The United States and its allies have thwarted at least 10 serious al Qaeda terrorist plots since Sept. 11, 2001, including never-before-disclosed plans to use hijacked commercial airliners to attack the East and West coasts in 2002 and 2003, President Bush and his aides said yesterday.
The reported plots aimed to strike a wide variety of targets, including the Library Tower in Los Angeles, ships in international waters and a tourist site overseas, the White House said last night. Three of the 10 were directed at U.S. soil, officials said. The government, they added, also stopped five al Qaeda efforts to case possible targets or infiltrate operatives into the country.
Most of the plots were previously reported in some form; a few were revealed yesterday. The White House had never before placed a number or compiled a public list of the foiled attempts to follow up the Sept. 11 attacks, but it offered scant information beyond the location and general date of each reported plot -- making it difficult to assess last night how serious or advanced they were or what role the government played in preventing them.
Bush cited the disrupted plans in a speech yesterday intended to shore up sagging public support for the war in Iraq and address more extensively than ever before the philosophical framework undergirding Islamic extremism. The radical movement, he said, goes beyond "isolated acts of madness," animated by a coherent philosophy akin to Soviet Communism and Nazi fascism with the goal to "establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia."
"While the killers choose their victims indiscriminately, their attacks serve a clear and focused ideology, a set of beliefs and goals that are evil but not insane," the president said. The disruption of some plots, he said, means that "the enemy is wounded but the enemy is still capable of global operations."
Bush singled out Syria and Iran for condemnation, calling them "allies of convenience" of Islamic radicals "with a long history of collaboration with terrorists" and saying they "deserve no patience from the victims of terror." He rebuffed calls to withdraw from Iraq, dismissing the "dangerous illusion" that pulling out would make the United States safer. And he rejected the argument that the Iraq war has only fostered terrorism, a position taken even by some in government.
The 40-minute address to the National Endowment for Democracy outlined no new strategy for the nation's four-year-old battle with al Qaeda but inserted Bush directly into the underlying war of ideas, as many security specialists have been urging for some time. In the past few years he has avoided personalizing the conflict for fear of building up terrorist leaders, but yesterday he talked repeatedly and in unusually personal terms about Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab Zarqawi, the leader of the insurgency in Iraq.
Bin Laden, Bush said, deludes his followers into becoming suicide bombers. "He assures them that . . . this is the road to paradise -- though he never offers to go along for the ride," Bush said.
The president likewise quoted Zarqawi calling Americans "the most cowardly of God's creatures" and offered a direct rebuttal. "Let's be clear," he said. "It is cowardice that seeks to kill children and the elderly with car bombs and cuts the throat of a bound captive and targets worshipers leaving a mosque."
In the speech, Bush cited the numbers of disrupted plots and casings without giving details, and at first White House spokesmen were unable to document them. After scrambling all day and debating how much could be disclosed in response to media inquiries, the White House produced a list last night.
The three plots targeting U.S. territory included the well-known case of Jose Padilla, who was arrested after he allegedly explored a possible radiological "dirty bomb" attack, and two plans to use hijacked planes to attack the West Coast in mid-2002 and the East Coast in mid-2003. The White House document gave no further details about the timing or targets of the latter two.
Two sources familiar with intelligence information said the West Coast plot targeted the tallest building in Los Angeles, since renamed the US Bank Tower, and involved Malaysian militants and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, who was captured in 2003. Previous reports on Mohammed's interrogations in custody said that before Sept. 11 he mapped out an attack on the tower that was later aborted.
The seven foreign plots said to be disrupted by the United States and its partners included plans to strike London's Heathrow Airport using hijacked planes, to hit ships in the Persian Gulf region and the Straits of Hormuz, to attack Westerners in Karachi, Pakistan, and to set off multi-target explosions in Britain.
The five "casings and infiltrations" in the United States involve better-known cases, such as the capture of Iyman Faris, who was accused of exploring the destruction of the Brooklyn Bridge and ultimately pleaded guilty to providing material support to al Qaeda. Another involved a man sent to scout gas stations in the United States, an apparent reference to Majid Khan, who was reportedly assigned by Mohammed to explore simultaneous bombings of gas stations.
Many of the thwarted attacks on the White House list seem tied to Mohammed. "Disruption of these plots in particular demonstrates how even a single arrest involving a lone individual can have a seismic effect on a terrorist group's capabilities," said Bruce Hoffman, a Rand Corp. terrorism analyst.
In his speech, originally scheduled to mark the four-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks but postponed after Hurricane Katrina, Bush had many terms for his enemy, calling it variously "Islamic radicalism," "militant Jihadism" and even "Islamofascism." He did not declare an end to his "global war on terror," a phrase that some advisers had pushed to abandon in favor of "strategy against violent extremism."
But he did offer what Hoffman called a "far more nuanced" portrait of his enemies, essentially adopting the view of experts that al Qaeda has morphed into a global enemy -- as Bush said, "more like a loose network with many branches than an army under a single command," with operatives united by ideology but not "centrally directed."
Bush, however, rejected the idea that "extremism" had been "strengthened" by the ongoing U.S. war in Iraq, taking strong issue with analysts who believe that Iraq has become a "melting pot for jihadists from around the world, a training group and an indoctrination center" for a new generation of terrorists, as the State Department's annual report on terrorism put it this year.
"To say Iraq has not contributed to the rise of global Sunni extremism movement is delusional," said Roger W. Cressey, a former White House counterterrorism adviser under Bush and President Bill Clinton. "We should have an honest discussion about what these unintended consequences of the Iraq war are and what do we do to counter them."
Some experts have been pushing for Bush to characterize the enemy as an ideology with specific political objectives, such as re-creating an Islamic caliphate to unite all Muslim countries. They argue that in the past Bush handed foes in the Middle East an easy weapon by not making such a distinction, leaving him open to the charge that the United States is waging war on Islam.
"The explanation of who we're facing should have been done in the first year after the 9/11 attacks," said Walid Phares, a scholar at the conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Bush has finally "moved from a war on terror to a war with an evil ideology."
Staff writer Sara Kehaulani Goo, research editor Lucy Shackelford and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.