Terror still a no-show on US soil

Experts cite better intelligence and security since 9/11, but warn of complacency.

After one of the most intense periods of public anxiety about security since 9/11, Americans are going back to work en masse Monday - without having experienced a major terrorist hit.

While a heightened state of alert remains in effect - and more than a dozen international airline flights have been canceled or delayed - the US has managed to make it through another tremulous holiday season without an attack on its soil.

True, one could come at any moment - and, government and terrorist experts predict, almost certainly will at some point. Yet for now a domestic Al Qaeda strike remains a possibility rather than a reality.

All of which raises the question: Why? Is Al Qaeda more of a paper tiger than people thought? Has it decided to focus on overseas targets instead? Is it just waiting for the right moment to hit here?

Experts cite several reasons for the relative quiescence:

• Better security everywhere, from airports to ballparks to nuclear plants.

• Intelligence gathering and analysis at home and abroad has improved dramatically since 9/11.

• Al Qaeda may well be content hitting overseas targets, where it can make both a political statement and inflict considerable damage on US interests, directly and indirectly. But don't think it won't try something in the US in the future.

"The war on terror is not static," says Bruce Hoffman, a terror expert at the RAND Corp. in Washington. "The arms race of the cold war is being played out on this level today."

It's not that Islamic extremists haven't been active. It's just that most of their attacks have been centered in the Middle East, often in Muslim countries allied with the US, including against nations in solidarity with America.

Last month, for instance, a series of car bombs rocked Istanbul, Turkey, where terrorists targeted the British Consulate, a bank, and a Jewish place of worship. In May, a triple suicide bombing left 35 dead, including eight Americans, at a residential complex in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, a Washington ally in the war on terror, has been the subject of several recent assassination attempts.

Nor does the absence of an attack in the US mean there aren't consequences. The mere heightening of the security alert system to orange (high), as a result of intelligence suggesting a strike, can cost millions of dollars in extra police and baggage screeners across the country, not to mention the unease it causes Americans.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in the nation's air-travel system over the past two weeks. At least a dozen flights have been canceled or delayed - including ones from London, Paris, and Mexico to the US - amid the tightest international airline security in history. Several other planes were escorted by F-16 fighter jets as they entered US airspace. "I've never seen security at this level before," says John Lampl of British Airways. "Just when you think you've seen everything, something else happens. This is brand new and probably for very good reasons...."

What the intelligence 'chatter' says

Intelligence and law-enforcement officials both here and abroad say they continue to pick up specific threat information through electronic eavesdropping and interrogations of detained terrorists. Some of the intercepted conversations mention specific flight numbers, but do not include sufficient detail to piece together entire plots.

Still, officials say, if they receive the information, it's better to err on the side of caution. "There is some intelligence that has provided names or country locations or flights that could be problematic," says a US law-enforcement official. "It's never been this intense, in terms of security. But as long as it continues to be a viable threat, even though we've taken security precautions against a lot of this, we have to act on it."

Security, of course, was ratcheted up during the holidays last year, too. But it was a different threat. Most of the "chatter" then was about five individuals who were planning to cross the Canada-US border to carry out a hit, according to the federal official. "That turned out to be inaccurate," he says. "But you have got to work with the information given you...."

The amount of information has exploded, officials say, partly due to enhanced collection capabilities, but also because of increased cooperation between foreign governments and the US. Some 90 countries are now sharing intelligence in the war on terror.

Much of that has led to enhanced security in the US, particularly at borders, nuclear power plants, and airports. But, experts point out, terrorists are likely to continue to try to identify weaknesses in the security net. Even the day before the 9/11 attacks, a group of the hijackers passed through security at Dulles airport just to "check it out."

Authorities say the best way to counter terror activities is to use a variety of tools to keep would-be attackers off balance - like the closer scrutiny now being given to international flights.

"That sends a powerful message to our enemies," says Mr. Hoffman. "It shows we haven't grown complacent and are still willing to do what we need to do to protect ourselves."

Planes remain the weapon of choice

One reason for the focus on air travel is because planes remain the weapon of choice among terrorists for a strike in this country, experts say. They maintain that a hijacking or turning an aircraft into a missile would allow Al Qaeda to both make a political statement and inflict the kind of economic and psychological damage it wants.

Suicide bombings, the preferred tool in the Middle East, is difficult to do here, in part because so many Muslims are now under surveillance. "Al Qaeda continues to be interested in airplanes," says a US government official. "They go to things that have been successful in the past and that have the potential for carrying out a spectacular attack."

Some experts suggest that, without an attack in the US soon, Al Qaeda could start to lose credibility in the Muslim world. That's just one more reason, all agree, that this is no time for complacency.

"Al Qaeda carries out attacks on its schedule," says an intelligence official. "The 9/11 attack and the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen were in the works for several years. We expect they have others in the planning stages waiting to go operational."

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