By Fred Burton STRATFOR, along with many U.S. government sources, has predicted al Qaeda will attempt an attack within the United States before the presidential election in November. In our view, the most likely methods of attack would involve a dirty bomb, chemical attack or Madrid-style train bombing. For many reasons, Washington remains in al Qaeda's crosshairs: It is filled with symbolic monuments that are soft targets. Though a strike against the Washington Monument, for example, would be unlikely to produce sufficiently high casualty counts for al Qaeda's purposes, rendering the National Mall radioactive with a dirty bomb would be considered a triumph. SCENARIO PLANNING Protecting important sites remains difficult, even three years after the Sept. 11 attacks. Consider the reaction when the Kentucky governor's plane flew into restricted airspace near the Capitol during preparations for President Ronald Reagan's funeral: Hundreds of congressmen were told to run for their lives from the building. Though pundits later dismissed the incident as an innocuous event, we are not convinced that officials would have been able to stop the plane if it had been manned by suicide attackers. On the ground, there also are difficulties. Police and federal agents in the capital operate under peacetime, Constitution-sensitive rules of engagement. Given the limitations placed on racial profiling, authorities cannot stop and search a Middle Eastern male who is carrying a backpack merely on a hunch. In light of these political realities and some of al Qaeda's known past plots, it is easy to envision attacks against the persons or motorcades of high-level government officials — either American leaders or visiting foreign dignitaries. The recent strikes against expatriate compounds in Saudi Arabia — involving multiple assault vehicles, overwhelming firepower and vehicle bombs — give some indication of militants' capabilities in this area. That said, perhaps the most sensitive strike zone within the city — and one involving the greatest number of potential casualties — is the Metro subway system. U.S. counterterrorism sources do not disagree with this view, and in many ways such a strike is a worst-case scenario. A Madrid-style train attack is one of the most probable soft-target scenarios for the D.C. area. Al Qaeda could carry out an operation involving the subway system or an Amtrak train at Union Station with relative ease. In fact, given the daily traffic levels through the subway and the difficulties of enforcing strict physical security, it is virtually impossible — logistically or economically — to defend against certain types of attack. Releasing a sarin gas dispersant or an improvised explosive device disguised within a satchel or backpack — strategically placed in subway or passenger rail cars — would create a horror scene, especially if the attack occurred underground during rush hour. The fumes and fire would kill scores of people — as could the subway third rail system, the dangers of which probably would be forgotten amid the mayhem. Protective Security Plans Though federal and local officials cannot completely safeguard the public, there are steps Washington residents can take to protect themselves and their families in the event of an attack. Observation and Readiness: This point cannot be emphasized enough. Ensure you are aware of your surroundings, have an escape plan in mind and take basic precautions. For example, consider buying a smoke hood: They are inexpensive, can be carried in a briefcase and can be quickly deployed. Some models also can be carried aboard an aircraft. The hoods can be used in the event of a fire or attack — whether in a subway, hotel or office building. Also, carry a portable flashlight, small enough to fit into a pocket or briefcase. If a strike occurs, lights and power will go down, creating panic. Communications planning: One of al Qaeda's modus operandi is multiple attacks in various cities. If an attack takes place, the federal government will take cell phone towers offline to cut communications between militant cells that might be planning attacks in other cities. As a result, you might not be able to communicate with your friends, colleagues or family. Think ahead. Coordinate with your family to plan an escape route and a meeting place away from the Beltway. Designate a relative to be a communications hub, and call that relative to check in when you can establish a phone line. Physical needs: Prepare a small "fly-way" kit containing clothes, water, nutritional bars, medicine and toiletry items for your family. Keep it in the car, and plan to depart the city immediately in the event of an attack. Do not wait to communicate with others; you will not be able to. Additionally, keep a full tank of gas at all times, and decide in advance what to do about family pets — whether to keep them at home or take them with you. Practice: Those who live and work in Washington should make contingency plans and run through a tabletop exercise. Make it a family event, and practice. This is vital: In the event of a crisis, local, state and federal authorities will be too busy dealing with events to assist you. Create a plan and execute.