U.S. Tries to Divine al Qaeda's Next Move

As Concern Mounts Over Election-Disrupting Plots, Officials Look Back to Predict the Future



July 12, 2004

WASHINGTON -- With American intelligence officials convinced al Qaeda is poised to attack the U.S., analysts and law-enforcement authorities are poring over past terrorist plots, hoping to uncover clues about the next possible target.

Some sites considered targets are well known: shopping malls, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Los Angeles airport. But there are even older, stranger and more menacing plans that terrorists close to Osama Bin Laden have hatched over the years from safe houses in Sudan and Afghanistan, as well as in coffee shops in America and Europe, that intelligence officials are re-examining. Some of the information, gleaned from transcripts of interviews with imprisoned senior al Qaeda leaders such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, never have been published before, while others became available to President Bush's 9/11 Commission.

In a warning Thursday that al Qaeda is moving ahead with plans for a big attack on the U.S. in the run-up to the November presidential election, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge noted that authorities so far have been unable to glean details about precise targets. However, intelligence officials say groups such as al Qaeda have a penchant for returning to the same targets. They point to the World Trade Center, first attacked by Islamic extremists in 1993 and again, with devastating effect, eight years later.


Some of the attacks conceived by al Qaeda have never been completed. Many failed and may be abandoned, while others are believed still to be in the works. Dates refer to when the plot was uncovered or intended.

Tunnels - New York - 1995

L.A. International Airport - Los Angeles - 2000

U.S. Embassy - Jakarta - 2000

Nightclubs - Pattaya, Thailand - Late 2000

Bangkok Airport - Thailand - Sept. 11, 2001

Library Tower - Los Angeles - Sept. 11 or Post-Sept. 11

Paris-Miami airliner (shoe bomb) - In flight - December 2001

Dirty bomb - Unknown - Post-Sept. 11

Heathrow Airport - London - Post-Sept. 11

Brooklyn Bridge - New York - 2002

Oil refineries - Texas - 2004

Sources: Interrogations of al Qaeda members, U.S. law-enforcement alerts

That prompted federal agents to scour old al Qaeda plots that never made it past the drawing board or that were foiled by police action or just good luck. Senior intelligence officials believe al Qaeda might attempt to revisit targets, both those they were able to attack, as well as those they were unable to attack.

"Looking at the current terrorist-threat reporting and information that we have, we continue to look at past plots to gain a better understanding of the strategy and tactics that al Qaeda may, in fact, try to employ here in the States," said John Brennan, director of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, a multibody intelligence clearinghouse directed by the Central Intelligence Agency.

One of the most bizarre plots was a scenario to attack Hollywood. Since Sept. 11, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has considered events such as the Academy Awards a special-security affair. Mr. Mohammed told his captors in interrogations last year that his intention was to attack the town itself, according to a summary of the interrogations reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

"The detainee [Mohammed] said that in the early-mid 1990s, he and [convicted 1993 World Trade Center bomber] Ramzi Yusuf would think about what drives the U.S. economy, when brainstorming about potential targets. The detainee listed Hollywood, automobiles and wheat as major contributors to the U.S. economy," the interrogation summary said.

According to the summary, Hollywood was attractive to Mr. Mohammed because he had heard the film industry had supplies of explosives for use in movies. "The detainee theorized that those explosives could be stolen and used against Hollywood itself, potentially wielding a significant economic impact."

The plan eventually was shelved in favor of another to fly hijacked airliners into U.S. skyscrapers.

While the Hollywood plot might seem far-fetched today, intelligence analysts point out that when U.S. agents uncovered plans to attack tall buildings with planes, they dismissed them as being the fantasy of a warped mind.

More menacing is another scheme that Mr. Mohammed referred to as the "Anthrax Project," which studied ways to deliver the lethal germ in the U.S. The mission was assigned to a Malaysian national named Yazid Sufaat, who has a degree in biochemistry from California State University, Sacramento. Mr. Sufaat attended a meeting of the 9/11 plotters in Malaysia in 2000 and later aided suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui. He was caught in Malaysia in late 2001 and remains in custody there.

Other plots involved truck bombs and attacks against airlines, which intelligence officials say remain prime targets of al Qaeda. Intelligence officials are particularly interested in what Mr. Mohammed referred to in his interrogations as "the method of Richard Reid" -- the shoe bomber who was arrested in 2002 after he failed to bring down a trans-Atlantic flight with an explosive charge hidden in his sneakers. Mr. Mohammed said al Qaeda leaders have discussed the relatively small charges needed for shoe bombs and liquid explosives to blow open cockpit doors, which were ordered reinforced by the government after Sept. 11.

The shoe-bomb threat is particularly real, since the person who armed Mr. Reid hasn't been found. In his interrogations, Mr. Mohammed said al Qaeda's shoe-bomb expert is an Egyptian named Muhsin Atwah, about whom little is known. The FBI is offering a $25 million reward for information on Mr. Atwah, who is one of its 20 most-wanted terrorists. He is accused of aiding the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa and is suspected of a role in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.

"Al Qaeda has remained very interested in aviation attacks," the U.S. intelligence official said. "We know that it is a consistent focus of their efforts, as we saw in 9/11. But since 9/11, and despite the numerous security enhancements that have been made, al Qaeda continues to pursue capabilities that can use aircraft, either as a weapon or to target."

Other plots worrying intelligence and homeland-security officials unwittingly were foiled by police in New York City in late 2002. In April 2003, Iyman Faris, a 34-year-old truck driver from Ohio fingered by Mr. Mohammed, pleaded guilty to delivering cash, cellphones, plane tickets and sleeping bags to al Qaeda leaders, as well as conspiring to pinpoint targets such as the Brooklyn Bridge and a passenger train traveling outside Washington.

Some intelligence experts believe it is important for the U.S. to study past al Qaeda schemes but warn against relying too heavily on the information to help stop attacks. "It is not necessarily true that past terrorist behavior is a predictor of future events," says Chris Cox, a California Republican who is chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. "The element of surprise is as important to terrorists as it is to conventional war planners."

Write to Robert Block at bobby.block@wsj.com1 and Glenn R. Simpson at glenn.simpson@wsj.com2