If you were to ask a sampling of American security and intelligence officials for their pick as the gravest threat to face the United States from global jihadists, you might be surprised by the answer you would hear. If you listen to official Washington, or the establishment media, for your answer, you might hear: a spectacular, 9/11-style attack, involving perhaps Ebola-infected suicide bombers flying Dreamliner aircraft into the Golden Gate Bridge, while dropping illegal immigrants along the way, to spread Enterovirus among America’s helpless school children. Does that about cover all of our boogeymen?
When I worked in the national security establishment, in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center—admittedly, half a decade ago—tracking groups like al-Qa’ida central, al-Qa’ida in Iraq, Ansar al-Sunna, al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, and others, the threat that kept me up at night was not the spectacular, 9/11-style, once-in-a-decade plot.
No, I was pretty confident in our ability, post-9/11, to uncover and foil large-scale plots. We did it. A lot. Those kinds of plots—9/11 notwithstanding—are hard to carry out. Rather, the threat that nagged daily at my subconscious, and caused fear for my family, was the possibility that any one of the above groups, or today, the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra, might adopt a successful, widespread sabotage-terror campaign in the continental United States.
Think back 12 years ago this month, to October 2002, and try to remember the fear inspired by, at least regionally, the D.C. Sniper Attacks (also called the Beltway Sniper Attacks). Two men, both non-jihadists, drove around in a sedan and shot dead, with a sniper rifle fired from a hole drilled in the trunk of a car, 10 people. The greater Washington, D.C. metropolitan area was seized with fear. Children were kept home from school and adults were afraid to pump gas for fear of being shot.
Keep in mind, this was two men, shooting 10 people, in one city. Granted, they had killed other victims in other states before launching their spree in the D.C. area, but really, it was the October attacks that fostered such fear. Now, imagine if a similar scenario played out in three American cities, simultaneously, accompanied by random beheadings and attacks on power stations, reservoirs, cell towers, and financial centers.
Can you picture the pandemonium? I can, and I did, and so did others. We worked damn hard to track potential infiltrators into the United States who might be sent to carry out such plots. To this day, I keep waiting for a wave of such attacks, and wonder to myself why various jihadist groups have not tried to carry them out. Or maybe they have, and our intelligence and security officials are successfully thwarting them.
It is not like there have not been calls to “individualize” terror cells, making them more diffuse and thus more difficult to stop. These types of cells would carry out such self-directed, smaller-scale attacks, and would not rely on a central leadership to approve their actions. One need only read the writings of Abu Musab al-Suri to get an idea of this strategy.
The most malevolent manifestations of this phenomenon, so far, have probably been the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya, and the 2008 Mumbai attack in India. The latter was carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based jihadist group with an ideology similar to al-Qa’ida’s. LT’s four-day orgy of 12 shooting and bombing attacks in Mumbai was carried out by 10 men who killed 164 and wounded over 300.
What if the same 10 men had executed only part of their attack, and then had gone to ground, only to resurface a week later to launch a new wave? Imagine then, a group of five more, in a different city, simultaneously introducing hazardous materials into a major water supply, attacking power grids in a major city, and knocking out multiple cell towers across the same area. As the city struggles to make sense of the power and phone outages, much the way New York City, and a large part of the northeastern United States, did in the widespread outage of August 2003, a group of five more attackers begin to randomly behead and gun down civilians at schools, churches, and malls.
We are naive if we do not think such attacks are being considered in the world’s jihadist circles. These are the attacks that cripple countries, demoralize people, and bring down governments. These relatively small-scale infrastructure attacks, coordinated with mass shootings, bombings, and knifings, would be devastating. I do not mean to say that they would bring down America, nor lead to our defeat at the hands of terrorists, but that they would indeed have a grave impact.
Vigilance inside the wall
So, why bring these possibilities up here, and “give the terrorists ideas?” Again, today’s Islamist groups do not need to read SOFREP to pilfer ideas for attacks. They are already thinking along these lines. I bring up these points to raise our collective American consciousness to these types of threats. We have to avoid complacency, and avoid thinking that the only danger lies on a battlefield in Syria, and only for American soldiers and journalists close to the action.
I bring up these points simply to inform you, the readers of SOFREP, that these fears keep me up at night when I allow myself to dwell on global Islamist terror groups. How will you react if this kind of plot materializes in your town? Do you have a plan? Does your city have a coordinated response for mass shootings and terror attacks? Do you have a family plan, also?
I do not mean to scare you, but some of us have to keep these things in mind. Some of us have to stay vigilant. Believe it or not, your government is doing its best. Sometimes, though, it needs your help. Be aware. Stay focused, and if you happen to be there the moment an attack occurs—such as recently happened in Canada—do something. Do not remain passive. I have come down off the wall at this point in my life, and I know there are brave men and women still up there watching out for us, but here inside the walls, we too must stay vigilant.
(Photo by Robin Platzer/FilmMagic)
This article previously published on SOFREP 10.28.2014