On Being Lucky

Posted By April 20, 2004 No Comments

There is an aphorism that is frightening, for all that it is true: For the US Secret Service, a would-be Presidential assassin only has to be lucky once in a while, but the Presidential security detail has to be lucky all the time. The same is true for the terrorist who seeks to launch a really vicious attack – in order to kill people by the thousands (or tens of thousands): He only has to be lucky once while the security forces of the Free World need to be lucky all the time.

The US Secret Service, like most professionals in the military and security services, are used to making their luck stretch as far as competence and professionalism can take them. Luck is something you have to make for yourself, but even manufactured luck can only stretch so far. Canada has been very lucky in the long months since 9-11, but it won’t last forever.

Al Qaeda is looking for weaknesses and, of all the countries that Osama bin Laden has threatened in the months since 9/11, Canada is the only nation on which they have yet to attempt an attack. What style of attack might materialize here is anyone’s guess, but we should be able to make some estimates from attacks attempted elsewhere in the past few months.

On April 17th, Jordan announced that Palestinians associated with al Qaeda had been arrested while driving three vehicles into Amman. The vehicles contained enough of the primary materials for making a massive chemical bomb that could have killed “20,000 people and contaminated a large area”. The area planned for the release of the weapon, once it was assembled, included the offices of the Jordanian Prime Minister, the General Intelligence Department and the US Embassy. Incidentally, the Jordanian police pointed out that the vehicles had come from Syria.

At the end of January in Baghdad, US troops found a three-kilogram block of cyanide salt in a safe-house belonging to Abu Musah Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda poison specialist who acted as a go-between for Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Cyanide salts are extremely toxic and form the basis for a number of startlingly poisonous weapons.

On March 30th, British police scooped up ten suspected members of al Qaeda in London (and the RCMP arrested Mohammad Momin Khawaja, 29, in Ottawa in connection with the case). The group had acquired half a ton of ammonium nitrate fertilizer –the base for a number of improvised explosives – and had been looking for means to use it in some crowded area of London. They were also discussing trying to find stocks of osmium tetroxide as an additional casualty-causing agent. Osmium tetroxide is not volatile enough to evaporate when in an explosion, and wouldn’t be noticed for hours after an attack – until rescue workers and survivors started going blind and coughing up their lungs.

The recent release of “do-it-yourself” Jihadist training materials by al Qaeda is already having some effects. At the end of March, German police arrested an armed man who was about to enter a discotheque in the city of Frankfurt with a gun and two improvised bombs. Interestingly, he was one of the many European converts to Islam that al Qaeda has placed a high emphasis on recruiting in the last two years. In late March, another do-it-yourself attempt came apart in Milan; when an Islamic militant wired up seventy propane tanks in his car for an attempted suicide bombing – but the improvised device prematurely detonated on a highway, only incinerating the driver.

On April 5th, in the aftermath of the Madrid bombings, French police, in a series of dawn raids, scooped up 13 suspected members of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (an al Qaeda subset) including one terrorist about to flee the country. The French cells of the group were wanted in connection with the deadly terrorist attacks in Casablanca in May of 2003. The cell was planning further attacks in Paris.

Last January, French police also scooped up an al Qaeda cell in their search for Menad Benchellali’s stores of biological weapons. An al Qaeda chemical weapons expert, Benchellali had stored botulin and ricin toxins at his home, although no traces have been found so far. The French and British are nervous after finding that ricin had been produced by al Qaeda members in England last year, but have no idea where the stocks produced in a raided improvised lab have disappeared to.

The Italians are also nervous again after finding another videotaped threat against Rome inside an al Qaeda safehouse in Cremona early this April. The tape was from Sheikh Abu Qatadah Al Falastini, a Jordanian and suspected Al-Qaeda member who was being held in prison in Britain. It said : “The person who will destroy Rome is already preparing his swords. Rome will not be conquered by words but by force and weapons … Rome is the cross and the West is the cross. And the people of Rome are the patrons of the cross. Muslims’ target is the West.” The Vatican and Rome were already heavily guarded last Christmas in response to a planned suicide attack, and heightened security was in place again for Easter. The Pope was also targeted in 1996 for death in al Qaeda’s aborted “Operation Mojimbo”.

Added to these are dozens of other reports of reconnaissance trips, of the training of Jihadist recruits inside Europe and North America, and attempts to acquire explosives and toxins. These reports come in a constant stream, and seldom go further than the police and security forces, but these are enough to keep many police and security analysts awake at nights. After all, what should one make of reports of a man videotaping an oil refinery at night outside a major North American city, or of a man found measuring the precise coordinates of important buildings with a GPS set?

Our turn to have an al Qaeda attack attempted either inside Canada or against Canadian citizens overseas is coming… when or how is anyone’s guess. The only sure thing is that it is coming. If this attack fails, then another one will come again later. Al Qaeda only has to be lucky once, and we have to be lucky all the time.