A number of intelligence agencies around the world have been warning for some time that Al Qaeda intended to carry out a major attack on “American interests” somewhere in the world between the end of President George W. Bush’s presidency and the succession of Barack Obama. Some now believe that the assault on Mumbai on Wednesday night was precisely this. Obama will be sworn in as the US president on January 20.
With Mumbai under siege, US security officials have flooded the train system between Washington DC and New York City and the transit systems of the latter, with armed police and explosive detectors.
The reason: the US Federal Bureau of Investigation had received a “plausible but unsubstantiated” report that Al Qaeda terrorists in late September may have discussed attacking the subway system.
FBI spokesman Richard Kolko confirmed only that his agency and the Homeland Security Department issued a bulletin on Tuesday to state and local authorities, and the information is being reviewed.
There has been considerable Internet and wireless “chatter” in recent weeks by Al Qaeda and its affiliates on the need to capture headlines before Obama is sworn in.
British newspapers have quoted their country’s counterintelligence officials warning of a “terrorist spectacular” around the corner.
The question is whether the Mumbai attacks were what Bin Laden had in mind. The attack was unusual for the subcontinent, considering their focus on hitting US, British and Israeli citizens and places where they congregated.
India would be geographically close to Al Qaeda centre in the tribal areas of the Pakistan-Afghan border. India would also be seen as an easy target, given the difficulty Al Qaeda has had in penetrating either the US and Israel. Bin Laden has often lumped the US, Israel and India together as the leading targets for Islamicist militants.
A key reason for the present wave of US drone and airborne attacks on terrorist targets in the tribal areas has been a desire to keep Al Qaeda and its affiliates off-balance, its leadership on the run and thus unable to organise attacks on the West. India, however, may have been seen as an easier alternative given the networks of Al Qaeda affiliates like Jaish e Mohammad.
The internal FBI bulletin says Al Qaeda terrorists “in late September may have discussed targeting transit systems in and around New York City. These discussions reportedly involved the use of suicide bombers or explosives placed on subway/passenger rail systems."