|9/11's Tin Anniversary
It is September, and that means we are once again approaching the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks; this one is the tenth. In the decade that has passed since the attacks, a lot has happened and much has changed. However, despite the passage of time and the changes that have occurred, many people can still vividly recall the sense of fear, uncertainty and helplessness they felt on that September morning. Millions of people watched United Airlines flight 175 smash into the South Tower of the World Trade Center on live television. A short while later they heard that another plane had struck the Pentagon. Then, they watched in horror as people leapt to their death from the burning World Trade Center’s twin towers and then suddenly, those towers came crashing to the ground in a cataclysmic scene of macabre terrorist theater that transformed millions of television viewers into [link http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20101229-separating-terror-terrorism ] vicarious victims.
Excerpts of the just released memoir of then-Vice President Dick Cheney demonstrate that it was not just ordinary people who were affected in this way on the morning of the attacks; America's leaders where shocked and shaken too. And, judging from the statements of foreign citizens and leaders in the wake of 9/11 that “We are all Americans,” it is apparent that the toll of vicarious victims did not stop at the U.S. border.
One of the results of this vicarious victimization and the sense of fear and helplessness it produced, was that many people became fixated on the next attack and began anxiously “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” This spawned an entire industry of fear, as dire warnings of the [link http://www.stratfor.com/unlikely_possibility_american_hiroshima ] impending “American Hiroshima” that was certain to result when al Qaeda nuclear detonated all the nuclear devices they had hidden in major U.S. cities was propagated by the internet. Chain emails were widely circulated and then re-circulated time and again quoting a dubious Israeli “security expert” who promised simultaneous catastrophic terrorist attacks against a number of American cities -- attacks that never materialized.
And this brings us back to the 9/11 anniversary this year. It is an anniversary some people feel may be more significant than others since it is a round number. Perhaps a more plausible concern is the fact that this anniversary follows the death of al Qaeda’s leader Osama Bin Laden. The buzz regarding these two factors has caused many of our clients and readers to ask for our assessment of the threat of a terror attack inside the U.S. on the 9/11 anniversary this year.
Briefly, while we believe that while the day certainly does hold some degree of symbolism for many, the threat of an attack is no higher than it was on Aug. 11 or than it will be on Sept. 12 – and if you’ll continue reading, we will explain why.
The status of Al Qaeda and the Jihadist Movement
All threats have two basic components: intent and capability. Al Qaeda’s leaders have threatened to conduct an attack more terrible than 9/11 for nearly a decade now, and the threats continue:
“Seek to attack America that has killed the Imam of the Mujahideen and threw his corpse in the sea and then imprisoned his women and children. Seek to attack her so history can say that a criminal state had spread corruption on earth and Allah sent her his servants who made her a lesson for others and left her as a memory.” -- Ayman al Zawahiri Aug. 15, 2011
The stated intent of al Qaeda and the rest of the jihadist movement is, and has been, to strike the U.S. as hard and as often as possible. It follows logically then that they would strike the U.S. on Sept. 11 -- or any other day -- if possible. With intent thus established, we need to then focus on the capability side of the equation.
One of the primary considerations regarding their capability to strike the U.S. is the state of the jihadist movement itself. The efforts of the U.S. government and its allies against the core al Qaeda group, which is based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, have left it badly damaged and have greatly curtailed its operational ability, especially as far as their ability to conduct transnational attacks. In January we forecast that we believed al Qaeda core was [link http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20110120-jihadism-2011-persistent-grassroots-threat ] going to continue to be marginalized on the physical battlefield in 2011 and that it would also struggle to remain relevant on the ideological battlefield.
Since that forecast, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2, and more recently, senior al Qaeda leader [link http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20110829-afghanistan-weekly-war-update-another-top-al-qaeda-leader-rumored-dead ] Atiyah Abd al-Rahman was reportedly killed in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region on Aug. 22. We continue to believe that the al Qaeda core group is off balance and concerned for their personal security – especially in light of the intelligence gathered in the raid on bin Laden’s hideout. They simply do not enjoy the operational freedom they did prior to September 2001. We also do not believe that they possess the same operational capability in terms of international travel and the ability to transfer money that they did prior to 9/11.
Some people have put forth the idea that there is a greater chance of an attack on this year’s 9/11 anniversary of because of the killing of bin Laden and others note that the new al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri may feel pressure to conduct an attack in order to prove his credibility as a leader.
Our belief, as noted above, is that al Qaeda has been doing its utmost to attack the U.S. and has not pulled its punches. Because of this, we do not believe that they possess the ability to increase their effort beyond the level it was at prior to bin Laden’s death. As to the pressure on al Zawahiri, we [link http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/al_qaeda_2008_struggle_relevance ] noted in Dec. 2007, the al Qaeda core had been under considerable pressure to prove itself relevant for several years and despite this pressure they have yet to deliver. Because of this, we do not believe that the pressure to conduct a successful attack is any heavier on al-Zawahiri today than it was prior to bin Laden’s death.
