View Full Version : U.S. May Be Unprepared for Al-Qaeda Attack Echoing Past Tactics

06 Sep 06,, 16:02
Courtesy Bloomberg:

U.S. May Be Unprepared for Al-Qaeda Attack Echoing Past Tactics
2006-09-06 00:14 (New York)

By Michael Forsythe
Sept. 6 (Bloomberg) -- For al-Qaeda, the past is prologue.
In October 2000, terrorists blew a hole in the USS Cole
destroyer off Yemen and killed 17 sailors, nine months after a
similar plan failed. The 2001 destruction of New York's World
Trade Center followed a 1993 bombing there. And last month's
foiled plan to blow up trans-Atlantic planes echoed a plot from
11 years ago.
The knowledge that the terrorist group often repeats tactics
for its attacks should be a boon to U.S. intelligence. Too often,
it hasn't been, national-security experts say. ``The notion of
blowing up a plane with a liquid, we've known about for years and
done virtually nothing,'' said William Cohen, a Republican who
was President Bill Clinton's secretary of defense. ``What are we
doing on trains? Nothing.''
The same is true in other areas: guarding planes from
shoulder-fired missiles and strengthening protection of trains
and subways, among other things. ``Buses, subways, trains,
aviation: We have done well in some parts and dropped the ball in
others,'' said Roger Cressey, a former counterterrorism official
who served on President George W. Bush's National Security
Council during the Sept. 11 attacks five years ago.
There hasn't been a successful al-Qaeda strike in the U.S.
since then; at the same time, terrorists have repeatedly zeroed
in on transportation as a target, as the bombing of Madrid's
train system in 2004 and London's railway the next year showed.
Bush administration officials say they know that al-Qaeda
terrorists -- whether the original group led by Osama bin Laden
or the local organizations that have sprouted from Indonesia to
the U.K. -- often follow the same script. They say they have
adopted counterterrorism tactics to meet the threat.

`Enormous Strides'

``We've made enormous strides in aviation security at every
level,'' Frances Townsend, Bush's adviser on homeland security,
told reporters yesterday. ``It's an entirely layered approach,
from curb to cockpit.''
Critics say the problem is that al-Qaeda has already shown
the threats may come from other directions.
In 2002, for example, terrorists fired two shoulder-launched
surface-to-air missiles at an Israeli-chartered Boeing 757
passenger jet taking off from Mombasa, Kenya. The missiles
missed. Earlier that year, an empty missile launcher was found
near a Saudi Arabian air base that at the time was being used by
the U.S. military. The Federal Bureau of Investigation said the
launcher was probably linked to al-Qaeda.

A Long Wait

Northrop Grumman Corp. says it can protect the most
vulnerable U.S. commercial planes from shoulder-launched
missiles, using a laser-based system that misdirects the
missiles' heat-seeking sensors. But while the Department of
Homeland Security awarded Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman and
other companies contracts to develop and test antimissile
systems, commercial aircraft won't be getting the systems until
at least 2009.
Jack Pledger, head of business development for the Northrop
division that makes the device, said there's an 18-month testing
period and the company needs time to produce the devices.
Pledger said the system will cost about $5.5 billion to
install and maintain over 20 years on 1,000 U.S. commercial
planes. It's already deployed on U.S. and U.K. military aircraft
operating in Iraq, where it has successfully deflected missiles,
according to crew members interviewed by trade publications. An
anti-missile system is installed on aircraft of El Al Israel

Economic Devastation

Steven Simon, who focused on counterterrorism on Clinton's
National Security Council, said the cost of installing the system
on commercial aircraft pales in comparison to the economic
devastation of a terrorist attack.
``If somebody gets a shot off and takes an airplane down,
airplanes are not going to fly and airports will be closed, and
the downstream economic costs will be quite significant,'' Simon
A successful terrorist surface-to-air missile strike against
a U.S. aircraft may cost up to $250 billion in lost economic
output, according to a study by the University of Southern
California's Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism
The Homeland Security Department defends its timetable for
deploying the system, saying it is working under congressionally
set schedules to evaluate technologies for protecting planes from
shoulder-fired missiles.
We ``have to go back to Congress to report what we found,''
spokesman Chris Kelly said. ``We want to show Congress `here's
what the technology shows. Here's what does and doesn't work.'''

Dragging Its Feet?

Representative Steve Israel, a New York Democrat who has
introduced a measure to fund anti-missile systems for the most
vulnerable U.S. commercial aircraft, says the department is
dragging its feet on studying the technology and was more than a
half-year late reporting to Congress on its progress.
``They say they are operating under congressional
guidelines, but these terrorist groups that have these
technologies aren't operating under guidelines,'' Israel said.
``It is extremely frustrating when you attempt to bureaucratize a
response to such a glaring threat.''
Cohen, Cressey and Simon say the Bush administration, which
has spent $169 billion on homeland security since 2001, has also
failed to use the money to effectively combat other known al-
Qaeda threats, especially to the transportation system.
They pointed to what they say are scant resources devoted to
developing technologies to detect items such as liquid
explosives. British intelligence services said last month that
bombers were planning to use such explosives to attack U.S.-bound
flights from the U.K.

A Familiar Ring

The plot had a familiar ring to investigators. In December
1994, Ramzi Yousef, now in a U.S. prison for his role in the 1993
World Trade Center bombing, planted a bomb on a Philippine
Airlines flight, killing a Japanese businessman. It was a test
run for a failed plot to blow up 12 U.S. airliners over the
Pacific that Yousef was planning with his uncle, Khalid Sheikh
Mohammed, an al-Qaeda operative who helped plan the Sept. 11
attacks, according to a report by the U.S. 9/11 Commission.
``Even though we knew Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh
Mohammed had an interest in this in the 1990s, it has not been a
priority, as opposed to traditional aviation-security screening -
- looking for box cutters, guns and other metallic objects,''
said Cressey.
The stress on airport security diverted research funds to
help develop technologies that could be used to detect liquid
explosives. In 2003, more than half the $110 million the
government devoted to research and development for aviation
through the Department of Homeland Security was redirected to pay
for personnel costs such as airport-security screeners, according
to Cathleen Berrick of the Government Accountability Office, the
investigative arm of Congress.

Incomplete List

A 2004 GAO study found the department couldn't produce a
complete list of its research and development programs, said
Berrick, who directs the GAO's homeland security and justice
In some cases, American technology that has been developed
and not yet implemented for civilian use in the U.S. has already
been used overseas. A holographic imaging system developed by a
U.S. government laboratory to detect plastic and liquid
explosives is in use in detection machines at airports in
Amsterdam and Mexico City, and not in the U.S.
``It's hugely disappointing that five years after the fact
we are still wrestling with the problem of liquid explosions and
running pilot programs and trying to get better detection
equipment,'' said Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic member of
Congress from Indiana who was vice chairman of the 9/11
Commission, which investigated the 2001 terrorist attacks.

--With reporting by Kristin Jensen and Roger Runningen in
Washington, and Tom Moroney, Michael Goldman and Christine
Baratta in New York. Editor: McQuillan (rxj).

Story Illustration: For more stories on Congressional efforts to
address terrorist threats, click {TNI TERROR CNG BN <GO>}

To contact the reporter on this story:
Michael Forsythe in Washington at (1)(202) 624-1940 or

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Ken Fireman in Washington at (1)(202) 624-1978 or


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