National-security officials and law-enforcement agencies have stepped up efforts to prevent a terrorist attack in the United States during the holiday season.
“We are concerned these terrorists may seek to exploit the likely significant psychological impact of an attack targeting mass gatherings in large metropolitan areas during the 2010 holiday season, which has symbolic importance to many in the United States,” warns a recent bulletin sent to law-enforcement agencies by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security.
Of particular concern are public gatherings such as sporting events, parades, and religious or cultural activities.
“Attacks against these targets could maximize the psychological impact on the American public given the symbolic importance of the holiday season to many in the United States,” states the bulletin. “Attacks against air cargo during this busy season are also a concern.”
At a White House briefing Wednesday, chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan outlined steps taken since last year’s Christmas Day event – when a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit allegedly attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his clothing. Mr. Abdulmutallab had been in a terror database, and his father had tried to warn officials that the young man might be a danger.
Improvements over the past year
Among other things, according to Mr. Brennan, gaps in analysis and data collection have been closed, the criteria used to create terrorist watch lists and "no fly" lists have been revised, some 500 of the controversial “Advanced Imaging Technology” scanning machines for passengers have been deployed at more than 75 US airports, and additional steps have been taken to screen cargo shipped by air (or checked by passengers).
“We are in a much better position today than we were last year at this time,” he said.
Experts on terrorism often point out that security agencies need to prevent all attempted attacks in order to be successful but that terrorists need to succeed just once. Of particular concern is the possibility that a home-grown “lone wolf” attacker – seen as expendable to terrorist groups overseas – might be able to avoid detection.
This is why the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies increasingly employ sting operations to thwart potential attackers.
Recent terrorist attempt in Oregon
Most notably, that includes Mohamed Osman Mohamud, arrested recently for allegedly plotting to explode a bomb at the Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Ore., where thousands of families had gathered for the traditional Christmas tree lighting.
In October, a Pakistani-born US citizen was arrested on charges of plotting to carry out a coordinated bombing attack on Metrorail stations in suburban Virginia near Washington.
Earlier this month, US Attorney General Eric Holder told Muslim Advocates, a San Francisco community group, that sting operations "have proven to be an essential law-enforcement tool in uncovering and preventing potential terror attacks."
They may be essential to law enforcement, but they're not infallible, say terrorism experts.
Sooner rather than later?
“We haven’t had a successful terrorist event, but there’s a lot of luck involved in that,” says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “It’s my belief that we are going to have a successful, moderate intensity, significant casualty attack sooner rather than later. Those of us in the monitoring community are completely flummoxed by the fact that it hasn’t happened yet.”
Officials base their concern this holiday season on “increased chatter” among individuals and organizations associated with terrorism.
“There is a lot of chatter in the intel world ... that references the holidays," Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano told ABC on Monday. "We know that things have already happened in Europe, and we're watching that very closely as well.”
On Monday, British police arrested 12 men allegedly in the final stages of a major bomb plot. Those arrested – in their teens and 20s – were mostly British citizens. Some are of Bangladeshi origin.
"We're not going to bat 1,000 necessarily,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told ABC. “We can't guarantee that. But we're certainly doing everything we can to ensure that we do thwart any kind of an attack."