List of Foiled Plots Puzzling to Some
Sunday, October 23, 2005
A White House list of 10 terrorist plots disrupted by the United States has confused counterterrorism experts and officials, who say they cannot distinguish between the importance of some incidents on the list and others that were left off.
Intelligence officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the White House overstated the gravity of the plots by saying that they had been foiled, when most were far from ready to be executed. Others noted that the nation's color-coded threat index was not raised from yellow, or "elevated" risk of attack, to orange, or "high" risk, for most of the time covered by the incidents on the list.
The president made it "sound like well-hatched plans," said a former CIA official involved in counterterrorism during that period. "I don't think they fall into that category."
President Bush announced the list of attacks on Oct. 6, describing them as serious al Qaeda terrorist plots disrupted by the United States and its allies since Sept. 11, 2001. The document included never-before-disclosed plans to use hijacked commercial airliners to attack the East and West coasts in 2002 and 2003.
Three of the 10 plots were aimed at U.S. soil, and the government also halted five al Qaeda efforts to case possible targets or infiltrate operatives into the country.
Counterterrorism experts said they could not explain why some of the U.S. government's bigger successes did not make the list, including the thwarted attack by Richard Reid, who tried to set off explosives in his shoes aboard a transatlantic flight in December 2001, and the capture a year later of Ali Saleh Kahlah Marri, a graduate student at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., who officials believe had ties to Sept. 11 terrorists.
"We don't know how they came to the conclusions they came to," said one counterterrorism official, who spoke anonymously for fear of angering the White House. "It's safe to say that most of the [intelligence] community doesn't think it's worth very much."
The White House said the incidents were compiled by the U.S. "intelligence community" and most had already been mentioned in public, either in media accounts or when arrests were made. A spokesman for the National Security Council, which reviewed each of the plots before the list was released, declined to say whether the incidents represent the most serious threats or explain why other incidents that required more disruptive security measures did not make the list.
"The gradations of seriousness is not something I've looked into," said Fred Jones, an NSC spokesman. The intelligence community "takes them all very seriously," he said.
Terror analysts said the list contained some plots that were clearly disrupted, such as a two-pronged 2003 plot to attack Heathrow Airport using hijacked commercial airplanes and a mortar assault on a departing plane. The idea was hatched by Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who has been in custody since 2003.
In another plot on the White House list, British authorities, with the aid of U.S. officials, arrested eight men in March 2004 who had collected ammonium nitrate fertilizer in a storage facility. The material can be used to make bombs, and police believe that the men were planning to target London buses and nightclubs.
Along with its list of 10 plots, the White House also released a list of five "casings and infiltrations." One of them involved a Baltimore man, Majid Khan, who was apparently assigned by Mohammed to collect information about gas stations, with the idea of detonating explosives in the stations' underground storage tanks.