August 5, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Terror Tradecraft

The mother lode of intelli gence recently plucked from al Qaeda computers in Pakistan shows that we're not dealing only with lethal terrorists, but highly capable spooks as well.

The quality of al Qaeda's information on targets in New York City and Washington, D.C., indicates a covert intelligence-collection capability on par with some of the world's best spy services.

The FBI estimates that there are as many as several hundred al Qaeda-associated extremists in the United States. It could be a deadly mistake not to take recent terrorist threats seriously.

Al Qaeda's casing operations were certainly serious. Its operatives collected more than 500 digital photos, documents and drawings. They detailed building layouts, security and construction and pedestrian and vehicular traffic flow.

They noted employee routines and watering holes. And they mapped the location of the first responders such as hospitals, police and fire departments - all with an eye to killing as many people as possible.

Bottom line: It's top-notch intelligence work that would make any clandestine service stand up and take notice.

Moreover, the intrusive, coordinated, long-running casings went undetected. Working under cover as couriers and delivery people, al Qaeda operatives were able to observe and enter the buildings without alarming security personnel. Recruited terrorist agents may have even been employees of the targeted facilities, making it a real inside job. (Some of the casing notes were in English.)

Although the information seems to have been collected a few years ago, it's unlikely it went only to the computers seized in Pakistan. The smart money says this intelligence was shared with others in Terror Land, too.

Beware: This surveillance information has likely been updated by other al Qaeda cells since it was first acquired. And it may be tied into the other streams of intelligence we're receiving on threats against U.S. targets this summer.

In raising the terror level to "high," the Department of Homeland Security was spot-on. It would be foolish to assume these plots have been canned.

But where did al Qaeda learn to conduct such thorough sleuthing? Not surprisingly, it had help from the usual suspects.

Iran: The 9/11 Commission fingers Iran as having trained and supported al Qaeda as far back as 1992. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security are thick as thieves with international terrorists, providing intelligence, training, funding and material support.

Remember the expulsion of Iranian (faux) diplomats for intelligence-collection activities last month in New York City? That was the third set of Iranian spies asked to leave the U.S. in the last two years for casing possible terrorist targets. (See New York Post op-ed, "Spooks, Lies and Videotape," July 6, 2004.) The Iranians might well be sharing this intel with al Qaeda.

Hezbollah: The commission also mentions that al Qaeda received training from the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah in the early 1990s in Lebanon's terrorist snake pit, the Bekaa Valley. "Bin Laden showed particular interest in learning how to use truck bombs such as the one [used by Hezbollah] that killed 241 Marines in Lebanon in 1983," the report notes.

The truck bomb technique was later used against the World Trade Center (1993), the American barracks at Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia (1996) and the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (1998).

Hezbollah's bomb training for al Qaeda doubtless included how to successfully pick and case a target to ensure the maximum carnage. (Note: There are also Hezbollah operatives in the U.S. who might be assisting al Qaeda, too.)

Both new and older (but solid) intelligence about al Qaeda plots indicate a perfect terrorist storm forming over the homeland this summer. Unfortunately, al Qaeda has gotten - and may be still getting - intelligence help from both Hezbollah and Iran. As we look at intelligence reform here at home, we must realize that the only way we can prevent another attack is to ensure that our intelligence is better than al Qaeda's.

Peter Brookes, a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, is a Naval Academy grad. E-mail:

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post