- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Invading Iraq to unload the Saddam Hussein regime would go a long way to shrinking the menace of transnational terrorism. At least, that’s what some of the war planners firmly believed. Saddam, the “neocons” argued, was the evil genius behind September 11, 2001. At one point, 60 percent of the American people went along with the disinformation. Fighting the terrorists over there so they wouldn’t come over here was a popular refrain. Now, the stats tell a totally different story.

Terrorist incidents have increased sevenfold since Saddam was overthrown. Pointing to the increasing use of suicide car and truck and chemical bombs, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) said casualties from terrorist strikes rose 40 percent in 2006 compared to 2005. The NCTC stats also said there had been a 91 percent increase in attacks in the Middle East and South Asia, including the latest terrorist refinement of chlorine bombs.

Five chlorine truck bombs in Iraq killed scores in Iraq and injured many more after they breathed the toxic fumes. Even more alarming, the U.S. Chlorine Institute, a trade group that represents 200 companies that make and distribute the stuff, alerted the FBI to several thefts and attempted thefts of 150-pound chlorine tanks from water purification treatment plants in California. But then, the FBI says it has no evidence of al Qaeda-type “sleeper cells” in the United States.

Day in and day out, there are new revelations about terrorist sleeper cells in the U.K. and other European countries. In Britain, with a population of 1.8 million Muslims, most of the suspects arrested and/or tried had links to Pakistan, where they had undergone terrorist training or visited madrassas, the Koranic schools that fire up the enthusiasm of teenagers for martyrdom.

Admittedly, the U.S. environment is not propitious for recruitment. Most Muslims are integrated in American society at a higher level than the one they, or their parents, left in the old country. But then, young terrorist extremists arrested in Europe came from comfortable middle-class families. And U.S. intervention in Iraq has been the driver and force multiplier for suicide bombers. It would be a miracle if all young American Muslims had been immunized by their parents against conceding any sympathy for the jihadis.

The Internet’s 5,000-plus pro-al Qaeda Web sites operate in the virtual ummah, a global, borderless caliphate in cyberspace where the only law is Shariah, or Islamic law. Some of these sites carry recipes for all manner of explosive cocktails.

The principal reason for the sleeper cells in the U.S. that are still asleep with “Don’t Disturb” signs on their doorknobs, is the ongoing acute shortage in the language skills the problem requires — Urdu, Pushtu and Farsi. There are also inhibitions by Muslims inclined to answer the call to serve lest they become Mosque informants for the FBI, or stoolies.

London is a six-hour flight from New York. Last summer, the Brits discovered a terrorist scheme to hijack 10 airliners bound for the U.S. from London, and arrested 24 suspects. And for the last six years since September 11, South Asian Muslims holding British passports were free to enter the U.S. without visas. In fact, any Muslim holding a European Union passport enjoyed the same dispensation.

In the U.K., a joint police-MI5 investigation, codenamed Operation Rhyme, uncovered new plots directly funded and controlled by al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They involved “dedicated and well-trained” British terrorists.

Last week, MI5’s Operation Crevice, begun in 2003, saw the end of a yearlong trial and life sentences for five men accused of conspiring to set off explosions with 1,300 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. It was Britain’s largest ever counterterrorism operation that involved tens of thousands of surveillance hours and a tap on 97 phone lines and cells. But it missed the July 7, 2005, plot that led to the attacks on three London subway trains and one double-decker bus.

One survey among some 800,000 Pakistani Brits showed roughly 9,000 youngsters nodding approval of the attacks that killed 49 and injured 700. Crevice intercepts traced al Qaeda messages from Pakistan to terrorist cells of Pakistani origin in the Thames Valley, Sussex, Surrey and Bedfordshire.

A star witness for Crevice was Omar Khyam, a former militant jihadist who turned state’s evidence. Then suddenly he recused himself, explaining that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) had warned his family to silence him. The trial also established the plan to buy a radio-isotope bomb from the Russian mafia in Belgium. Khyam got 40 years. He had already testified the terrorist group worked for Abdul Hadi, reputedly al Qaeda’s current No. 3.

Among those arrested in another recent plot was Dhiren Barot, a Muslim convert sentenced last November for conspiracy to murder in a radioactive “dirty bomb” plot. Former Security Service (as MI5 is officially known) chief Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller said last November her counterintelligence domestic agency had targeted more than 1,600 individuals active in plotting attacks in the U.K. and other countries and no less than 200 terrorist “networks” were based in Britain.

Similar networks of homegrown terrorists have been uncovered in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain. But so far, not one such network was uncovered in the U.S. since September 11, 2001. (Last year’s farcical entrapment of would-be al Qaeda jihadi volunteers in Miami’s Liberty City does not count.)

Something doesn’t quite compute. The law of averages would indicate the near-certainty of terrorist sleeper cells in the United States. The FBI, with 12,000 agents for 300 million people, is roughly comparable to Britain’s counterterrorism MI5 that employs 2,400 agents for 60 million people (scheduled to rise to 3,500 next year).

But MI5 has a wider and deeper writ. Admittedly, the FBI’s cultural shift has been arduous work. Door-kicking crime investigations that lead to the arrest of bad guys are a different adrenaline rush than patient and diligent intelligence gathering that may uncover the next September 11. The new mission also includes what is officially denied: racial and religious profiling. The Brits would be nowhere without it.

National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell told a Senate Committee last week, “We are actually missing a significant portion of what we should be getting.” Former CIA chief George Tenet, promoting his new book “At the Center of the Storm,” says al Qaeda’s nuclear threat is “real.” In spring 2003, “senior al Qaeda leaders were negotiating for the purchase of three Russian nuclear devices.” And Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted he could not account for all of Moscow’s 10,000 nuclear weapons.

Both the FBI and MI5 and allied agencies know they are working against the clock.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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