The country was placed on "code orange" alert by the Department of Homeland Security for 20 days over the holiday season. While no major terrorist attacks took place, events and developments from the past month show that al Qaeda and its affiliates continue to pose as deadly a threat as ever. What did we learn?
- Still interested in planes. According to media reports, the recent cancellation of more than a dozen international airline fights from Europe and Mexico was in response to al Qaeda plots to hijack passenger jets and crash them into high-profile American targets. One of the potential targets included the Alaskan port of Valdez, the terminal for an 800-mile pipeline carrying 17% of the U.S. domestic oil supply. The focus on planes is consistent with intelligence reports. A U.S. government official recently confirmed, "al Qaeda continues to be interested in airplanes. They go to things that have been successful in the past and that have the potential for carrying out a spectacular attack."
- Trying to detonate a 'dirty bomb.' There are reports that al Qaeda is sparing no effort to try to detonate a 'dirty bomb' – a conventional bomb that could possibly expose thousands of people to deadly radiation poisoning. According to the Washington Post, officials at the Department of Homeland Security were concerned that such a device was going to be used by al Qaeda over the holidays. The threat was apparently credible enough to prompt the Department of Energy to send radiation detection teams to several major cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.c=
- More heavily involved in international drug trafficking to fund operations. Over the past few weeks, three al Qaeda-linked boats have been seized by U.S. authorities, exposing thousands of pounds of hashish, methamphetamines, and other drugs. This represents just a drop in the bucket. According to the Washington Times, administration officials still do not have "a firm grasp on the scope of the al Qaeda drug operation and how much money it raises, although estimates are in the millions."
- Recruiting and training new terrorists to carry out suicide attacks. According to terrorist expert Rohan Gunaratna, a fresh batch of Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists will graduate next week from a camp in the southern Philippines. The group is reportedly funded with a $50,000 monthly stipend from al Qaeda. Indonesian intelligence says that Jemaah Islamiyah, already at 3,000 members, is engaged in a fresh recruiting drive. Experts believe other groups trained and financed by al Qaeda, such as al Ansar Mujahidin in Chechnya, and the Salafi Group for Call and Combat in Algeria, pose similar threats.
- Continues to use the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq as a major recruiting tool. In a new audiotape broadcast by al Jazeera on January 4, Osama Bin Laden cites the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq as a rallying call for his supporters, warning that the "occupation of the Crusaders… under the trick of weapons of mass destruction" is part of a "religious-economic war designed to control the Gulf states." Since the 9/11 attacks, there have been nine audio and videotapes with messages attributed to bin Laden, the most recent one in October 2003. The broadcast of these tapes are often followed by terrorist incidents.
Status of al Qaeda, December 16, 2003