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Does Terrorists' Chatter Matter?

Once again, the U.S. East Coast and Washington, D.C., have, in the language of the military, become a "target-rich environment." That's the main reason Attorney General John Ashcroft warned on May 26 that this could be the summer for a massive terrorist strike by al Qaeda.

Is the U.S. prepared? That's a subject of much debate as Americans get ready for summer (see BW Online, 5/24/04, "Special Report -- Homeland Security"). But clearly, the government doesn't want to be accused of not having warned citizens of the potential risks. Tourist season is approaching in the nation's capital. There's the annual muggy Fourth of July fireworks show on the Mall, which can attract up to 500,000 partyers. Add to that the Memorial Day dedication of a new World War II monument, expected to attract nearly as many visitors.

GLOBAL EVESDROPPING. Politicians face risks, too. In early June, a meeting of eight heads of state, including President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is scheduled to be held on an island off the coast of Georgia. Then there are the political conventions in July and August -- the Democrats in Boston and the Republicans in New York -- and the Presidential election in November.

The concern among Administration higher-ups about a major attack seems all too real. For weeks, Washington officials have been discussing among themselves the increased level of "chatter" being intercepted by the National Security Agency (NSA). From a military base outside of Washington and from listening posts all over the world, the NSA uses supercomputers to monitor overseas phone and Internet traffic. The last time the NSA raised the chatter alarm was during the summer of 2001.

The term chatter refers to intercepted conversations, many in Arabic, that seem to be in code, such as "the package is almost ready for delivery," but which refer to planning for an attack, according to intelligence officials. "This disturbing intelligence indicates [that] al Qaeda's specific intention is to hit the U.S. hard," said Ashcroft.

RECRUITING BOOST. Summertime warnings before September 11, 2001, were so vague they didn't generate sufficient alarm among counterterrorism agencies such as the FBI, which allowed two of the hijackers to slip through a loose dragnet. But the government wants to send a signal that it's handling things differently now. On May 26, Ashcroft showed photographs of seven suspected terrorists, including two Canadians and one American, who may be in the advanced stages of planning an attack. Most ominous: Two of the seven have received training as pilots.

Ashcroft issued his "be-on-the-lookout-for" plea in hopes of snaring one or more of the suspected terrorists. He also warned that al Qaeda is attempting to recruit more men in their 20s and 30s, especially ones whose European, Asian, or African appearance doesn't fit with the stereotypical bearded or turbaned image of a Middle Eastern terrorist, such as Osama bin Laden.

The Attorney General's warnings follow a May 25 report from the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in London that bin Laden's al Qaeda has 18,000 adherents around the world. Far from helping tamp down the terrorist threat, the war in Iraq has aided bin Laden's recruiting drive, the think tank's report said. "Al Qaeda must be expected to keep trying to develop more promising plans for terrorist operations in North America and Europe, potentially involving weapons of mass destruction," said IISS Director John Chipman.

NOTABLE INSECURITY. Citing an al Qaeda spokesman, Ashcroft said the terrorist group announced last Mar. 11, after the bombing of a train in Madrid, that plans for a strike against the U.S. were "90% complete."

The government is walking a fine line between adequately preparing the populace against the threat of an attack without inappropriately alarming an already-anxious public. And some naysayers say the Administration is doing little more than making sure it can't be accused later of not warning the public if an attack should occur.

Either way, most observers say they haven't seen those in security circles this insecure about the threat of a terrorist strike in many months. By Paul Magnusson in Washington, D.C.

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