New US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff advised the American public Wednesday March 16 to learn to live with the long-term risks of terrorism. He also promised to do a better job of assessing that danger. “We win the war against terror by rejecting terror as a tool of intimidation, and we triumph when we take account of real risks and threats, but do not become hypersensitive or overly responsive to them,” Chertoff said in his first major speech since taking over the huge department.
That pious hope was never to be fulfilled.
Three days earlier, Time Magazine quoted a top aide of the Jordanian-born leader of the al Qaeda Iraq wing, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, as indicating that his boss had given ample consideration to assaults on the American homeland. He said al-Zarqawi has talked about hitting “soft targets” in the US which could include “movie theaters, restaurants and schools.”
Then, the day before Chertoff’s speech, The New York Times ran a document from his department which said:
The Department of Homeland Security, trying to focus antiterrorism spending better nationwide, has identified a dozen possible strikes it views as most plausible or devastating, including detonation of a nuclear device in a major city, release of sarin nerve agent in office buildings and a truck bombing of a sports arena.
The document, known simply as the National Planning Scenarios, reads more like a doomsday plan, according to the paper, offering estimates of the probable deaths and economic damage caused by each type of attack.
They include blowing up a chlorine tank, killing 7,500 people and injuring more than 100,000; spreading pneumonic plague in the bathrooms of an airport, sports arena and train station, killing 2,500 and sickening 8,000 worldwide; and infecting cattle with foot-and-mouth disease at several sites, costing hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.
The agency’s objective is not to scare the public, the officials said, and they have no credible intelligence that such attacks are planned. End of quote.
However, the general public, which may not distinguish between hard intelligence data and unfounded scenarios, may well connect the Time report and the NYT scenario document and become extremely scared.
Zarqawi data is outdated
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror experts have checked reports claiming the Jordanian terrorist was preparing to hit soft targets in the United States and discovered them to be based on old intelligence data. In any case, his aides taken into US custody in 2004, however senior, would have been confined to specific combat sectors or training camps in Iran. It is inconceivable that their supreme commander confided his operational plans to any of these subordinates, certainly not if they concerned operations in the West. The information they gave up under interrogation was more likely gleaned from scraps of gossip deliberately spread among Zarqawi’s men to put him on a high pedestal. Like most disinformation, some grains of truth will have been strewn through the fiction.
Our intelligence sources trace those grains to a period two years earlier, late 2002 and early 2003, before the US invasion of Iraq. That was the only time that intelligence services engaged in the day-to-day war against al Qaeda tracked al Zarqawi down on his travels through Europe and Turkey. They got close enough to read his itinerary and time table. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources report that the agents following him deduced from the places he visited and individuals he met that he was putting together a program of chemical and biological attacks for London, Rome and Israel.
The attacks on Israel would have emanated from Europe. Zarqawi was considering either crashing a hijacked airliner over Tel Aviv or getting a cell armed with chemical agents into the Jewish state. He even confided to some of his associates en route that he would rate success in bringing such attacks to the United States as comparable to the success of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington.
Best chance missed
The months between September 2002 and January 2003 presented the best opportunities for catching Zarqawi, who was then not such a big fish as he is today. The intelligence calculation at the time was that the Jordanian fundamentalist was preparing a series of strikes ahead of the American invasion of Iraq and would therefore step up his trips to Europe. This would give his watchers a chance to lay hands not only on him but on his contacts and so roll up several al Qaeda rings in time to abort their attacks.
However, in January 2003, the trail vanished and, according to our sources, has been not been picked up since.
All the data accumulated in Iraq on Zarqawi’s present circumstances leaves no room to doubt that the commander of al Qaeda’s Iraq branch is no longer capable of mounting operations inside America. He is on the run and fully occupied with keeping ahead of his pursuers in Iraq. His escape route to Iran has been shut in his face. Tehran has promised Iraq’s Shiite leaders that, if he turns up on the border, he will be surrendered to them for trial on charges of masterminding last year’s massacres of Shiite worshippers in Najef, Karbala and Baghdad.