Tuesday, December 23, 2003

The Sound of Silence

Inspector Gregory of Scotland Yard asked Holmes if there was any particular aspect of the crime that called for additional study. Holmes replied, "To the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime." Inspector Gregory then stated, "The dog did nothing in the night-time", after which Holmes replied, "That was the curious incident!"
-- paraphrased from The Silver Blaze

The United States went on an unprecedented state of alert on the basis of intelligence reports that the Al Qaeda is preparing to launch multiple attacks on urban targets as well as upon critical facilities in isolated areas. President Bush was reported to have met with the top-counterterrorism advisers to review the situation.

Unlike past elevations of the terror threat level, the decision to raise the alert to orange this time was unanimous and decisive, because it was based on what senior Bush administration officials described as the most alarming, credible and specific information they had ever seen. "I have never seen the national security leadership as tense and anxious as they are right now," said a second senior federal law enforcement official. He said even the timing of the elevation of the threat level was moved up a day because of rapidly developing concerns over the weekend.

News sources suggest that the threat involves aircraft, possibly in conjunction with other modes of attack, such as the use of truck bombs. One threat in open speculation involves the use of transiting aircraft, or aircraft hijacked across the US border for use as flying missiles. The availability of aircraft would make it possible for the terrorists to strike large sports events, such as the bowl games, attended by tens of thousands of people. Without aircraft, the simple use of truck bombs, unless employed in very large numbers, would be unlikely to eclipse the carnage of September 11, -- unless chemical or biological weapons are used -- which is the Al Qaeda's stated benchmark. A very large defensive operation has been organized around specific types of targets, such as powerplants, tunnels and bridges, which suggests that American intelligence has been able to deduce the general character of the operations.

Due to the lack of real-time command and control capability in the Al Qaeda, it is possible that all the planned attacks are tied to a rigid schedule. Possibly the discovery or compromise of an attack cell in the forward line of defense (overseas) has allowed the US to predict the general date and time of the scheduled strike, although the names and identities of the remaining cells may be unknown. The inner ring of defense is being prepared to receive the leakers. Yet unless American authorities are extremely fortunate in defense, it is overwhelmingly probable that at least one attack will get through.

It is not inconceivable that US government has already reviewed its offensive response to another mass casualty attack. If so, its most interesting aspect must be that the President has not seen fit to publicly warn would be perpetrators of the dire consequences, nor to inform the public of what the government would do if several thousand Americans were killed in another attack. The two likely reasons for this silence are that the US does not believe that any retaliatory threat, however dire, would deter the extremist Islamic enemy. The second may be that the US wishes to preserve the element of surprise in its intended riposte as well as avoid any anticipatory public debate on the character of that retaliation. Taken together, they suggest that the United States has not eliminated any options from its range of response. In plain words, the nukes are on the table. Whether they are used depends entirely on the course of events.