Terrorism: October 30, 2001


What Is Plan B? Is There A Plan B?- There is an open debate about the strategic plan of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda group. What actually IS the plan? The question is not simply rhetorical, and the answer is shrouded in the mists. We just don't know what data points we actually have, and as such cannot tell what direction the plan is going. 

The first of two major questions is why the 11 Sept attacks were a unique incident rather than just the start of a major campaign. According to one theory, bin Laden is not a deep strategic thinker but simply launches spectacular operations and then steps back to admire his work. When the 11 Sept attacks started, the US went into a high security alert against follow-up attacks that never came. There are so many vulnerable targets, one would have assumed that if al Qaeda was actually going to try to drive the US out of the Middle East, there would not have been just one attack, but many. A second attack on an airliner (perhaps with someone employed for years as a pilot, or using a more easily obtained cargo plane) should have been in place and ready to launch as soon as the air transport system went back into operation (to shut it down again). This should have been followed by attacks on bus drivers, along with bombs set to damage railroads and derail trains. Both types of attack could have been launched by a lone terrorist with a very low risk of being detected in advance. A few snipers shooting up highway traffic and a couple of bombs in bus or train stations, and the nation's entire transportation system might have been shut down. 

Where were the follow up attacks? One theory is that bin Laden did not want to risk exposing the airline attacks by putting field agents into vulnerable positions, but compartmentalization of attack groups should have insulted such secrets. Perhaps follow-up attacks were cancelled or abandoned, or perhaps intelligence agencies intercepted them and did not report this fact. Another theory is that bin Laden did not ever intend on a follow-up attack that would herald an entire campaign of terror; he simply wanted to make a statement. And another theory is that the follow up attack has already begun. 

Which leads to the second question, why are the Anthrax attacks so ineffective? The Anthrax attacks could be the work of al Qaeda, some other terrorist group, Iraq, or domestic lunatics. Or, just to confuse the issue, it could have been a combination of two or more of these. In any case, the attacks are a major nuisance but not really that effective. (More people are telling jokes about Anthrax than fear they may contract it.) By the time one person had died, police knew what to look for, and anyone who got a suspicious letter got tested and treated, so the death toll remained in single digits. If the plan had been to seriously disrupt the United States and cause widespread panic, they went about it all wrong, with too few attacks that were simply not effective. Suspicious powder in a letter threatening death is too obvious; why wasn't the anthrax included in a letter on some other subject (pick any piece of legislation or political issue). A cleverly written and provocative letter might have gotten passed around the office. All manner of other delivery systems could have been used, but weren't. Imagine if the Anthrax spores had been included in a free sample of a new insecticide (along with instructions to sprinkle it in your air ducts). Very few letters were actually sent and if any portion of them were hoaxes or domestic lunatics, the actual number sent by al Qaeda or Iraq could be in single digits, a couple of dozen at most. 

Did the terrorists underestimate the panic they might cause? Or was it an announcement of a larger anthrax attack yet to come? Or did they merely want to divert attention away from another attack yet to come. Or was this the best Plan B they could come up with?

Time will tell. In a few years, with a lot more information, we will be able to piece together the pattern and see what the plan was, and decide if it was clever or bungled. For now, the mystery continues, and the number of shoes yet to drop are unknown.--Stephen V Cole


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