By Fred Burton
In our Dec. 9 Terrorism Intelligence Report, we discussed an al Qaeda videotape that was made in September but whose full contents did not hit the news media until early Dec. 7. The tape
created a firestorm over Al Jazeera's motivations and intentions in failing to include critical portions of the message in its initial broadcast. The contents of the videotape, which featured deputy al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, struck an industrial nerve; for the first time, a senior al Qaeda leader was heard calling specifically — and offering ideological justification — for strikes against energy infrastructure. Although we at STRATFOR would like to think we are perfect, it is important to admit when we have failed to consider other possibilities when evaluating and assessing the global threat from al Qaeda. As we have said before, the world of terrorism is murky. Very rarely can one draw a lucid picture of the shifts and signals, although as a company we take on the laborious task of making sense of the picture. After again discussing al-Zawahiri's statement — and its implications — we realized we had failed to consider one point that needs to be examined. In our Dec. 9 report we note that al-Zawahiri says on the videotape, "I call on mujahideen to concentrate their attacks on Muslims' stolen oil, from which most of the revenues go to the enemies of Islam, while most of what they leave is seized by the thieves who rule our countries." We still believe that when al-Zawahiri told jihadists to target the "Muslims' stolen oil," he was not issuing a warning to the oil industry or the West but rather was giving al Qaeda supporters targeting guidance. It is important to note that this statement did not say exactly where
the oil infrastructure was to be targeted. The assumption on our part — which we are now rethinking — was that al Qaeda followers would attempt to carry out this mandate where they can feasibly do so
— meaning within their local reach, namely the Middle East. We know al Qaeda has strength in the Middle East, so that's one logical area to beef up defenses around oil infrastructure; but we failed to look at the possibility that al-Zawahiri's comments could have been directed toward a sleeper operation or jihadist sympathizers inside the United States. We don't know that they have strength within the United States, but it is a possibility that should be seriously considered and evaluated in looking at the threat from 360 degrees. Why the United States?
We have long believed that a small number of deeply embedded al Qaeda sleeper agents
are inside the United States and have gone to ground because of the U.S. counterterrorism community's relentless counterterrorism disruption activities. In addition to this, it has been well documented that organizations in the United States such as the al-Kifah Refugee Center
, popularly known as the “Brooklyn Jihad Office,” have sent thousands of people from the United States to be trained and to fight in the jihad. Though many of these individuals did not formally pledge allegiance to Osama bin Laden or become part of the al Qaeda organization, they did become part of the wider jihadist movement. Many of them maintain connections with friends and fellow jihad veterans. Al Qaeda's Internet use and the proliferation of jihadist forums have made it possible for these jihad alumni to maintain or re-establish contact with the cause and their friends. In the past, jihadist operational planners
have gone to places such as Brooklyn and mobilized jihad veterans to conduct attacks. Al Qaeda also has used the Internet to introduce aspiring jihadists to its ideology through vehicles such as the Al-Battar Camp online magazine, which provides online training and instructional manuals. Thus, as al Qaeda's status changed from group to movement
, individuals no longer needed to travel to Afghanistan to receive ideological indoctrination and paramilitary training. There is no doubt that a number of operations — many of which have been deemed serious — have been disrupted inside the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks. Al Qaeda operations, funding and infrastructure have been eliminated brick by brick; however, our intelligence assessment indicates that although al Qaeda might have been seriously affected, it is not necessarily down for the count. If one believes — which we do — that al Qaeda has the operational capability or operators in place, the words "I call on mujahideen to concentrate their attacks on Muslims' stolen oil" sound like a possible signal to go forth with an operation inside the United States, specifically Houston. Why Houston?
First, we have long held that the Houston area
is a logical target for al Qaeda because of the region's refineries and chemical plants and its very busy port. Furthermore, we have received what we believe to be credible reports that some of the facilities in the Houston area have been targets of suspected hostile pre-operational surveillance
. We have also recently written that there is really only one target in the Western Hemisphere that, if damaged, could have a major effect on energy supplies: the Houston Ship Channel
. The channel snakes from Galveston Bay through a network of refineries and petrochemical plants and into downtown Houston. The channel itself is not vulnerable, but if a large craft — perhaps an oil tanker — were sunk in it, it would block the United States' most vulnerable energy corridor. We do not think this vulnerability has escaped al Qaeda's attention. Additionally, jihadist operators — specifically the 1993 cell led by Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Blind Sheikh — have used Houston as a safe-haven and for logistical staging. Ahmed Ajaj
, who was convicted for his participation in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, lived in Houston before leaving the United States to attend bin Laden's Khalden training camp in Afghanistan. The investigation of the 1993 bombing revealed that Ajaj, Mahmoud Abouhalima, Ibrahim Elgabrowny and Abdel Basit (a.k.a. Ramzi Yousef) had a number of contacts in the Houston area. Later investigations of jihadist activity in the United States involving such people as Wadih el Hage, Abdul Hakim Murad and Ali Mohammed have also led authorities to learn of jihadist connections to the area. Notably, this later group — el Hage, Murad and Ali Mohammed — was also connected to the 1993 group of Ajaj, Abouhalima, Elgabrowny and Basit. We discussed last summer our belief that Houston currently harbors an operational jihadist cell
that has gone to ground due to law enforcement pressure. We do not believe this cell has been neutralized or ferreted out by the FBI. Though many people have focused on concerns about al Qaeda obtaining chemical, biological and radiological weapons, we remain skeptical of the group's efficacy in developing and employing chemical weapons
. As seen in the case of Aum Shinrikyo's sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway, chemical weapons are very difficult to manufacture, transport and effectively employ. Comparing Aum Shinrikyo's attacks in Tokyo with al Qaeda's attacks in Madrid and London clearly shows that conventional explosives deliver far more "bang for the buck" than chemical and biological weapons. That said, we still believe a strike on a major chemical plant — hitting the right plant in the right place — could cause a toxic cloud that would potentially kill thousands of citizens in a radius as big as 25 miles. Many people have held that al Qaeda would not necessarily pick chemical plant locations since the loss of life within the compounds would not be that large. However, in much the same way that the collapse of the World Trade Center caused more death and destruction than the initial impacts of the aircraft flown into it, the toxic cloud released by a chemical plant attack could carry with it a death toll that far surpasses that of the initial attack. If the right facility were attacked, the outcome could be more devastating than the Sept. 11 attacks and could rival the 1984 accident at the Union Carbide Corp. chemical plant in Bhopal, India, that killed thousands of people. This would be an "outside of the box" chemical attack that would far surpass an Aum Shinrikyo-type attack. And considering the complex logistics of acquiring nuclear material for a dirty bomb or radioactive detonation device for an attack in the United States, a chemical plant strike would be comparatively simple to carry out. How Would Al Qaeda Carry Out Such An Attack?
