Signs of the Times

“I think that we do have to take very seriously the thought that the terrorists might have learned, we hope, the wrong lesson from Spain,” said Condoleeza Rice this week. “I think we also have to take seriously that they might try during the cycle leading up to the election to do something.”

This is not just speculation. There are numerous signs that something is in the offing.

  • British investigators, combing through evidence seized following the March 11 Madrid train bombings, uncovered a plot by jihad terrorists to level Chicago’s Sears Tower with a dirty bomb.
  • Last Friday, Homeland Security and FBI officials, according to ABC News, “held a rare secure conference call with police in dozens of major cities.” The next day they sent out “a classified bulletin ??¢â???¬ ¦ warning that groups affiliated with al Qaeda might be planning attacks in the U.S. on the scale seen in Madrid last month.” Officials are tight-lipped and details are sketchy, but it does seem that “police were told to be on the lookout for surveillance of landmarks, and for suspicious items left in malls, subway stations or other large gatherings.”

    Meanwhile, some curious incidents:

  • On Sunday, a group of heavily-armed pirates attacked a tugboat off the Philippine coast. According to Straits Times, they fled with “stolen gear and the captain, an engineer and a crane operator as hostages.” But no one has heard anything from them since — no demand for ransom, nothing. What does this have to do with a threat to the United States? Perhaps nothing. But there has been a noticeable rise in such incidents in that area in the past year. Says Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside Al-Qaeda: “It’s possible these could be rehearsals. The maritime domain is the least policed environment and terrorist groups here have shown an interest.” James Copinger-Symes, managing director of the British maritime security company Hudson Trident, notes that the targets are ever more frequently not harmless tugboats but chemical and oil tankers, suggesting “terrorist targeting and build-up.” Also, investigators have found that the Al-Qaeda bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 may have been planned — and practiced — in Malaysia.
  • In Oakland, some rocket launchers and semiautomatic assault rifles seem to have gone missing. On Saturday, federal, state, and local officials converged on a warehouse near Oakland International Airport. As usual they had little to say except that the missing materiel and resulting search, according to AP, “was not related to terrorism.” But U.S. Magistrate Edward Chen revealed that the search was for “a bunch of devices for rockets that could be launched from military vehicles and [for] some M-16s.”

    Okay, let me get this straight: federal, state and local officials are searching for rocket launchers, and it has nothing to do with terrorism? Maybe the postman or garbage man picked up a few crates of stray rocket launchers by mistake while on his daily rounds?

  • On Tuesday, Italian authorities revealed that earlier in the week they seized 8,000 Kalashnikov rifles and other weapons that were on their way to the United States. Labeled as “common guns,” they were actually, according to a Reuters report, “assault rifles and longer-range combat arms.” Maybe this was a simple mistake. But with the weapons valued at six million euros, such an error would be unfathomable, unpardonable carelessness. Was it an attempt to elude regulations covering importation of military-grade weaponry?
  • Los Angeles International Airport officials evacuated a terminal last Friday after finding what a policeman described as “a cell phone with wires protruding from it.” An overreaction? Maybe — but remember, the March 11 Madrid train bombs seem to have been set off by cell phones. The LA incident was not isolated: on April 7, the South Terminal of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was evacuated after what officials described as a “military flare containing a highly flammable substance” was discovered in an airport bathroom. Said an FBI statement: “This device could have caused very serious injury to anyone handling or tampering with the device.”

    It’s impossible to tell what these incidents would have amounted to — just as it was impossible to foresee 9/11 from the increase in jihadist chatter and activity in the months preceding it. But they certainly indicate that Rice’s warnings are well-founded. If the media and the 9/11 Commission would turn its attention from whom to blame for the last attack to how to prevent the next one, we might have a fighting chance to keep it from happening.