Homeland security officials doubt the terror plot to blow up U.S.-bound
planes over the Atlantic was Osama bin Laden’s encore to 9-11.
The White House has described the foiled plot as “a second September 11.”
But officials say bin Laden is preparing a larger strike on U.S. soil
targeting major U.S. cities. They cite the terror kingpin’s message in
January in which he warned Americans that sleeper cells were preparing a
major new attack “on your own ground.”
“Operations are under preparation, and you will see them on your own ground
once they are finished, Allah willing,” bin Laden said in Arabic.
Some translations have him saying “in the heart of your land” or “in your
The London plot, which may have rivaled 9-11 casualties, still did not
involve ground targets.
“While impressive in scale, the damage on the ground would have been limited
if anything,” a U.S. official said. “It’s not the spectacular attack he (bin
Laden) is looking for to do maximum damage to our economy.”
Terror experts agree.
“There may have been money or a blessing from al-Qaida, but I doubt that
this was an operation run by al-Qaida central, by bin Laden himself,” says
Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit. “It simply wasn’t
a big enough operation for what they intend, and it didn’t occur inside the
Experts say the London plot appears too ad hoc. Planning began only a year
ago on the heels of the London subway bombings. Bin Laden’s major attacks in
the past have involved several years of planning. They’ve also been led by
the A-team of al-Qaida’s Martyrdom Brigade, who coordinated with seasoned
lieutenants in the network to finance and refine the mission as it
developed. The London bomber cells, in contrast, appear to have been
composed of fresh recruits who were less disciplined, which may explain why
they were caught.
“They’re second-stringers,” the official said. “He’s holding his top
operatives in reserve for a bigger operation.”
The FBI says there’s no evidence al-Qaida has sleeper cells in the U.S.
Of course, that’s what the bureau said before 9-11. Former senior DHS
official Clark Kent Ervin says the bureau knows of at least 1,000 al-Qaida
sympathizers in the U.S. today – a figure he calls “low.” And the CIA has
presented the FBI director with a list of possible sleeper cell candidates,
but he has rejected going after them, arguing they had not yet committed a
Scheuer says bin Laden is lining up his ducks for a massive attack possibly
using radiological weapons. The first step, he says, was getting a
green light from Saudi clerics to kill possibly millions of Americans with
such weapons. Then he offered the U.S. a truce and even recently invited
President Bush to convert to Islam – all in keeping with jihadi military
doctrine. And he has directly warned the America people on at least two
As absurd as such moves sound, they are necessary to satisfy any theological
concerns among Muslim clerics, Scheuer says. It’s more about “preparing
Muslims” for the doomsday attacks than Americans.
Experts agree a plausible nightmare scenario involves al-Qaida shipping
dirty nukes in uninspected cargo containers bound for ports in New York, New
Jersey, Miami, Los Angeles, Houston and near Washington, and then detonating
them once they are in position. The technology used could be as simple as
GPS transmitters and cell phones. The radiological fallout from the blasts
could render the cities uninhabitable for years, crippling the economy.
Experts say that while the disrupted airliner plot is good news, it’s not
exactly comforting. In 1995, authorities disrupted al-Qaida’s so-called
Bojinka operation to down planes over the Pacific. Al-Qaida came back six
years later with a more spectacular attack targeting New York and