By Kamran Bokhari
On the eve of the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the main question confronting U.S. counterterrorism agencies is where, when and how will the next al Qaeda attack in the United States occur? There is a widespread view that the organization will seek to surpass the scale of the 2001 attacks — which, according to conventional wisdom and superficial readings of al Qaeda communiques, typically translates to casualty counts.
But is this an accurate perception? How does al Qaeda itself define the parameters of a “successful” attack?
Though casualty counts might be one tactical consideration on the part of al Qaeda planners, a look at the history of the group's operations and its strategic objectives severely undermine the argument that inflicting massive casualties is the benchmark for "success."
In our view, the actual threat level posed by al Qaeda has been greatly exaggerated in American minds — recognizing that the group cannot possibly attack the United States at will. The purpose here is not to underestimate the capabilities or intentions of the organization, but to understand it — and the extent of the actual threat — clearly.
STRATFOR long has argued that by attacking the United States, al Qaeda wants to incite U.S. military interventions in the Muslim world — with the hope that this will lead to a rising of the Muslim masses against the United States as well as the current regimes. This objective requires that al Qaeda attacks should not only spread outrage within the United States, but also demonstrate to the Muslim world that the United States is not the invincible power it is widely perceived to be. This, the organization would hope, would spark a sense of empowerment that would lead to wider action.
Though STRATFOR also has argued that the pressure for al Qaeda to strike again — and successfully, for the sake of its own credibility — continues to grow, it is not clear that the next attack on U.S. soil must necessarily surpass the casualty count inflicted on Sept. 11. Statistically, al Qaeda actions in the past have resulted in disparate numbers of casualties — from which the Sept. 11 death toll marked a pronounced departure — and that they have not increased in a linear fashion over time:
- Feb. 26, 1993: Bomb explodes in garage under World Trade Center, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000.
- Nov. 13, 1995: Seven people, including five Americans, are killed when two bombs explode at a U.S.-Saudi military facility in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden is blamed for the attack.
- June 25, 1996: Bin Laden followers detonate a bomb at a U.S. military base near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 American soldiers and wounding hundreds of Americans and Saudis.
- Aug. 7, 1998: Vehicle bombs are detonated at the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing more than 250 people — including 12 Americans — and injuring 5,000. In retaliation, the United States launches air strikes against suspected terrorist camps in Sudan and Afghanistan.
- Oct. 12, 2000: Suicide bombers in Yemen attack the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole , killing 17 sailors. Officials suspect al Qaeda involvement.
- Sept. 11, 2001: Four hijacked planes crash into New York's World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. More than 3,000 people die.
- April 11, 2002: Firebombing of a synagogue in Tunisia kills 19, none of them American.
- June 14, 2002: A suicide car-bomber targets the U.S. consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, killing 19 Pakistanis. The action is funded by an al Qaeda affiliate.
- Oct. 6, 2002: Terrorists ram a small boat containing explosives into a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen. The minor explosion kills one French crewmember.
- Oct. 8, 2002: Gunmen attack a U.S. Marine unit on the island of Faliaka, near Kuwait City, killing one Marine. A second attack is foiled.
- Oct. 12, 2002: Two bombings occur at night spots in Bali, Indonesia, killing 202 — including seven Americans.
- Oct. 28, 2002: Laurence Foley, a U.S. Agency for International Development official, is assassinated in Amman, Jordan.
- Nov. 28, 2002: The Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, is bombed, killing 13 people. On the same day, an unsuccessful attempt to shoot down an Israeli charter jet with a surface-to-air missile is reported at Mombasa airport.
- May 12, 2003: Suicide bombers attack a housing complex in Riyadh, killing 34 people, including 10 Americans.
- May 16, 2003: A series of bomb attacks kill 41 in Casablanca, Morocco.
- Aug. 5, 2003: Twelve people die in suicide bomb attack at the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia.
- Nov. 10, 2003: Seventeen were killed when suicide bombers struck a Saudi residential complex in Riyadh.
- Nov. 15, 2003: Twenty-six people were killed in bombings of two synagogues in Istanbul, Turkey.
- Nov. 20, 2003: Twin blasts at the British Consulate and the London-based HSBC Bank in Istanbul, Turkey, leave 27 dead.
- March 11, 2004: Multiple explosions hit a rail system in Madrid, Spain, killing more than 200 people.
Judging from this timeline, it would appear that two important factors are at play in all al Qaeda attacks.
First, and most obvious, is the logic of scarcity of resources, which would explain why there has been no attack in the continental United States in the three years since 2001. This does not mean that al Qaeda "prime," as we term it, no longer has the capability to strike within the United States, but rather that the organization will not waste precious resources in staging small-scale attacks that do not effectively serve its strategic aims.
The second factor — which stems from operational security needs — is that jihadists will seek to stage a different type of attack with each strike. For example, a small boat was used to attack the USS Cole, while package bombs targeting trains were used in Madrid. Having once used a particular mode of delivery in a given attack — such as suicide airline hijackings — heightened security measures make it extremely difficult for al Qaeda to replicate the strike in every detail. To do so would be to face huge risk of a failed operation, and there is evidence that al Qaeda is all too aware of this dilemma.
That said, creativity has its limits also, as the timeline above illustrates. Most attacks have involved the alternating use of remote-detonated bombs, suicide bombings and assassinations, which suggests a clear preference for certain tactics. As a result, the creativity typically surfaces in the choice of targets and locations.
In this way, al Qaeda not only keeps security and intelligence apparatuses guessing, but also enhances its standing within the Muslim world. With each successful strike, al Qaeda stands not only to keep the supporters it already has, but to recruit others who come to view it as an organization capable of taking on the world's sole superpower — the United States — and possibly as the vanguard that radical Islamists are looking for.
In essence, the metric used by al Qaeda to measure the effectiveness of attacks has very little to do with the casualty counts. The aim is to show creativity and resilience, which means that counterterrorism officials must be equally creative and forward-thinking in order to pre-empt future strikes.