Finally, we assess that if al Qaeda possessed the capability to conduct a spectacular attack, they would launch the attack as soon as it was ready to go operationally, rather than wait for some specific date. The risk of discovery is simply too great.
There are also some who still believe al Qaeda maintains a network of “sleeper operatives” inside the U.S. that can be called upon to conduct a spectacular terrorist attack. But from our perspective we don’t believe this for two reasons. First, because of the pressure upon the core al Qaeda leadership to conduct an attack in the U.S. has been very high for several years there is no reason that they would not have activated any sleepers by now it would not be in the group’s core interest to keep any such operatives idle for a decade – especially as U.S. intelligence has made headway in rolling up the organization and they would be faced with a use it or lose it scenario.
Secondly, there is a long history of al Qaeda and other jihadist groups employing covert operatives as well as enlisting the efforts of jihadist grassroots operatives or even lone wolves like [link http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20091111_hasan_case_overt_clues_and_tactical_challenges ] Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan. However, there is no history of al Qaeda employing [link http://www.stratfor.com/framing_sleeper_cell_argument ] true sleeper operatives - that is, operatives who burrow undetected into a society and then remain dormant until called upon to act. Because of this, we remain extremely skeptical that al Qaeda ever had a sleeper network in the U.S. and as noted above, if they had they would have used them by now.
Would the al Qaeda core leadership like to conduct an attack on the 9/11 anniversary? Absolutely! Do they have the capability? It is unlikely.
We noted in our annual jihadist forecast that we believed the greatest threat to the U.S and the west in 2011 emanates from grassroots jihadists as well as from the regional franchises. However, the [link http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20110720-yemeni-political-crisis-stagnates ] civil war in Yemen and the [link http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20110808-somalia-al-shabaabs-pullback-does-not-mean-defeat ] developments in Somalia have served to preoccupy the attention of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Shabab respectively, leaving them very little opportunity to plan transnational attacks. Therefore, we believe that the greatest threat of an attack on the 9/11 anniversary will come from the grassroots.
The bad news in that is that grassroots operatives can be hard to identify, especially if they operate alone, the good news is that they generally [link http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20100317_jihadism_grassroots_paradox ] tend to be far less capable than highly-trained professional terrorist operatives. This means that they are more likely to make critical mistakes that will allow their attacks to be detected and thwarted.
As the past few years has demonstrated, there are almost certainly grassroots jihadists in small cells or as lone wolves who are planning attacks at the present time. In fact, we know that ever since at least 1990, there [link http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20100512_setting_record_grassroots_jihadism ]has not been a time where there was not some group of grassroots jihadists somewhere in the U.S. planning attacks.
Is it possible, then, that such individuals could be inspired to attempt to conduct an attack on the 9/11 anniversary if they are able to coordinate their attack cycle in order to be ready on that date. However, given the increased law enforcement vigilance that will be in place at hard targets on that day and the capabilities of most grassroots operatives, we can anticipate that such an attack would be conducted against a soft target rather than some more difficult target such as the 9/11 Memorial or the White House. We also believe than any such attack will likely continue the trend we have seen [ http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20100526_failed_bombings_armed_jihadist_assaults ] away from bombing attacks toward more simple (and effective) armed assaults.
In the final analysis, it must be remembered that simple terrorist attacks are relatively easy to conduct, especially if the assailant is not concerned about escaping after the attack. As jihadist groups such as AQAP have noted in their online propaganda, a determined person can conduct attacks using a variety of simple weapons, from a pickup to a knife, axe or gun. Jihadist ideologues have repeatedly praised Nidal Hassan and have pointed out that jihadists operatives operating with modest expectations and acting within the scope of their training and capability can do far more damage than operatives who attempt to conduct a big, ambitious attacks they lack the basic skills to complete.
And while the authorities in the United States and elsewhere have been quite successful in foiling attacks over the past couple of years, there are a large number of vulnerable targets in the open societies of the West, and Western governments simply do not have the resources to protect everything. And frankly, as long as the ideology of jihadism survives, its adherents will pose a threat.
All this means that some terrorist attacks will invariably succeed, but in the current context it is our assessment that a simple attack is far more likely than a complex and spectacular 9/11-style operation. Well, at least in the U.S. and the west were there is heightened vigilance and awareness; the jihadists have the capability to do more in their primary areas of operation than they do transnationally.
Indeed, despite the concept of the “war on terrorism” the phenomenon of terrorism can never be completely eliminated, and terrorist attacks can and will be conducted by a wide variety of actors as recently illustrated by the [link http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20110727-norway-lessons-successful-lone-wolf-attacker ] July 22, 2011 attacks in Norway.
However, as we’ve [link http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20101229-separating-terror-terrorism] previously noted, if the public will recognize that terrorist attacks are part of the human condition like cancer – or hurricanes -- they can take steps to deny the practitioners of terrorism the ability to terrorize.