EDITORIAL: Think globally, kill locally
Al Qaeda has decided if it wants to get a government worker’s attention, threaten to kill him.
The fall issue of Inspire, al Qaeda’s glossy 74-page magazine of jihad, recommends that U.S. domestic terrorists take their holy war to the belly of the inner Beltway. “A random hit at a crowded restaurant in Washington, D.C., at lunch hour might end up knocking out a few government employees,” Yahya Ibrahim writes in a section headlined, “Tips for Our Brothers in the United Snakes of America.” He says, “Targeting such employees is paramount and the location would also give the operation additional media attention.”
Mr. Ibrahim also contributed an article headlined “The Ultimate Mowing Machine,” in which he recommends outfitting a four-wheel-drive pickup truck, “the stronger the better,” with steel blades on the front “at torso level” to drive into random crowds. If the attack could be made in a densely packed pedestrian zone, he writes, “that would be fabulous.”
These articles show a new and sophisticated evolution in al Qaeda’s thinking. For years, the terror group was fascinated with “spectaculars,” multiple, near simultaneous mass-casualty incidents such as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in America; the March 11, 2004, Madrid train bombings; and the July 7, 2005, attacks in London. The problem with these types of missions from a terrorist point of view is that while they are disruptive in the short run, they produce no favorable long-term strategic effects. They take time to plan and involve too many people, which increases the likelihood they will be broken up in advance.
Small-scale, low-tech, improvised attacks on soft targets are more likely to be successful and can have just as significant strategic effects. The model for small-scale attacks is the October 2002 reign of terror created by John Mohammed and Lee Malvo, in what Mr. Ibrahim calls the “random shooting line of operations.” The Beltway snipers conducted 14 attacks over 22 days, killing 10 people and wounding three. The number of victims was small, but the persistence, randomness and uniqueness of the events created a climate of fear that rivaled that of the Sept. 11 attacks. A Washington Post poll during the third week of the attacks found that 50 percent of residents in the national capital region were either somewhat or very fearful of personally falling victim to the gunmen. People were beginning to alter their behavior in ways they thought would minimize risk. Terror was not abstract; it was real.
Mr. Ibrahim offers other sophisticated advice to homegrown jihadis trying to avoid detection, such as “if you are clean, stay clean” - avoid contact with like-minded individuals, don’t go to terrorist websites or chat rooms, use electronic devices with caution, and don’t travel overseas. The ideal radical American Muslim warrior must be stealthy, smart and patient. “No rush,” Mr. Ibrahim says. “Think it out. Contemplate your best options. Look for the maximum effect.”
Persistent, small-scale terror can have as much impact in the press as the “spectaculars.” Press coverage of the Beltway snipers during the period when they were active outstripped reports on Osama bin Laden in the wake of the Sept. 11 carnage. According to a study by James S. Robbins (now a staff writer at The Washington Times), 19 percent more news stories were filed in major papers about the sniping incidents in October 2002 than were filed about Osama bin Laden during September 2001.
In one of his prison messages from 2002, Malvo told the American people, “You will bleed to death little by little.” President Obama recently declared the United States could “absorb” a major terrorist attack, but it would be much more difficult to cope with a strategy seeking the death of a thousand cuts.
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