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Do al Qaeda Tapes Augur Attacks

WHEN OSAMA BIN LADEN and Ayman al-Zawahiri threatened the West in January—with al-Zawahiri vowing that the next attacks would be in the United States—the Western world again held its collective breath, as it has after each al Qaeda audio or video threat has been publicized. But are these warnings more hot air than chill wind?

To determine whether such warnings have predictive value, Security Management reviewed the timing of releases of tapes against the timing of major attacks and attempted attacks, and discussed these historical trends with experts in al Qaeda methodology.

The consensus is that there hasn’t been a directly observable nexus between a warning and an attack. Although there have been dozens of warnings since 9-11, there is no clear correlation between a tape and a strike. To be sure, warnings have preceded attacks by only a few weeks on occasion, as when an audiotape released in April 2003, featuring bin Laden urging followers to commit suicide attacks on U.S. and British interests was followed in May by attacks on Westerners’ compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which killed 26 and wounded 160.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, says that the warnings may have augured attacks early on in the war against terrorism, but that they have ceased to do so. “If there ever was a correlation,” Hoffman says, “there’s less correlation now because of their lessened capability.”

Previous warnings, in and of themselves, haven’t had “a sterling predictive record,” agrees Fred Burton, vice president for counterterrorism and corporate security at strategic intelligence firm Statfor.

Instead, says Hoffman, the warnings serve to get bin Laden back in the news, strike fear in the West, and appeal to al Qaeda’s constituency and sympathizers. Al Qaeda has other ways of calling for attacks, Hoffman says: “I think they’re quite capable of communicating directly rather than through, ‘Two winks and a nod mean strike tonight.’”

Warning Westerners of attacks also is at odds with al Qaeda’s tendency to catch victims unawares, adds Burton, who has studied the predictive value of al Qaeda warnings for several years. “They won’t attack the next day,” he says.

But al Qaeda warnings should not be dismissed altogether, Burton continues. Tapes should be examined in the context in which they were released, he says. For example, the recent bin Laden audiotape came at the end of a flurry of tapes released in December and January that Burton calls “a bit unusual.” Those tapes might be an attempt to give sufficient warning to average Americans, he says, so as to be true to the Muslim tenet that “whoever warns is excused,” he says.

The tapes also closely follow a massive U.S. attack in Pakistan in that struck a dwelling where four top al Qaeda leaders were thought to be meeting. The gathering of those leaders, and the ferocity of the U.S. attack against them, suggests that the men may have been planning a major attack, Burton says.

All these factors suggest that “we are in an attack-cycle window” of indeterminate length, Burton adds. “The organization almost needs to do something inside the United States to show that they’re still in the game,” he says. “If they have the operational ability to carry out an attack, they will.”