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What Would the Next al-Qaeda Attack Look Like?

Lately I’ve been bashing Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, for his performance in a recent Senate hearing. So let me take this opportunity to praise him for his detailed assessment to the House intelligence committee this morning on what al-Qaeda’s actual capabilities for attacking the U.S. look like. I’m going off Blair’s opening statement, which his office emailed to reporters.

“Some of the plots disrupted since 9/11 have involved attacks on a smaller scale than those in 2001, but the most recent plot for which we knew the target was the London-based aviation plot in 2006, which involved mid-air attacks on multiple aircraft,” Blair said in his annual congressional briefing on threats to the country. Nice and caveated. But there’s progress: “We can take it as a sign of the progress that while complex, multiple cell-based attacks could still occur, we are making them very difficult to pull off.”

At the same time, the recent successful and attempted attacks represent an evolving threat in which it is even more difficult to identify and track small numbers of terrorists recently recruited and trained and short- term plots than to find and follow terrorist cells engaged in plots that have been ongoing for years.

Third, while such attacks can do a significant amount of damage, terrorists aiming against the Homeland have not, as yet, been able to attack us with chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons.

Recent disrupted plots, Blair continued, provide clues as to possible targets for attack in the United States: “the Metro system in Washington D.C., bridges, gas infrastructure, reservoirs, residential complexes, and public venues for large gatherings.” Another avenue of potential vulnerability: “We cannot rule out that al-Qa’ida’s interest in damaging the US economy might lead the group to opt for more modest, even ‘low-tech,’ but still high-impact, attacks affecting key economic sectors.” (At the risk of being macabre, AIG’s new bonuses might even make those attacks poll well. … OK, I’ll stop.)

Finally, homegrown Muslim extremism appears to be on the rise. But it has more to do with spreading extremist ideology than actually contributing to attacks, Blair said.

Altogether, a picture of a determined terrorist network, but with significantly reduced capabilities than existed on 9/11.

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