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Al Qaeda’s New York

The terrorists are still obsessed with the city—which is why the NYPD is trying to learn to think like terrorists.


By definition, New York makes people around the world want a piece of it. And in this context, the thousands of Al Qaeda planners, bomb-makers, sleepers, and wigged-out suicide cadres strewn from Kuala Lumpur to the Sunni triangle are just wannabe New Yorkers, as delirious as any wet-eared Broadway gofer to see their work writ large across the skyline. “We know we’re at the top of the Al Qaeda hit list,” says Police Commissioner Ray Kelly in his trademark thirties-inflected copspeak. “The bombings in 1993 and 2001 and the landmarks plot showed that they came back here and would want to come back here.”

And if the next 25 years are to be a football game in which the offense lobs bombs with an infinite number of clandestine delivery methods, then we’re obligated to spend lots of time thinking about how and where.

Understanding the where is paramount. Al Qaeda is sentimental, which is to say its planners and strategists follow their hearts. It keeps them consistent. This is what Kelly means when he notes that for the past fifteen years, they have been announcing that they will attack—and then attacking—New York.

The density and wattage of the human-target grid here—Shea on a summer night, JFK at Thanksgiving, Macy’s on a Saturday, Times Square just about any time—make the city itself a meta-target and raise the value of each individual target in it. According to Osama’s medieval worldview, more dead Crusaders and Jews means more dead Crusaders and Jews, so that any place attacked in New York has intrinsic value, but it doesn’t get at the likelihood of what might be next.

“What turns a thing into a target?” says Brian Michael Jenkins, Rand Corporation terror expert. “First, high symbolic value. Then, what do they want to accomplish with their home audience? Operations are as much for display—to attract recruits, financial support, and to establish credentials—as they are intended to hurt us. They’re corporate communications.”

Targets are developed in two ways. The first is a top-down sort of structure, as when bin Laden and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed selected, trained, and defined the missions of the several cells who ultimately flew on September 11. The second process, running concurrently, is that allied cells around the world reconnoiter targets on their own, throwing proposals to the central organization.

“Think of it like every taxi driver in Los Angeles is also writing a film script,” Jenkins continues. “So, they’re going to pitch these to an agent or a studio. If you’re bin Laden and the boys, you sort of have this constant incoming flow of target folders and project proposals: ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be great if we could take down the stock exchange?’ You might look at one of those and say, ‘Gee, that’s an interesting idea—let’s take it up from a pitch to a story treatment.’

“Since it’s not a fluid battle situation, the iterative process is very long, by which I mean that there will be revisions both up and down the command chain. They have a long horizon. They started doing feasibility studies for the second World Trade Center attack in 1996.”

The Counter-Terrorism Bureau, under Deputy Commissioner Michael Sheehan, supplies the 140 detectives who work with the FBI in the Joint Terrorism Task Force. “The question is, what’s happening now?” says Sheehan, in blue herringbone shirtsleeves at his conference table at One Police Plaza. “Is Al Qaeda’s central organization able to reorganize itself and launch strategic attacks like 9/11? Or are these smaller operational cells going to be launching strategic attacks, as in Spain? We know they’re trying. I had thought that the post-9/11 operations were much more local, decentralized, independent operations: Madrid, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and those of Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia, like Bali. But now I see ties back into Al Qaeda a little bit stronger than I thought, linkages going back to the training camps in the Afghan war.”

Such hydra-headed fluidity between groups and the continuum of activity reaching back fifteen years mean that NYPD counterterrorists must read the tea leaves in the operational detail of other attacks and investigations worldwide and distill the trends into possible narratives for the city. (And one concern near the top of Kelly’s list is that the bomb-making expertise developed in Iraq will be exported to New York.)

“In New York, you could begin making a list of targets downtown, and you’d have a very long one before you reached midtown,” says Jenkins. “But I’m convinced that the visuals trump the actuals for Al Qaeda. What I mean is, some of the infrastructure things that we may be concerned about, such as the Internet, may not be valuable targets, not just because of the lack of bloodshed but because of the visuals. These bombs are about a demonstration of prowess.”

Obvious targeting narratives determined the NYPD’s massive deployments around last summer’s Republican convention. Madison Square Garden at a mid-season Knicks game, however, doesn’t rate quite so high, which is to say the “softer” recreational targets get a slight—very slight—break from Al Qaeda.

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