Sunday, December 21, 2003


On Sunday Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge raised the color-coded national threat level warning to orange:

The strategic indicators, including al-Qaida's continued desire to carry out attacks against our homeland, are perhaps greater now than at any point since September 11, 2001. The information we have indicates that extremists abroad are anticipating near-term attacks that they believe will either rival or exceed the attacks that occurred in New York, in the Pentagon, in the fields of Pennsylvania nearly two years ago ...

Q: Are you saying, Secretary Ridge, saying the chatter is up? The highest it's been since Sept. 11 is a pretty dramatic statement. But how would you compare it to, say, the orange alert that you called last February, when there were CIA reports saying an imminent attack was probably about to happen, and obviously didn't? But how would you compare it to that time? Is the chatter more serious, is it more intense?

RIDGE: Well, I think the level -- again, I don't recall numerically, quantitatively, that time, but any time the federal government goes from yellow to orange, orange back down to yellow, there's a consensus within the intelligence community that not only the volume, but the credibility and the kind of reporting merits us to either raise or lower the level of threat. So I think it's more important to focus on the fact that there is that consensus within the intelligence community that we go up.

Volume, credibility and kind. What those adjectives imply in this context can only be guessed. However it is reasonable to suppose that the increase in volume means that Al Qaeda, which maintain comms silence in order to maintain operational security, has broken open several channels previously been held in reserve, accepting the dangers in order to further the operation. Credibility probably means that the comms are originating from the known chain of AQ command, in this case almost certainly at the highest level. The kind modifier is intriguing. It suggests the clues are associated with certain collateral signals, message headers, distinctive channels, special formats or perhaps a reserved cryptosystem -- that are used only for the most important tasks. The reader may recall that similar analysis enabled America to predict the Bali and Saudi housing compound bombings but with insufficient precision in lagged time. The enemy fleet as it were, has sailed; known to be at sea -- but precisely where? The operators in this case, have left their staging areas and are en route to the line of departure.

Stepping back, is reasonable to suppose that with the capture of Saddam, the gathering collapse of the Ba'athist insurgency and the Libyan capitulation the AQ leadership feels it must risk all in a counterattack. If it does not stem the American tide now its funding sources will dry up, it supporters may defect and the resulting weaknesses will be exploited ruthlessly. But if the AQ can kill 10,000 Americans, they could psychologically reverse the entire course of the War on Terror. A second or worse September 11 coming at the end of the American operations in Afghanistan and Iraq would enshrine Howard Dean's conclusion that it has "not made America safer" into the Pantheon of half-truths. It would endanger the re-election of George W. Bush. It would drop a mantle of weariness on the American people. It would make them wonder, after Kabul and Baghdad, what they would have to do for an encore. Of that answer, the AQ will not think. But for now, the false and glittering prize awaits, the operational risks are disregarded. This is the logic of the banzai charge and kamikaze operation. And if history is no false guide, the banzai charge will take place. Already the mustering can be heard in the brush. Or if one prefers another metaphor, bogeys have been detected inbound and the CAP is now being vectored to engage. Tom Ridge's warning is designed in part to prepare the American mind for the flaming bolt out of the December sky, when Osama Bin Laden sets his perverse and fiery star against the original at Bethlehem. And we are ready, though not prepared.