Remember When 2,000 to 5,000 Al Qaeda Operatives Had Supposedly Infiltrated America?

A litany of failed forecasts about terrorism


The United States of America (artist's conception)
Emory Allen

John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State, has been compiling a list of past predictions about terrorism. You can read a pdf of the work-in-progress here. It's a remarkable document: the fears of the past now frozen in amber, most of them somehow managing to look both familiar and ridiculous. As is often the case with apocalyptic prophecies, you can hear the same sorts of things today, just with the dates and sometimes the names changed.

Scan through the list and you'll see a lot of confident forecasts of assaults that never came, from Michael Ignatieff's 2004 declaration that "terrorists will attempt to tamper with our election in November" to Bill Clinton's belief that a chemical or biological attack was certain—100 percent certain—to hit us sometime between 2000 and 2010. (*) There's a lot of bluster from bin Laden and company too, as with Osama's 2002 warning that "the youth of Islam" were about to "target key sectors of your economy until you stop your injustice and aggression or until the more short-lived of us die." Occasionally there's a note of skepticism amid the auguries of doom. Russell Seitz wrote, for example, that "9/11 could join the Trojan Horse and Pearl Harbor among stratagems so uniquely surprising that their very success precludes their repetition….al-Qaeda's best shot may have been exactly that." And Rudy Giuliani, of all people, acknowledged in 2005 that after 9/11 he expected "dozens and dozens and multiyears of attacks like this" but "It hasn't been quite that bad."

But the most interesting items, to me, aren't really predictions at all. They're statements about what was then the present, not the future, yet they feel like failed forecasts now, because if they were true we would have seen (or at least foiled) another 9/11-scale terror attack long ago. My favorite is this UPI report from October 2002:


FBI officials say that al Qaida cells are embedded in most U.S. cities with sizable Islamic communities. New York, Detroit, New Jersey, Los Angeles, the Virginia area, Florida and cities in North Carolina like Charlotte are all believed to contain cells and their supporters, usually living in run-down sections of urban areas or towns, these officials say. "Information indicates that quite a few al Qaida cells have been established within the continental United States," an FBI official said. "The cells are up and active." He added that there had been recent electronic intercepts of communications between some groups that show they are in the United States and "talking to each other."…According to a half-dozen serving and retired federal officials, secret federal intelligence reports put the numbers of al Qaida operatives trained in Afghanistan or elsewhere and currently in the United States at between 2,000 and 5,000.

Five thousand Al Qaeda operatives! The combination of fear and inaccuracy here rivals anything at Infowars, but it came from the heart of the American intelligence community. Or else those "half-dozen serving and retired federal officials" were full of crap about what those "secret federal intelligence reports" contained, in which case it's the reporter whose credulity should concern us.

Actually, the journalist's attitude is worrisome either way. Mueller quotes only an excerpt from that UPI story, but you should read the whole thing. It's full of cinematic details about the Enemy Within ("According to former CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency officials, the terrorists choose run-down, seedy neighborhoods because 'in a place like that, you are invisible. People don't care about you, they don't want to look at you and don't look at you'"), and it culminates with the reporter's FBI sources overtly and approvingly comparing the bureau's current methods to COINTELPRO:

Meet cute

One FBI official explained that the purpose is to "disrupt" hostile organizations and that FBI tactics go back to 1956 when the FBI established its COINTELPRO (counter-intelligence program.) This official said that the program pitted one group—or even members of a single group—against each other "like gladiators in ancient Rome."

The program was used successfully against such groups as the Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan, he said.

Read the rest of Mueller's document here. Read a Reason interview with Mueller here. Read his Reason articles here.

(* In the comment thread, Ken Schultz points out that the anthrax mailings of 2001 fit the description. I was under the impression that Clinton meant something larger than that, but fair enough.)

NEXT: What's a Terrorist Attack If Not An Excuse for More Domestic Spying?

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  1. Remember When 2,000 to 5,000 Al Qaeda Operatives Had Supposedly Infiltrated America?

    Pepperidge Farm remembers.

    1. And Pepperidge farm wants to know how much its worth to you to not have your cover blown.

  2. “Bill Clinton’s belief that a chemical or biological attack was certain?100 percent certain?to hit us sometime between 2000 and 2010.”

    To be fair, Bill Clinton was right about that.

    We were hit by an anthrax attack in 2001.

    I suspect that anthrax attack was perhaps the most significant event between 2000 and 2010, with China joining the WTO coming in as a close second.

    If it hadn’t been for the anthrax attack, I’m not convinced the American people would have bought into the Iraq invasion–six months after we invaded Iraq, 69% of the American people still believed that Saddam Hussein was personally complicit in 9/11.


    Talk about fertile ground for a conspiracy theory! Yeah, that anthrax attack was probably the most important event in the decade following the millennium, and yet, at the same time, it seems to have disappeared down the memory hole for a lot of people–present company excluded, I’m sure.

