by Lorenzo Vidino
New York Sun
August 5, 2004
According to recent reports, much of the intelligence suggesting that Al Qaeda intends to use car or truck bombs to target "iconic" financial institutions in the Northeast is three or four years old. Noting this revelation, critics have decried the decision to raise the threat level in New York and Washington, D.C., as a political move.
However, Al Qaeda has long demonstrated a penchant for exhaustive and detailed surveillance several years before a strike. As early as October 1997, Al Qaeda sent operatives to America to videotape potential targets.
Two Al Qaeda henchmen based in Spain traveled from coast to coast, taping American landmarks and surveying security and pedestrian traffic at the World Trade Center. Spanish authorities believe that these tapes may have made their way into the hands of those who masterminded the September 11 terrorist attacks.
And although Al Qaeda did not bomb the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania until August 1998, operatives began casing targets in Nairobi with state-of-the-art video cameras as early as December 1993. As the recently released September 11 commission report notes, "The team set up a makeshift laboratory for developing their surveillance photographs in an apartment in Nairobi."
Even more disturbing than the astonishing details contained in Al Qaeda's surveillance of Northeastern financial institutions are unconfirmed reports that information may have been provided by moles who worked at the Citigroup and Prudential buildings in New York. If these reports are confirmed, they will keep with the Al Qaeda modus operandi of inserting operatives into sensitive positions throughout the world, including the aviation industry.
FBI Special Agent Ken Williams, author of the now infamous Phoenix Memo, told the Congressional Joint Inquiry into September 11 that in the early 1990s he began investigating individuals with suspected terrorist ties who were working for American aviation companies. The Joint Inquiry stated, "One of these individuals had a Masters degree in a technical field, yet was working in menial jobs at the airport as a skycap and then a baggage handler. The other individual was working as a technical avionics officer for a domestic airline and was charged with overseeing the complete overhaul of aircraft and with checking for structural integrity."
Moreover, members of a terrorist cell dismantled in Detroit in 2001 were found in possession of identification badges that would have given them access to restricted areas of the Detroit airport.
And while they have rarely encountered problems infiltrating private businesses, terrorists have also been able to easily obtain sensitive positions in the public sector. Particularly striking is the case of former American Army Special Forces instructor Ali Mohammed, who led the Al Qaeda team that surveilled targets in Kenya and who trained operatives in Sudan while lecturing Rangers at Fort Bragg.
More recently, Mohammad Khawaja, a Canadian software developer arrested in Ottawa in March 2004 for his alleged involvement in a bomb plot in England, had performed contract work for the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs. According to the Ottawa Citizen, he had "access to confidential addresses of official residences and staff quarters of Canadian diplomats abroad."
Since intelligence recently collected in Pakistan indicates that Al Qaeda might use truck bombs for its next attack, it is noteworthy that the group has also infiltrated the trucking industry. Al Qaeda's licensed truckers include such terror all-stars as Ayman Faris, the Ohio man who plotted with September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge, and Mohammed Elzahabi, a former Queens resident who served as a sniper instructor at an Al Qaeda camp and was recently indicted in Minnesota for making false statements to FBI agents.
Recently, the secretary of homeland security, Tom Ridge, told the nation that "credible reporting now indicates that al Qaeda is moving forward with its plans to carry out a large-scale attack in the United States in an effort to disrupt our democratic process. "The terrorists' desire to severely damage the economy and strike in New York City and Washington is also widely known.
Given these considerations and the fact that there is no such a thing as "dated" surveillance in Al Qaeda's playbook, raising the terror alert was the right decision not only from a security perspective, but also a political one. Considering the criticism authorities faced in the wake of September 11 for failing to act upon vague threats against the aviation industry, one can only imagine the fallout had these buildings been attacked and the government not released this intelligence.