With events commemorating the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks underway Friday and numerous national sporting events scheduled Sunday, terrorism experts say law enforcement authorities will be on heightened security alert this weekend for threats to soft targets across the country.
The symbolism of carrying out another terrorist attack on Sept. 11 would serve as a rallying cry to recruit others or to mobilize more violent attacks and makes the 15th anniversary of the attacks a target, said William Braniff, executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.
“The date does matter, it is part of the communication,” Mr. Braniff said. “It could heighten the psychological impact of the attack. If your country can’t protect you on the anniversary of 9/11, when can it protect you?”
The leader of the terrorist group al Qaeda, which coordinated and carried out the 2001 attacks in which four commercial airplanes crashed into New York City’s World Trade Center complex, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, issued a video message Friday praising the attacks and threatening additional violence.
“We mark in these days the passage of nearly 15 years since the blessed invasions in Washington, New York and Pennsylvania,” leader Ayman al-Zawahiri said in the video, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group.
He later states that if the United States’ crimes continue, “then the events of Sept. 11 will be repeated a thousand times, Allah permitting.”
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Last month the FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued a security bulletin emphasizing that civilian venues are the latest focus for targeted attack by homegrown violent extremists and those inspired by the Islamic State. The bulletin, which CBS News first reported, states that venues such as restaurants, theaters, churches, and sports arenas appear to be the new focus — with less emphasis on law enforcement, military and government facilities.
So-called soft targets have been the focus of recent terrorist attacks around the world, including a mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub, a truck plowing through crowds at Bastille Day celebration in the streets of Nice, France and a coordinated shooting and bombing rampage in Paris.
Sporting events scheduled for Sunday are expected to see stepped-up security as a result. Football season will kick into high gear Sunday with a full slate of games, and the Los Angeles Times reports that Vice President Joseph R. Biden will be in attendance to take part in a tribute to first responders before a Philadelphia Eagles game.
Meanwhile the U.S. Open will host the men’s final on Sunday. Ahead of the start of the two-week long event, New York Police Department counter-terrorism officials reinforced a security fence around the perimeter of the stadium this year and have increased the number of officers deployed from years past.
In addition to increased visible security at entrances and screening areas, Mr. Braniff said law enforcement can also heighten their security presence by proactively patrolling through crowds or event parking lots and by actively engaging those they cross paths with along the way.
A series of commemorative Sept. 11 events are being held over the weekend in New York, where police officials said there are no specific and credible threats.
“We will monitor and deploy our personnel as needed,” a New York Police Department spokesman said.
Pipe and drum bands affiliated with police departments from around the country gathered Friday afternoon and led a procession through lower Manhattan to honor those killed in the Sept. 11 attacks as well as those who died of illnesses related to their work at the site following the attack.
Top law enforcement leaders, including Attorney General Loretta Lynch, will attend events in New York throughout the weekend, including a memorial mass held Saturday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and a commemoration ceremony on Sunday at the 9/11 Memorial Plaza. President Obama will attend an observance ceremony at the Pentagon Memorial.
Top security leaders have in recent days described terrorist attacks against the United States as inevitable and the threat much bigger in scope and size than it was 15 years ago.
The dramatic rise of Islamic State and its ability to expand around the world presents a danger that is “considerably less predictable” than those posed by al Qaeda at the height of their power, shortly after the 2001 attacks, National Counterterrorism Center chief Nick Rasmussen said this week.
The terrorist threat facing the U.S. and its European allies is “bigger, wider and deeper” than at any point since the Sept. 11 attacks 15 years ago, the White House’s top counterterrorism official said in a grim review of global threats.
Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said the current reality is that another terror attack on American soil is probable.
“After 15 years of reflection what I really think the county needs to do is accept the reality that it is a global scourge, accept the reality that it will probably happen again here,” Mr. Ridge said, providing an assessment of the nation’s security in an address this week. “We have no idea how many times, there is no way to predict it. But put it in the context of everything else that happens to impact our lives in a very negative way in this country.”
He said Americans should consider the likelihood of an attack in the broader context of the types of dangers they routinely encounter every day, noting that there are approximately 40,000 traffic fatalities every year.