"They know what's at stake," one federal law enforcement official said of his colleagues. "Our law enforcement personnel are at the top of their game, but they understand the global situation. There's no doubt that in the event of a war, everyone will be taking it up a notch."
"I like to use a sporting metaphor," the official went on. "Professional baseball players play all season. They're at the height of their performance, they're playing to the best of their ability, they're giving it everything they've got. Then they get in the World Series, and from somewhere inside they find what they need to take it to the next level."
The official, in common with several others contacted by United Press International, would not comment on reports in other media that, in the event of war, the nation's terror threat alert status will be raised to "code orange" -- high risk of attack -- from its current "yellow" -- elevated risk level.
"There may be more chatter (if a war starts)," added one Homeland Security official, who also asked not be named, "But the question is: what kind? It has to be analyzed," he said, explaining that decisions to raise or lower the threat level were always made on the basis of intelligence available at the time.
But there was a consensus among experts and former officials consulted by UPI that the risk of terrorist attacks -- both from Iraqis and those who either sympathize with them or are just trying to exploit the situation -- will rise if the United States does go to war.
In 1990, while U.S. and allied troops were massing in the Gulf prior to the start of operation Desert Storm in January 1991, Iraq tried to launch a wave of terror attacks against allied targets, but failed, according to Larry Johnson, who was then a senior official in the State Department's Office of Counter Terrorism.
Johnson told UPI the Iraqis sent 40 two-man teams across the globe. The agents were to make contact with Iraqi embassies abroad, and pick up equipment and materiel shipped out via diplomatic pouch.
"If Iraq was prepared to take that path last time," says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "and take the chance that its actions might turn a war to expel it from Kuwait into a war for regime change, why wouldn't it take the path this time, when the war is already for regime change and Saddam has nothing to lose?"
He says the U.S. government has sent requests to 60 countries to expel named Iraqi diplomats, on the grounds that they are intelligence agents who may be planning attacks in the event of a war.
An Iraqi diplomat at the embassy in Manila was expelled last month after Philippine authorities charged that he had been in contact with the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group. More recently, police there said they had arrested two Iraqis thought to be agents of the Mukhabarat intelligence organization, according to local media reports. Romania announced last week that it would expel five Iraqi diplomats, while Belgium reportedly declined to act on U.S. advice to do likewise.
Judith Yaphe, a Middle East CIA analyst for 20 years, and now a fellow at the National Defense University, says the 1990 effort was "an abysmal failure."
"Most of them were apprehended," she says. "It's hard to know what they were intending or how far along their planning was, but their tradecraft was abysmal, their activities were compromised and they were arrested the moment they got off the plane outside of Iraq."
Yaphe says that Iraq also tried to suborn terrorist groups it had supported to attack the United States, but largely failed.
"The attitude was, 'If you take Saddam's shilling, you do his bidding,' but most of the groups weren't interested."
Johnson adds that there were what he calls "sympathy attacks -- they didn't share much with the Iraqis except a hatred of the United States," in Latin America in 1990, and when U.S. forces went into Bosnia years later. But these were mostly at "a low level -- smashing windows, setting fire to buildings -- almost vandalism rather than terrorism."
Johnson says that in 1990, even the Iraqi agents who avoided immediate arrest were remarkable unsuccessful. "In Indonesia, they put a bomb in the flowerbox of the U.S. ambassador's residence. It didn't go off -- but it did give the gardener a terrible fright."
In Manila he says, the Iraqi team -- finding the "heat too great" at the U.S. Embassy -- targeted the nearby Thomas Jefferson Cultural Center. But the bomb exploded while it was being primed, killing one of the would-be attackers and seriously wounding the other.
"If I had to bet, I'd say it was likely there'll be more attacks this time," he says, "but they'll be low level, nuisance stuff." He believes that al-Qaida lacks the capacity to carry out a serious attack.
Terrorism analyst and author Peter Bergen agrees, "There will be all sorts of low-level attacks against U.S. interests or symbols all over the Muslim world if a war starts, because it is just so unpopular."
But he also warns that it would be dangerous to write al-Qaida off. He recently interviewed an exiled Saudi opposition leader for a forthcoming documentary produced by the Discovery Channel and The New York Times.
Saad al-Fagih hosts a Web site on which Saudis -- many of whom are admire al-Qaida head Osama bin Laden -- can talk to each other in a "virtual lecture room," sometimes using voice modification technology to disguise their identities. It is a unique window on the thinking of al-Qaida sympathizers.
"There is an impending attack coming," Fagih warned, "and this attack is immense, huge, either as big or even bigger than Sept. 11 (2001). This attack is full of surprise; it would come in a very unexpected manner."
Johnson, currently a consultant working on money laundering and product fraud issues, dismisses such talk as "bombast."
He says that if bin Laden's terror network had been capable of striking they would have done so by now. "Why have there been so few (terror attacks since Sept. 11)? These guys haven't taken anger management courses, they haven't gone on a hatred hiatus. They still have the will to hurt us, what they lack is the capacity: you need training, you need a logistics network, you need money, you need safe havens."
"Now that Khaled Shiekh Mohammed has been caught," he concludes, "al-Qaida are like Hitler in the bunker at the end of the war -- issuing orders to troops that no longer exist."
Bergen disagrees, but says that the real test is still to come: "If al Qaida don't pull off something pretty big when the war starts, they'll be finished. The ideology will still be there, there may be other groups, but al Qaida will be over."
Cordesman also cautions against not taking the threat seriously. "Those (1990) efforts were poorly executed and easily detectable. But so were many of the terrorist attacks before 9/11 and 9/11 happened nonetheless. One reason that the U.S. government has asked for these (60 diplomats) to be removed is that it takes this threat very seriously indeed ... You have to ask: 'Are there competent people in Iraqi intelligence who will succeed this time around?' The answer has to be: 'It's a possibility.' You can't ignore the threat."
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