Avenging Bin Laden’s Killing: Terrorists Will Need Time

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As yesterday’s story following Osama Bin Laden’s death indicated, security officials in Europe don’t foresee the demise of the al Qaeda leader sparking an immediate flurry of retaliation terror strikes by his followers. The logic behind that thinking doesn’t under-estimate the desire for revenge jihadists everywhere are doubtless feeling. Indeed, the working assumption is that radicals are probably frothing at the mouth to strike back savagely to avenge the loss of their beloved Bin Laden. But authorities believe such extremists will ultimately be forced to put their emotions on hold and carefully plot any retaliatory action in due time–and for the same reason they always do: to ensure attacks succeed, and avoid the humiliation and fury of failure often produced by rushing plans to execution. And the time that requires is often investigators’ greatest ally.

“These things take organization and time, especially if they’re going to be successful,” says a French counter-terrorism official, adding the process can be so long that–once alerted–police and intelligence services often agonize over how much information and evidence to collect before plots advance dangerously close to the execution stage. “Even relatively unsophisticated strikes take a long while to prepare. Because of that, if an attack occurs somewhere in the world soon, I’ll wager its organization dates back months before (Bin Laden’s killing).”That view may be one reason for why most Western governments responded to the May 1 killing of Bin Laden with relatively moderate security revisions. Like the U.S., the UK, Italy, France, and Germany increased armed police patrols of obvious domestic targets—train stations, airports, and major tourist sites, etc. Most also either closed their diplomatic missions and schools in high-risk countries, or placed those interests under stiffer guard. But with alert levels already elevated in most Western countries (and rising still ahead of the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 that has governments concerned about potential attacks to mark the date), officials say Bin Laden’s killing adds to the medium-term tension already being felt without creating a new sense of urgency or imminence regarding possible revenge attacks.

“I think we all assume (extremists) want revenge and will take steps to inflict it through terrorism—which some may have already started planning already,” the French official says. “But as I said, these things take time, material, and coordination between multiple planners and perpetrators. Even some hot-head who decides to he’s going to stage an attack on his own will have to obtain minimal materials for that—something that will require both time, and procurement efforts that may somehow tip his hand or signal something is out of the ordinary.”

That seems to suggest potential strikes inspired by Bin Laden’s killing—if any do materialize–would still be looming farther down the road. What form might such activity assume? Security experts say OBL’s death will raise the motivation of al Qaeda militants—and, in particular, the leaders of its high command surviving Bin Laden—to try and mount another spectacular attack to rival 9/11. However, efforts to organize that kind of huge strike have been repeatedly confounded by the disruption of al Qaeda’s leadership being forced to flee the NATO-led intervention in Afghanistan, and U.S. surveillance of Pakistan’s tribal zones. Indeed, the biggest attacks since 9/11 have been ones like the Madrid and London train bombings, Beslan, Russia school siege, or Mumbai assault—all of which were staged by extremist Islamist groups operating independent of al Qaeda, or by self-constituted cells that got little or no assistance from al Qaeda contacts for their strikes.

Officials don’t think work by central al Qaeda to order up spectacular attacks will get any easier with Bin Laden dead—quite the contrary, given his unique powers to recruit, inspire, unify, and mobilize extremists around his jihadist call. Because of that, authorities continue viewing plots prepared on their own turf by local radicals—possibly with limited guidance and assistance from al Qaeda associates in South Asia—as the biggest threat of short- and medium-term strikes, and therefore their primary focus.

Jihadists trying to avenge Bin Laden’s death with attacks, sources say, will most likely seek to hit Western citizens or installations abroad as soft targets in less hostile or inefficient police environments—factors increasing the likelihood of success. A deadly bombing like the one that killed 16 people—mostly foreigners–in Marrakech April 28 could serve as an example of retaliatory plots that may be rolled out in the wake of Bin Laden’s death, officials say. Inversely, any plots that were already in motion prior to his killing may well be conveniently described as revenge if pulled off successfully.

“When dealing with Islamists extremists, it’s always instructive to remember their biggest objective is making sure their attack succeeds, followed by not getting caught, then sending out the desired message with their strike,” the French official says. “Any eventual attacks in the coming days, weeks, or even months will be probably described as revenge for (Bin Laden)  even if their conception pre-dates his death—since holy vengeance be a primary message for a while. Islamists are very pragmatic that way. But we’ll know better if they truly arose from his killing or not based on the time taken to organize them. Plans for any real retaliatory attacks are only starting now, meaning the clock has begun ticking to find out about them and stop them.”