Could al-Qaida ever stage another attack as spectacular as 9/11?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Feb. 28 2009 8:35 AM

The Burden-of-Success Theory

How on earth do you improve on 9/11?

This is the fourth part in a series of eight exploring why the United States suffered no follow-up terror attacks after 9/11. To read the series introduction, click here.

Ralph Ellison published his first novel, Invisible Man, in 1952. It won the National Book Award. The New York Times said Ellison had "mastered his art." In 1963, Ellison announced he would soon publish a second novel. The literary world held its breath. The book was delayed. Invisible Man, meanwhile, became recognized as perhaps the single greatest American novel of the postwar period. The years passed. "YOUR SILENCE PREVENTING WORK," Ellison telegrammed his future wife. In 1994 Ellison died, his second novel nowhere near completion.

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Is Osama Bin Laden the Ralph Ellison of terrorism?

According to this theory, the 9/11 attacks were so stunning a success that they left al-Qaida's leadership struggling to conceive and carry out an even more fearsome and destructive plan against the United States. In his 2006 book The One Percent Doctrine, journalist Ron Suskind attributes to the U.S. intelligence community the suspicion that "Al Qaeda wouldn't want to act unless it could top the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with something even more devastating, creating an upward arc of rising and terrible expectation as to what, then, would follow." In a 2008 follow-up, The Way of the World, Suskind quotes Saad al-Faqih, a Saudi dissident believed by the U.S. Treasury to have ties to al-Qaida going back to the mid-1990s, predicting an attack "bigger than 9/11." The purpose of such escalation would be to incite a domestic uprising that would force the United States to retreat from the Muslim world and thereby "collapse the world order." The U.S. response to 9/11 in both Afghanistan and Iraq strongly suggests that precisely the opposite would happen, but never mind. "Terrorists compulsively drink deep from the well of their own propaganda," Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, wrote last year. "The movement doubtless continues to pin its hopes and faith on some new, spectacular terrorist attack that will catapult al-Qaida back into prominence."

An attack on this scale would very probably require a chemical, biological, or nuclear weapon. Al-Qaida is known to have pursued all three.

In 2001, the Wall Street Journal discovered a password-protected file titled "Yogurt" in a computer previously used by Ayman al-Zawahiri. "Yogurt" turned out to be the code name for a chemical and biological weapons project that al-Qaida had begun in 1999. "The destructive power of these weapons," al-Zawahiri had written excitedly (and inaccurately) in a memo, "is no less than that of nuclear weapons." Al-Zawahiri was particularly interested in developing an anthrax-based weapon and hired a microbiologist named Abdur Rauf to obtain the necessary spores and equipment. It's unclear precisely how far Rauf got. Al-Zawahiri also hired an Egyptian who went by the nom de guerre Abu Khabab to develop chemical weapons. This project developed to the point at which Khabab was able to test nerve gas on dogs and rabbits. (Today, Rauf is at large but under surveillance in Pakistan, which refuses to turn him over to the United States. Khabab was killed in July by an air strike from a CIA drone in the remote tribal region on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border where al-Qaida's top leaders relocated after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.)

There's scattered evidence these efforts are continuing. In July, a Pakistani neuroscientist named Aafia Siddiqui with suspected ties to al-Qaida was arrested in Afghanistan and extradited to New York on charges that she'd sought to kill U.S. troops. She is currently awaiting trial. When arrested, Siddiqui reportedly was found to possess documents about chemical, biological, and radiological weapons ("dirty bombs"). In late January, an al-Qaida affiliate in Algeria reportedly notified al-Qaida's leadership that it closed a facility to develop chemical or biological weapons after a fatal accident. The speculation was that the terrorists were trying to weaponize bubonic plague, though there is ample reason  to be skeptical about that.

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