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We are less than a year away from the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. As that milestone approaches, a dangerous view is taking hold in Washington that al-Qaeda no longer has the intent or capability to repeat the devastation of that terrible day. In February, Vice President Joe Biden announced that “the idea of there being a massive attack in the United States like 9/11 is unlikely, in my view” and that we need only worry about “small bore” attacks.
On Friday, the former heads of the 9/11 Commission echoed Biden’s assertions, declaring that after Sept. 11, 2001, the intelligence community wrongly believed that al-Qaeda was intent on “matching or besting the loss of life and destruction it caused that day.” Really? They must have forgotten how al-Qaeda planned to mark the fifth anniversary of 9/11–with a plot, nearly consummated, to blow up seven transatlantic flights departing London’s Heathrow Airport for New York, Washington, Chicago, Montreal, Toronto and San Francisco.
On Aug. 9, 2006, police arrested two dozen al-Qaeda operatives in the London suburbs tasked with carrying out the attacks. They found liquid explosives and chilling martyrdom videos prepared for broadcast after the attacks, including one in which the ringleader pokes his finger at the camera and declares: “Sheikh Osama warned you. . . . Now the time has come for you to be destroyed.” If al-Qaeda members had blown up those planes over the Atlantic, some 1,500 people would have perished. If they had blown them up as they flew over populated areas in their destination cities, it could have been the deadliest terrorist attack in American history.
According to American intelligence officials, the plot was just weeks from execution.
This was only four years ago–and it is but one example of the spectacular mass casualty attacks that al-Qaeda’s leadership has tried to carry out since 9/11. Our intelligence community–acting on information provided by detainees interrogated by the CIA–also disrupted an al-Qaeda cell planning to repeat the destruction of 9/11 in Europe by flying airplanes into Heathrow Airport and downtown London (imagine Big Ben collapsing like the Twin Towers). They captured two terrorists sent by Khalid Sheik Mohammed to blow up high-rise apartment buildings in a major American city–including one, Jose Padilla, as he arrived in Chicago to carry out KSM’s orders.
They captured a cell of Southeast Asian terrorists–including trained pilots who had met with Osama bin Laden–recruited by KSM to fly an airplane into the Library Tower in Los Angeles. They disrupted a plot to replicate the destruction of our embassies in East Africa by blowing up the U.S. consulate and Western residences in Karachi, Pakistan; a plot to blow up our Marine camp in Djibouti in an attack that could have matched the destruction of the 1983 Beirut Marine barracks bombing; an al-Qaeda cell that was developing anthrax for attacks in the United States; and many other plots whose details remain classified.
Our intelligence community was not wrong about al-Qaeda’s intentions–it prevented al-Qaeda from acting on them.
There is no evidence that al-Qaeda’s intent to replicate or exceed the destruction of 9/11 has abated. While many of its leaders have been killed, al-Qaeda has one of its most dangerous and capable external operations commanders since KSM–Adnan El Shukrijumah. In 2002, the CIA began asking al-Qaeda detainees who would be picked to lead the next big attack on America? Abu Zubaydah, KSM and other detainees all pointed to Shukrijumah. A global manhunt ensued, but Shukrijumah went to ground. He is more than a highly trained operative, he is an American who lived among us for 15 years and is intimately familiar with our country. His reemergence and ascendance to a top position in the al-Qaeda hierarchy is an ominous sign.
Al-Qaeda also has developed powerful regional nodes intent on targeting America. Less than a year ago, U.S. officials had no idea that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had developed the intent or capability to strike the homeland–until one of its operatives penetrated our defenses and nearly blew up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day. This was no “small bore” attack. One of the top AQAP leaders behind the plot is, like Shukrijumah, an American citizen–Anwar al-Aulaqi. In East Africa, the Somali terror group al-Shabab recently merged with al-Qaeda and conducted its first transnational attack in Uganda. AQAP recently shared its chemical bomb-making technology with al-Shabab. Al Shabab’s top commander, Omar Hammami, is–you guessed it–an American citizen.
Perhaps the fact that Americans have assumed to top positions in all three of these terror networks is a mere coincidence. Perhaps Adnan Shukrijumah is no Khalid Sheik Mohammed. Or perhaps we have grown complacent and do not see disaster coming. Al-Qaeda planned to mark the fifth anniversary of 9/11 by filling our television screens with images of bodies floating in the ocean or littered in the streets of North American cities. Is it really safe to assume it is not planning something equally staggering for the 10th anniversary?
Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow at AEI.
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