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ICG Risk Blog - [ 'Dirty Bomb' worries continue ]

'Dirty Bomb' worries continue

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I found it most interesting that US fears of a radiological dirty bomb over the previous Christmas-New Years holiday were based not upon specific recent information but upon the belief of US officials that al Qaeda was making every effort to detonate such a device. (Remember that TOPOFF 2 employed a radiological attack on Seattle as one of its two attack scenarios.) Thus a radiological device may or may not have been the primary threat. Our focus on it may or may not have been warranted, but the hall of mirrors only deepens. We must separate 'devices' from means, timing, and symbology. A radiological device is certainly easier to make that a fissile package, but after news reports such as the one below one wonders if al Qaeda will drop the idea for fear of discovery. Perhaps the US is trying to force it to drop the idea instead and so move on to other avenues.

The operative device can still be, or in parallel be, an aircraft. The US is certainly focused on the threat from an aircraft outside the country. Some six Air France cancellations, nearly as many BA cancellations, and a few Mexican flights are evidence of that but is the threat from one or more passengers on board; is the intent to splash the aircraft, dive it into a high value target, deliver a device or device component to the US for combined effect in crashing the plane or for later use, a cover for something else, or some of the above. We and the French are seeking to interview those that did not show up for certain flights. The French report that one individual was thought to have 'a small bomb whose components might get past airport security.'

If we are to believe the unclass ruminations of US intel, al Qaeda is fixated on aircraft, planning to seize inbound aircraft and studying our air traffic system for weaknesses. I suggest that al Qaeda is fixated on large volume explosives, of which an aircraft is one. It is not clear that they are fixated on aircraft per se. Al Qaeda is known for doing the unexpected, for exploiting our weaknesses, attacking that which we overlook. Is al Qaeda attempting to focus our attention on aircraft while it envisions another means of attack. Moving from a domestic flight, where security is presumed good (and I wonder of the truth of that), to an arriving international flight, where security might be less attentive, is certainly a simple adjustment to a proven plan. Given the current US focus on inbound hijacked aircraft, will al Qaeda be put off and move on to something else.

Symbology, timing, and potential casualties have links. The ability to carry off any significant attack on US soil would be a needed symbol of al Qaeda renaissance. The ability to do so in the Christmas to New Years window would have increased the symbology many fold. Public celebrations associated with the holidays would assemble a target rich environment, nearly all soft and highly vulnerable physically and emotionally. An attractive target to be certain. Was that the original target or are they waiting for the stand-down from Orange when chances of success are higher. Was the stand-down timing the original plan or now the fallback plan.

The difficulty in parsing this out is made all the worse by attempting to sift through incomplete intel with some significant portion coming from third party foreign governments who, for their own secrecy needs, are shielding primary sources. It is very hard in such conditions to gage credibility of source and individual datum from source.

Is an attack on US interests still a priority event for al Qaeda, or is it a parallel event to efforts in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, or will it be deferred until al Qaeda can attempt to 'realign' the governing elites of Saudi Arabia (provides oil and a politically stable Arab center) and Pakistan (which already has divertible nukes, is resisting fundamentalist aims, and will ultimately support a US-led attack on al Qaeda strongholds in its northern territories). Some or all of the above.

I do not envy the burden on US intel at the moment.



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