Civil Liberties

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:

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.)