There are a few likely attack scenarios: 1. Air attack. There is no doubt that passenger aircraft are more secure today than on Sept. 11, 2001; however, vulnerabilities remain, such as the use of cargo and private aircraft that take off from private airstrips around the nation. A fully fueled cargo Boeing 747 or a large general-aviation aircraft such as a Boeing Business Jet or Global Express nose-diving into a chemical plant could cause significant damage. We are highly skeptical that air assets could shoot these inbound missiles down in time to prevent an attack. 2. Internal sabotage. An al Qaeda sympathizer employed inside a chemical plant could be used wittingly or unwittingly to compromise security. The operator — or sleeper — could place homing devices or beacons for inbound air attacks, or sabotage a valve or other piece of critical equipment. The Bhopal accident reportedly was caused by a faulty valve. 3. Suicide attack. Though security is better today at major oil and chemical plants in the United States than it was prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, it is still possible for a suicide operative to drive a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device into many chemical plants. Though striking a proper target or node within a chemical plant is still an issue, al Qaeda and other jihadist groups have an extraordinarily high number of engineers in their midst. Nidal Ayyad, who was convicted for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was a chemical engineer who worked for a large chemical company in Morristown, N.J. Ayyad used his company affiliation to order chemicals for the truck bomb built and used in the 1993 attack — a present-day al Qaeda member or jihadist sympathizer with similar qualifications employed at a chemical company would not have much difficulty pinpointing the exact place to strike. One could argue that al Qaeda has had ample time and opportunity to carry out a follow-on attack since Sept. 11. The United States has invaded two countries, and the al Qaeda leadership has lost command-and-control capabilities. However, al Qaeda is an organization that adapts to security and counterterrorism measures and still manages to kill (as seen in Madrid, London, Bali and Amman). There is no doubt the intent to strike remains, but it all boils down to operational capability. Can al Qaeda pull it off? We remain convinced it can. Why? Discussions with various counterterrorism officials in the United States have revealed that several terrorism suspects are currently under investigation in the United States, and many more are suspected of being embedded in the U.S. social fabric. Unfortunately, it is reasonable to assume that the United States will not be able to stop all of the threats. For example, look at the recent hotel attacks in Jordan, which has the best intelligence service in the Middle East in our assessment (no offense intended to Israel's Mossad). The Jordanian GID has thwarted plots specifically directed at hotels in the past but was unable to stop the trifecta on the American hotels in Amman. Sooner or later, the FBI will also fail. The law of probability is against U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Shortly after the July 7 bombings in London, an anonymous British counterterrorism official told The Independent, "It is concerning that none were on the intelligence radar. There are quite probably others we do not know about out there. Over the past 10 years, we have been successfully disrupting a number of groups of people who could have carried out bombing attacks similar to those we have seen in the past few weeks. We can't disrupt them all. They only have to be lucky once — and they have been. At some point there will be another suicide or bombing group." This maxim still applies to the United Kingdom — and the United States. Although security at many U.S. refineries, chemical plants and other sites initially was beefed up after Sept. 11, security at those sites has gradually relaxed. In the four and a half years since the Sept. 11 attacks, the economic implications of such security measures have been felt and security budgets have been dramatically reduced. Whereas impatience and complacency have led Americans to let down their guard, al Qaeda values and uses patience in planning its attacks. Bin Laden himself said in his "Message to the American People" that al Qaeda will not quit or equivocate, and we believe him. Eight and a half years elapsed between the first World Trade Center bombing and the Sept. 11 attacks. There were several thwarted plots to hit the U.S. mainland between the two bombings, but al Qaeda patiently and intently continued toward its goal of striking big where it would hurt the United States the most. Just because several more attacks have been pre-empted since Sept. 11 does not mean the United States is in the clear. Even if the FBI can thwart the next major attack, there are others in the pipeline, and these plots will continue to threaten Americans as long as al Qaeda exists. The enemy is still patiently planning, and as the United States relaxes, it will become easier for it to attack successfully. We hope we are wrong and that al-Zawahiri's message was not intended for a U.S. audience — but consider this analysis an alternative to what has become the conventional wisdom.