Security officials fear a ‘spectacular’ during the transition period
Tom Baldwin in Washington and Michael Evans, Defence Editor
Barack Obama is being given ominous advice from leaders on both sides of the Atlantic to brace himself for an early assault from terrorists.
General Michael Hayden, director of the CIA, this week acknowledged that there were dangers during a presidential transition when new officials were coming in and getting accustomed to the challenges. But he added that no “real or artificial spike” in intercepted transmissions from terror suspects had been detected.
President Bush has repeatedly described the acute vulnerability of the US during a transition. The Bush Administration has been defined largely by the 9/11 attacks, which came within a year of his taking office.
His aides have pointed to al-Qaeda’s first assault on the World Trade Centre, which occurred little more than a month after Bill Clinton became President in 1993. There was an alleged attempt to bomb Glasgow airport in Gordon Brown’s first days in Downing Street and a London nightclub attack was narrowly thwarted.
Lord West of Spithead, the Home Office Security Minister, spoke recently of a “huge threat”, saying: “There is another great plot building up again and we are monitoring this.”
Intelligence chiefs on both sides of the Atlantic have indicated that such warnings refer more to a general sense of foreboding than fear of an imminent or specific plan.
Referring to the attacks in 1993 and 2001, General Hayden told a Washington think-tank on Thursday night: “For some people two data points create a trend line. For others, there may be more hesitation to call it that.” He said that the chief danger comes from remote areas in Pakistan that border Afghanistan.
“Today virtually every major terrorist threat that my agency is aware of has threads back to the tribal areas. Whether it’s command and control, training, direction, money, capabilities, there is a connection to the Fata [Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas].”
General Hayden said that al-Qaeda remained a “determined, adaptive enemy” operating “from its safe haven in Pakistan”. He added: “If there is a major attack on this country it will bear the fingerprints of al-Qaeda.”
He said that the border region remained the base of al-Qaeda’s leadership, which had developed a more durable structure and a deep reserve of skilled operatives. “AlQaeda, operating from its safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas, remains the most clear and present danger to the safety of the United States,” General Hayden said.
The hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden “is very much at the top of CIA’s priority list,” he added. “Because of his iconic stature, his death or capture clearly would have a significant impact on the confidence of his followers.”
The CIA chief also suggested that the terror group was seeking to recruit Western-looking operatives who would not cause attention if they were standing in airport screening queues.
Hours after he spoke, a suspected US missile attack killed 12 people in Pakistan, including five foreigners. Such strikes are hugely controversial, with Islamabad claiming that they fuel anti-American extremist groups. But Mr Obama has been clear that he wants to pursue al-Qaeda aggressively across the Afghan border.
In Britain, security officials say that there is genuine concern that alQaeda will attempt a “spectacular” in the transition period, but suggest that it may be aimed more at Mr Bush than Mr Obama.
“As far as we know there is nothing from the intelligence world to indicate that anything has changed dramatically in recent months to put us on alert for an attack at the moment,” a source said. The present threat level is “severe”, which is the second-highest alert status. But a senior counterterrorism official suggested last month that this should be regarded as “the severe end of severe”. This would point to Britain facing a terrorist threat nearly as high as the period in the summer of 2005 when terrorists killed 52 people on London’s transport network on July 7 and attempted a similar attack on July 21.
Britain and the US are sharing all intelligence on suspected terrorist activity because of the high risk of a plot involving transatlantic flights. Al-Qaeda is understood still to be obsessed with mounting an attack using passenger airliners. There have also been warnings of al-Qaeda interest in developing a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) device. The US has anti-CBRN units on constant patrol in main cities.
Al-Qaeda is known to be experimenting with biological agents, particularly anthrax, which they acquire from dead animals and then create cultures. The key man involved in these experiments is Abou Kabbah al-Masri, who was engaged in the biological trials including tests on rabbits that were uncovered in Afghanistan when the Taleban were overrun after the US invasion in 2001.
James Lewis, a security expert with the Centre of Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that al-Qaeda may wish to provoke a reaction from the next US Administration designed to show the rest of the world that “America is still the evil crusader”.
Last month Joe Biden, the Vice-President-elect, told campaign donors: “Watch, we’re going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle [of Mr Obama].”
Mr Lewis said that many Muslims were intrigued by Mr Obama’s arrival in the White House and “there may be political downsides” in attacking America too early. “It is hard to fathom the level of sophistication of their operatives and whether the chatter we intercept is dissent or intent. If they are gong to do something, they may wait until after the inauguration.
“At present there are policemen standing on policemen at possible targets. That won’t be the case three months into the new administration.”
The arms race
1945 US drops atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
1953 Russia tests its first atomic bomb
1962 US discovers Soviet Union building a nuclear missile base in Cuba. After seven days of intense talks a naval quarantine is placed around Cuba and is only removed once President Khrushchev agrees to dismantle the base
1983 President Reagan launches the Strategic Defensive Initiative – Star Wars. This would allow the US to detect a nuclear weapon being launched and, by using laser technology, give it time to launch its own weapon to destroy the enemy missile
1986 President Gorbachev proposes a 50 per cent reduction in the nuclear arsenals of both sides. The discussions finally dissolve with no agreement reached
2008 US strikes deal with Poland and Czech Republic on Missile Defence Shield. Russia retaliates on day that Barack Obama is elected US President by threatening to station missiles in Kaliningrad, near its border with Poland
Source: Times archive
November 15, 2008
Source: The Times