Moving Targets: Terror Wave: New Bombings, and Worries about a 'Spectacular.' Al Qaeda Is Badly Wounded, but Far from Defeated

By Thomas, Evan; Hosenball, Mark | Newsweek, December 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Moving Targets: Terror Wave: New Bombings, and Worries about a 'Spectacular.' Al Qaeda Is Badly Wounded, but Far from Defeated


Thomas, Evan, Hosenball, Mark, Newsweek


Byline: Evan Thomas and Mark Hosenball

The timing was, at the very least, interesting. At Buckingham Palace on Wednesday night, the president of the United States and the Queen of England traded toasts to their common birthright. George W. Bush did his aw-shucks bit about the pomp and pageantry, telling reporters that he had to rent his white tie and tails (the queen sipped Puligny-Montrachet'96; the teetotaling president drank Coke). But there was no mistaking their common purpose, to stand fast in the defense of liberty against the tyranny of Islamic fanaticism.

The next morning, the fanatics apparently sent back a message: in Istanbul, truck bombs blew up outside the British Consulate, a massive relic of the old empire (designed by Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament in London), and an 18-story tower housing a British bank, killing at least 27 and wounding 450. In London, the suicide attacks effectively drowned out the noise of anti-Bush demonstrators. WILL BRITAIN BE HIT NEXT? shouted London's Daily Mail. In Washington, too, alarm bells began to ring.

At the joint FBI-CIA-run Terrorist Threat Integration Center, the analysts thought they detected a pattern. The attacks against the British targets in Turkey came five days after the truck bombings of two popular synagogues in Istanbul and two weeks after carefully orchestrated suicide attacks in Saudi Arabia. The "chatter"--loose talk of threats among Islamic extremists, picked up by U.S. eavesdroppers--was spiking upward again. The traditional holiday of Ramadan, propitious in terrorist minds for great and violent events, was coming to an end. "You have rapid-fire, back-to-back significant Al Qaeda attacks," one counterterrorism official told NEWSWEEK. "It's starting to look like this could be the buildup to a grand finale on U.S. soil."

Or not. After so many false alarms, the top intelligence officials were careful to hedge. On Friday night, FBI Director Robert Mueller called police chiefs in Washington, New York and Los Angeles, while Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge called the mayors. "We're asking you to go to a higher state of alert," said Mueller. But the Feds shied away from raising the national threat level to Orange (high), for fear of crying wolf.

So the puzzle persists. More than two years after 9/11, Al Qaeda continues to hit "soft targets," mostly in the Islamic world (Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Yemen, Kenya, Chechnya, Saudi Arabia). But--so far--not London or Paris or New York or Washington. Is Al Qaeda, with its very long view of history, biding its time, working up slowly toward another "spectacular"? Or has the Qaeda leadership been shattered, leaving its scattered followers to attack where they can?

For all the spy satellites and high-tech listening devices that can home in on the terrorists' chatter, and despite enormous increases in the "black budget" spent on intelligence-gathering in the war on terror, the true threat to the American homeland remains murky. In part, the intelligence community has spread itself thin trying to wage war in Iraq while tracking down Al Qaeda around the world. But the real problem is that small cells of fanatics tied by religion and blood are difficult to penetrate, especially for Western spies.

How weak is U.S. intelligence? Consider Iraq, dubbed the "central front" in the war on terror by President Bush. Knowledgeable officials tell NEWSWEEK that they have no idea who was behind the deadliest bombings in Iraq since early last summer--the suicide attacks in August on the Jordanian Embassy and the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, the bombing that killed a prominent Shiite ayatollah in the holy city of Najaf and the recent attacks on Italian forces in Nasiriya and a simultaneous wave of car bombings in Baghdad. There are no clear culprits.

Last week President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair went to some lengths to tie the attacks in Turkey to the continued violence in Iraq. …

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