Al-Qaeda Attack Omaha? Fat Chance!

FILE - In this 1998 file photo made available on March 19, 2004, Osama bin Laden is seen at a news conference in Khost, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Mazhar Ali Khan, File) -- The Associated Press
FILE - In this 1998 file photo made available on March 19, 2004, Osama bin Laden is seen at a news conference in Khost, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Mazhar Ali Khan, File) -- The Associated Press

Some ordinarily smart people are saying some extraordinarily silly things, to try and spin some sense into the Homeland Security Department's decision to cut funds for New York and DC. The argument goes like this:

If I were a terrorist... Im not sure Id hit New York or Washington. Too obvious. Been done. Besides, both probably are reasonably well fortified. Therefore, I could easily imagine a scenario in which the next terror attacks occur in, say, Wichita.
Okay, sure. You can imagine all kinds of doomsday scenarios. Let your mind roam free. But if you want to figure out where Osama & Co. might attack in the future, your best bet is to look at what they've done in the past, not daydream darkly. Because terrorism is an evolutionary art. Al-Qaeda doesn't hatch brand new types of strikes out of the blue; it develops them slowly, over time, taking what it learned in one attack and applying to the next. Even seemingly "out of the box" plans, like 9/11, were test-marketed years and years before.

So let's look at the record. Have Al-Qaeda and its affiliates hit any cornfields? Any small towns? Any exurbs? No, no, and no, actually. Instead, they've focused on three main types of targets:

* Big cities (New York, London, Madrid, Istanbul, Amman, Riyadh, DC)
* Military and government installations (Pentagon, USS Cole, East African embassies)
* Resorts (Sharm-el-Sheikh, Bali, Kenya)

Once it's tried an attack in a given place, does Al-Qaeda give up on it, and move somewhere else? 'Fraid not. In fact, they tend to revisit the same sites, over and over again. Take my home town, for example. As Police Commissioner Ray Kelly notes in today's New York Post:

New York remains a target-rich environment nonetheless, as a cursory review of terrorist acts here would indicate.  
The iconic Brooklyn Bridge caught al Qaeda's eye after 9/11 when its operative Iyman Faris was tasked to see if it could be taken down. Another Islamic radical, Rashad Baz, was drawn to the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994 to shoot up a van with Hasidim occupants, including 16-year-old Ari Halberstam, who was killed. A like-minded radical picked the Empire State Building to spray the observation deck with gunfire, killing one tourist and wounding six others there in 1997.
The terrorists' first attempt to destroy the World Trade Center resulted in the deaths of six innocent people in 1993. Al Qaeda returned in 2001 to finish the job.
Then there was the al Qaeda "landmark" plot of 1993 to destroy the George Washington Bridge, the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels and the United Nations. The New York Stock Exchange and the Citigroup Center in Midtown made al Qaeda's list of inviting targets in another plot exposed after 9/11.
More recently, a federal grand jury convicted the suspect in a plot, foiled by the NYPD, to bomb the Herald Square subway station in 2004. A terrorist bombing of the Atlantic Avenue subway complex in Brooklyn was narrowly averted by police intervention in 1997. Then there were the anthrax attacks against The Post and NBC in New York...
We had hoped that DHS would rely on the intelligence community to assess the threat and make funding decisions accordingly. Instead, DHS abdicated its responsibility.
For a while now, we've been focusing way too much on what security guru Bruce Schneier calls "movie-plot threats" -- scenarios that sound completely scary, but are beyond unlikely. So countless millions get poured into protecting cows from Al-Qaeda and stopping jihadist cropdusters. When he first took the Homeland Security gig, Michael Chertoff promised to end the farce, and protect the places that Al-Qaeda might actually attack, no matter how, well, hum-drum, that might seem. Unfortunately, he -- and others -- can't seem to resist the Tinseltown draw.

UPDATE 5:28 PM: Here is Rep. Peter King's letter to Chertoff, asking how this risk-analysis process went FUBAR.



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