In its recent fight against terrorists, America has faced a lot of amateurs. This month that changed. The professionals are coming.
Actually, they’ve been here before. On Feb. 26, 1993, Ramzi Yousef (the nephew of al-Qaida’s chief strategist Khalid Shaikh Mohammed) drove a rented Ryder van into the basement of the World Trade Center and calmly walked away. Minutes later, a 1,500-pound improvised explosive device detonated within that van, killing six people and wounding more than 1,000.
Yousef was captured in 1995 in Pakistan, but not before he attempted to assassinate Benazir Bhutto, plotted to blow up flights from the Far East to the United States and attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul. Yousef was described by his classmates in al-Qaida training camps as “fearless” and was considered one of the most talented bomb makers in the world, a true professional.
Since 9/11, the United States has disrupted dozens of terrorist plots in the United States, most involving attempted bombings. However, the system we used to detect these plots, suspicious activity reporting, depends upon the detection and recognition of preparatory actions to alert police. The clumsy preoperational behaviors of these would-be terrorists exposed them and ultimately led to their arrest. They are inspired by the ideology of al-Qaida but have no connection to al-Qaida central command. They’re amateurs.
Enter Anders Dale, a Norwegian national who traveled to Yemen, where he was taught to make bombs by al-Qaida’s best. On July 15, the U.S. Justice Department designated Dale a terrorist, stating that he’s joined and trained with and is now an operative for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Dale is one of approximately 11,000 “foreign fighters,” third-country nationals who go to the battlefields of militant Islam to fight. These foreign fighters carry the banner of al-Qaida in their hearts and minds. They are westernized and move easily within our culture. Dale may well be traveling under cover to a Western target.
Our current system to detect suspicious activity, highly dependent upon the assumption that terrorists make mistakes, can be neutralized by an expert who’s adept at cloaking his operational planning. The list of indicators of terrorism planning has served us well, but it has one significant weakness: It is never complete.
The terrorist will change operational behaviors in response to our countermeasures. Many parts of the current security architecture will continue to work. But the last opportunity to hold the place between the match and the fuse rests with the line law enforcement officer and an alert citizenry.
It’s time to re-examine the indicators that we’ve relied upon for so long. The expert and the novice don’t behave in the same way. The fewer mistakes our adversary makes, the more difficult it will be to find him.
Anders Dale may not be as talented or as dangerous as Ramzi Yousef, but somewhere, someone is. Amateur hour is over.
Cid, a former FBI counterterrorism specialist, is executive director of the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism at Rose State College.