ABC News is reporting that the Department of Homeland Security is worried about the large amount of terrorist “chatter” indicating another large-scale attack on the US. The recent attempted car bombings in London are a sign that al-Qaeda, or at least those who associate themselves with al-Qaeda are still out there and planning attacks. At the same time ABC News also had reported on a “graduation ceremony” for suicide bombers heading to Western targets.
The problem is that we’re not sure what al-Qaeda’s capabilities actually are. It appears as though al-Qaeda’s operations are heavily disrupted. An operation like the September 11 attacks takes years of planning, training, and coordination. Al-Qaeda no longer has the financial and logistical resources to pull off such an elaborately planned attack — especially not when the West is much less of a soft target than it was prior to the attacks. However, that doesn’t mean that al-Qaeda is not still dangerous — the London bombings may have been botched, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no threat. The design of the London bombs was likely primitive and may not have worked as intended, but a simple TATP bomb can be made relatively easily and cause mass casualties — and al-Qaeda seems to be reaching out to radical Muslims in the West to carry out the attacks instead of using Arab nationals who would be under more official scrutiny.
All in all, I don’t think that al-Qaeda could pull off another September 11-style attack: however, that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t do something less spectacular, but still devastating. A wave of suicide bombers in major Western cities would be bad enough. What happened in London and Glasgow fortunately wasn’t a particularly sophisticated or effective operation, but the next attack could very well be better executed. These recent events serve as a reminder that playing defense simply isn’t an option — sooner or later, someone can pull off a mass casualty attack that would devastate the economy and kill thousands. The only way to effectively deal with this threat is to eliminate the support structures that fund and outfit terrorism across the globe — and in the Internet age, that requires a careful balance between the need to provide security and the rights of the individual.