    1. I tend to think that the anthrax attack happening at the same time as the 9/11 attack did a lot to convince people that there really was a credible, imminent threat of more mass casualty attacks, that the 9/11 attacks weren’t just the one-off they turned out to be, etc.

      1. There’s some kind of cognitive bias thing that happens to people when they’re scared.

        They don’t seem to remember why they believed the things they did when they were scared, but the conclusions they reach while they were scared seem to stick. And, then, once they’re no longer scared, it’s like they go out and seek other justifications for those conclusions.

        But that isn’t the way the logic and reason thingies work. It’s like they become emotionally attached to the conclusions they reached when they were frightened, and if you attack those conclusions with logic, a lot of them have big emotional reactions to it.

        Fear really is the mind-killer. You and I both remember, RC Dean, when questioning the logic behind the Iraq War was tantamount to treason for some commenters that would show up around here.

        Some of the Team Red people I’ve met are having bigger reactions to the shooting in Paris than progressives do when there’s a school shooting. If you said the same things to them about gun rights after a school shooting that they’re saying about Muslims (in the wake of a mass shooting in Paris), they’d defend gun rights with the most measured and reasonable arguments they’re capable of. It’s just that they’re not scared of gun rights, and they are scared of Islam.

        1. 1. Fair enough, Ken. I thought Clinton was referring to something larger than that, but the quote was phrased pretty broadly. I’ve updated the post.

          2. To R.C.’s point, I remember hoping that the anthrax mailings had the same origin as the 9/11 plot. They were so much smaller, in terms of the loss of life that they caused, that if they were the follow-up they might be a sign that Al Qaeda had shot its wad.

          1. The thing I remember about the anthrax attack was that it sort of made it an attack on each of us personally.

            That anthrax attack made it so that average Americans everywhere in the country were afraid to touch their own mail.

            9/11 happened in New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania, but in people’s minds, anyway, the anthrax attack happened at their own mailbox.

    2. The fact that it turned out to be a government employee with such high level security clearances was probably one of the government’s biggest embarrassments of all time.

  3. The FBI lied? Richard Jewell is rolling in the grave,duh.

  4. Christmas 2001. The dust of Six World Trade Center was still in the air. My dad said he was sure there would be a nuclear attack by terrorists (actors not associated with a nation state) within the next decade. He is a reasonable man, went to West Point, Vietnam, spent 30 years as an engineer with Procter and Grumble I confidently bet him $10,000 it wasn’t going to happen. Many people witnessed the wager.

    I am still waiting for my money.

    1. there are so many ‘educated ‘ people that think these idiots can piece together a atomic weapon with parts from Lowe’s.It’s hard for a nation state to do. Bio weapons too.You can’t make this crap in your basement!

  5. “target key sectors of your economy until you stop your injustice and aggression or until the more short-lived of us die.”

    To be fair, my city council has died-in-the-wool socialists and we have a $15 minimum wage.

  6. Remember when ISIS members were going to infect themselves with Ebola and cross the border into Mexico disguised as illegal immigrants?

    That’s my favorite scare story because it took two things that were in the news and combined them into a wildly implausible terrorist plot.

    1. I’d say it combined 3: ISIS/terrorism, Ebola, and illegal immigration/border security.

  7. We just didn’t see all the Jack Bauer heroics going on the background that can never be discussed by those involved. The presence of terrorism and the lack of terrorism both indicate that police power should be expanded.

    1. The FBI disrupted over 30 terrorist plots, including 100 percent of the plots they provided the plot, material and targets for.

  8. I also remember dire warnings from certain quarters regarding Iraq invasion #1. Saddam would be sending terrorist squads everywhere! Then in hindsight it looked like a ridiculous claim.

    Then oops, it turned out they were right, but about 10 years off and from the wrong country.

  9. Just before I saw the paycheck which was of $9215 , I did not believe that my brothers friend was really making money part time from their computer. . there sisters neighbor has done this 4 only about seven months and recently paid for the loans on their home and purchased a great Fiat Panda .
    all visit this page ******** http://www.jobsfish.com

  10. my neighbor’s ex-wife makes $77 hourly on the internet . She has been out of a job for nine months but last month her check was $18454 just working on the internet for a few hours. read………….
    ????? http://www.cashbuzz80.com

  11. An H&R posting non-ironically illustrated by a Herblock cartoon? Does Nick Gillespie know about this?

  12. Remember When 2,000 to 5,000 Al Qaeda Operatives Had Supposedly Infiltrated America?

    Oh they’re here alright – they just got jobs, wives, kids, and a mortgage.

    Mohammed and Abdul got activated one day and looked at their finances and said ‘shit, I can’t afford to take any time off right now – Basil’s getting ready for college and Alia needs braces plus the wife wants to remodel the kitchen . . . ‘

    1. well if they arent ready to drop everything and die for the cause, i guess that doesnt make them a threat now does it. unlike gun hoarding conservative Christians, just lookn for the chance to kill someone innocent.

  13. there are more than 5,000 white Christian terrorist militants in each of the states in the USA. They are they ones who have the guns, and power to take down thousands of innocent people.

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