The Washington Times - May 13, 2011, 03:34AM

Revelations from Osama bin Laden’s personal journal show that he was obsessed with inflicting a mass casualty attack on the U.S. homeland that would be more destructive and cause more deaths than the September 11, 2001 attacks. But this fixation on mass destruction may have helped keep America safe; post-bin Laden al Qaeda may pursue a more dangerous course. 

In his journal bin Laden ponders how many casualties it would take in a single attack to change U.S. policy and drive America from the Middle East. Back in 2003 bin Laden lieutenant Abu Salma al Hijazi promised “a huge and courageous strike” that would kill 100,000 people. Al Qaeda spokesman Abu-Muhammad al-Ablaj painted a vivid picture of the anticipated attack: “the strike must be well prepared. This means that it must be timed to occur when the giant starts staggering in his blood. At that time, he is ready for the fatal blow.” Bin Laden was intellectually hobbled by the success of the 9/11 attacks, thinking that only an event that topped his masterpiece would be good enough to achieve his goals. He dismissed al Qaeda’s smaller, scattered attacks as useless. 


Bin Laden believed that he could inflict a level of violence that would force an American strategic retreat from the Middle East. But this was a misguided notion. It was the severity and shock of 9/11 that brought the U.S. into the region in ways that al Qaeda’s smaller scale attacks in the 1990s had not. The “Holy Tuesday” attacks had given the United States a mandate to conduct a full-fledged war on terrorism. Another such strike would arguably reenergize the war effort, not lead to surrender. 


Bin Laden also assumed another big attack could be pulled off, but it was not. Such plans are long term, complex, and involve a many people. This makes big attacks easier to break up – they have more seams, more failure points, and longer planning cycles mean more opportunities to detect and disrupt the plot. Forcing al Qaeda to focus on this type of attack helped keep America safe because it was too hard to do, and diverted terrorist energies from more practicable types of attacks. 

Smaller scale attacks are easier to conduct than big attacks, but bin Laden was correct that they can lack critical impact. They may focus the target’s attention temporarily, but this fades over time if there are no follow-on strikes. The key to magnifying the impact of small terror attacks is to hit the same target repeatedly, to build critical momentum and generate the sense of fear for which terrorism was named. 

We saw this model in action in the October 2002 DC sniper attacks. Two men — John Muhammad and Lee Malvo – armed with a rifle and a modified sedan kept the national capital area in a state of anxiety for three weeks. They had little training, no elaborate plan, and no media strategy. The body count from their rampage was relatively low — ten killed and three wounded over the course of fourteen attacks. But the impact was extraordinary. According to a study I conducted which was published in 2005 in the West Point Counter Terrorism Center anthology Homeland Security: Controlling the New Security Environment, 19% more news stories ran about the DC snipers in October 2002 than ran about Osama bin Laden in September 2001. Higher percentages of Americans followed the sniper story than had followed the 9/11 news, and by the third week of the attacks, opinion polling showed that 50% of people in the Washington area were either somewhat or very fearful of falling victim to the gunmen. 

DC snipers

The critical element of the attacks was momentum. Muhammad and Malvo did not conduct one-time suicide attacks but spent three weeks inflicting persistent, random terror, harnessing the media’s need to report, making the government appear impotent, and holding the public imagination hostage to fear. 

The younger generation of al Qaeda terrorists seems to have internalized the lessons of the DC snipers. In the Fall 2010 issue of Inspire, the English-language magazine published by al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), editor Yahya Ibrahim offers “Tips for our Brothers in the United States of America.” Rather than recommending the massive attack favored by bin Laden, Ibrahim advocated small scale, independent attacks that could be planned and executed while staying under the radar of the authorities. He specifically noted the benefits of what he called “the firearm operation” of the type conducted by Muhammad and Malvo. 

Open source Jihad

“For this choose the best location,” he wrote. “A random hit at a crowded restaurant in Washington DC at lunch hour for example might end up knocking out a few government employees. Targeting such employees is paramount and the location would also give the operation additional media attention.” According to Ibrahim the advantages of the “random shooting line of operations” include the fact that no-one else is involved (“This eliminates the chances of the Feds catching wind of what’s going to happen”); it demand the least preparation (“All what is needed is the weapon, the ammunition, and surveillance of the site”); and it can be done quickly (“Other operations may need more time to prepare”). 

So long as the shooter remains at large and continues to conduct random attacks he can replicate the dynamic we saw in October 2002. Add multiple jihadists striking in different locations, and conducting other forms of attack such as bombing shopping malls during holiday seasons, and the effects will be multiplied. 

Without Osama bin Laden’s insistence that al Qaeda focus its energies on trying to pull off the least feasible form of attack, the terror group’s new thinking may come to the fore. If this is the case America is entering into dangerous times.

running from snipers