11.
Just as light can be defined as both a wave and a particle, Al Qaeda is now both organization and political movement.
It lost its base and training camps in the Afghanistan war, which damaged its formal organization. But the war in Iraq has helped promote its ideological movement.
The most significant evidence of Al Qaeda’s growing ideological appeal in Europe beyond the Madrid bombings were last month’s assassination of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam by a Moroccan who said that Van Gogh had blasphemed Islam; the 2003 arrests of a group of men in London experimenting with ricin, a biological toxin used in assassinations; and the breakup by British police of an Al Qaeda plot to attack Heathrow Airport.
At a Dec. 2 conference on Al Qaeda in Washington, Steven Simon, former senior director for transnational threats at the National Security Council, described Europe as both a “new field of jihad” for Al Qaeda and a “ripening” threat. Rohan Gunaratna, author of “Inside Al Qaeda,” described Europe as a “staging ground” for future attacks against the U.S. and said European governments had been overly tolerant of the terrorist organization’s support networks in their countries. Ursula Mueller, a German diplomat, said the group posed a “greater risk” in Europe than it did in the United States.
This trend is likely to accelerate. Europe’s Muslim population will increase dramatically in coming decades because the native populations of most European countries are going into a steep decline, and those countries will need to import labor from North Africa and the Middle East to sustain the costs of supporting its rapidly aging populations.
How European governments address the problem of integrating their growing Muslim populations will do much to determine how safe Americans will be from future attacks by Al Qaeda and its affiliated groups.