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The unknowns behind the terror alerts

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By David Ignatius
Thursday, October 7, 2010

Terrorism "alerts" like the one issued by the State Department last weekend for travel to Europe tend to be vague. Officials want to warn the public without tipping off their adversaries to how much they know.

It's a genuine dilemma for governments, deciding how much information to share in this threat-filled era. The argument for providing facts is that an informed public can be more vigilant. ("If you see something, say something," as the slogan goes.) The danger with vague, generalized warnings like last weekend's is that they may produce either indifference (bad) or panic (worse).

Intelligence officials have clammed up on details of the terrorism threat in Europe. One official warns that media leaks will be studied by al-Qaeda, which will adjust its plans accordingly. "The media's contribution will be to keep us behind permanently," he contends. While understanding the argument, I doubt many people would agree that an uninformed public is a safer one.

Here's what's obvious to all, based on public comments in the United States and Europe: Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups have been working to penetrate the defenses that were created after Sept. 11, 2001. They are trying to recruit people who can slip through the net -- Germans, for example, who have passports that allow them to travel easily across Europe and to America. They are looking for new ways to terrorize, including Mumbai-style attacks, and they are still plotting how to use chemical, biological or radiological weapons.

A recent case that suggests the seriousness of the threat, and the difficulty of getting people to agree about it, is that of an alleged al-Qaeda operative from Pakistan named Aafia Siddiqui. She was sentenced Sept. 23 in a New York federal court to 86 years in prison for shooting Americans who attempted to interrogate her when she was captured in 2008. Last week in Pakistan, however, the newspapers were full of indignant stories that she is an innocent victim.

If you study court documents about Siddiqui, you find a chilling warning of the threats facing the United States and Europe -- and Pakistan, too. First, Siddiqui, like so many other al-Qaeda recruits in the West, is a brilliant, if deeply disaffected, person: Born in Karachi, she majored in biology at MIT and earned a doctorate in neuroscience from Brandeis. After a divorce, in 2003 she married a nephew of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.

According to the Justice Department's pre-sentencing memo, when Siddiqui was arrested in Afghanistan, she was carrying documents in her handwriting that said, among other things: "A 'mass casualty attack' . . . NY City monuments: Empire State Bld., Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, etc.," "Dirty Bomb: Need few oz. radioactive material . . . would work by causing FEAR, not much deaths."

She was also carrying a computer flash drive that included a rumination about poisons: "Can go into supermarkets and randomly inject fruits with poisons, as well as other items that are usually eaten raw. . . . This may not kill as many people, but the panic, fear and economic loss will be substantial if done properly." Perhaps these documents themselves were meant just to sow fear. But lest anyone think she was simply a fantasist, she was caught carrying two pounds of sodium cyanide, which can be used as an explosive.

Siddiqui was tried and convicted. But millions back home regard her as a martyr -- and it's hard to imagine what evidence would change their minds.

Reading the court record in this case, you have to wonder how many other Siddiquis are out there. The answer is that nobody in America knows.

Another would-be Pakistani terrorist, Faisal Shahzad, got a life sentence Tuesday in New York federal court for his plot to detonate a bomb last May in Times Square. One disturbing piece of evidence was an FBI reconstruction of what the bomb could have done if it hadn't fizzled: The test "triggered a giant fireball that shot debris hundreds of feet in all directions, shredding four cars nearby and obliterating about a dozen dummies posing as pedestrians," according to The Post.

Reading these spooky documents, you hope officials find the right balance between information and silence. An intelligence official says "cooperation has never been better" among the United States and European countries affected by the latest threat. That's great, but I'd feel better if I knew that the dragnet included such nations as Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and, especially, Pakistan.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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