Jihadist Terrorism and Global Economic Risk
Since the September 11, 2001 strikes on Washington and New York, al Qaeda and its affiliated groups have increasingly attacked economic and business targets, a trend that has accelerated in the past year or so. The shift in tactics is in part response to the fact that the traditional pre‑9/11 targets such as American embassies, war ships and military bases, are now better defended, while so-called ‘soft’ economic targets are both ubiquitous and easier to hit. The suicide attacks in Istanbul in December 2003 directed at a British consulate and the local headquarters of the HSBC bank are indicative of this trend. The plotters initially planned to attack Incirlik Air Base, a facility in western Turkey used by American troops, but concluded that the tight security at the base made the assault too difficult and so transferred their efforts to the bank and consulate because they were relatively undefended targets in central Istanbul.
At the same time, however, al Qaeda also learned an important lesson from 9/11: that disrupting Western economies, and by extension the global economy, is very useful for their wider jihad. After the 9/11 attacks Osama bin Laden gloated that the attack had cost the US economy some trillion dollars. There has been well-founded speculation that bin Laden and his acolytes ‘shorted’ their interest in the markets shortly before the planes struck and made substantial sums as a result. Ramzi Binalshibh, one of the key planners of 9/11, wrote that following the attacks “the dollar lost a lot of its value. Airline companies have been affected; they have had to fire 68,000 employees.” Around the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden and his cerebral deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri released audiotapes announcing a new policy aimed at disrupting the global economy. And in October 2002 bombs went off in a disco catering to Western tourists on Bali killing two hundred, while a suicide attack was mounted on a French oil tanker steaming off the coast of Yemen. Oil and tourism are obviously critical to the world’s economy.
Al Qaeda and like-minded terrorist groups are increasingly targeting companies that have distinctive Western brand names. Last year saw a suicide attack on a JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta and an attack on a Marriott in Baghdad, on each occasion producing a substantial death count. In Karachi, Pakistan in 2003 a string of small explosions at eighteen Shell stations, wounded four, while in 2002 a group of a dozen French defense contractors were killed as they left a Sheraton hotel, which was heavily damaged. McDonald’s restaurants have long been the target of leftist terrorists, but in the past year they have also been bombed by Islamist militants in Turkey, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
A further component in al Qaeda’s assault on economic targets is its continued efforts to attack the aviation industry. According to a senior US counterterrorism official, al Qaeda retains an intense interest in downing commercial aircraft. This trend is easily traced from the so-called shoe bomber, Richard Reid, to the attempted bombing of an Israeli charter jet in Kenya with a rocket propelled grenade. Last Christmas a dozen or so British Airways and Air France flights on the London to Washington route and between Paris and Los Angeles were cancelled as a result of potential targeting by terrorists. “We were not sure if it was a bomb being assembled in mid air, or the transportation of terrorists. It was definitely something,” my counterterrorism source told me. Al Qaeda gave a more succinct view in a posting on a related website in June. “Western and American airlines will be a direct target for our coming operations in the near future,” it read. This is clearly a warning that should be taken at face value.
Flights in and out of Saudi Arabia are particularly at risk. Since May 2003 al Qaeda has taken its war to Saudi Arabia in an attempt both to eject Westerners from the country and to bring down the House of Saud. The series of attacks launched on residential compounds and the most recent killings of further Westerners has provoked a substantial ‘fear premium’ on the cost of oil, raising the price by ten dollars a barrel between March and June, a 25% jump to its present price of $42 a barrel. In very simple terms, this is reflected in the United States in prices of up to 35 cents a gallon more at the pump. The terrorists are clear in their intention to disrupt an oil industry in Saudi Arabia that floats on the largest reserves in the world. There is little doubt that the fear premium will continue for the foreseeable future, creating a potentially major drag on the global economy. And this has been compounded by the fact that Iraq — which sits on the world’s second largest oil reserves — has also seen attacks against its oil industry. In April suicide bombers blew up explosives-laden boats in Iraq’s main oil tanker terminal in the port of Basra. Attacks on pipelines leading to Turkey are by now commonplace.
In addition to the straightforward economic equation of oil prices, Iraq has become a recruiting device for potential al Qaeda followers. A recent poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that bin Laden is now viewed favorably by large percentages in Pakistan (65%), Jordan (55%) and Morocco (45%) — all, it should be noted, key allies in the war on terrorism. Previous polling by the same organisation a year earlier showed by large pluralities that Indonesians, Jordanians, Turks and Moroccans all expressed more confidence in bin Laden than in President Bush. Similarly polls taken by the Zogby company found a drastic decline in favorable views of the US between April 2002 and the beginning of the war in Iraq. In Jordan these had been reduced from 36% to 11%, in Morocco from 38% to 9% and in Saudi Arabia from 12% to 3%. A poll in June found that about half the Saudi population expressed admiration for bin Laden’s political ideas. As the potential number of al Qaeda recruits expands so too does the potential for attacks on ‘soft’ targets.
An indication of the kind of attacks that al Qaeda remains preoccupied with are the series of plots that have been disrupted in the past couple of years. According to a well-placed US intelligence official ‘three major air plots’ have been averted. Chillingly, the official also said that since 9/11 al Qaeda’s ‘special weapons program’ has been working on a program to ‘weaponise’ anthrax. The terrorist leadership has long expressed a strong interest in carrying out some kind of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) attack. In countries such as the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain there have been a number of arrests over the past two years of Islamist militants who were planning to carry out some kind of small-bore chemical weapons attack. The most recent such arrest came in June when an Egyptian, believed to have been behind the March train bombings in Madrid, was arrested in Milan. Intercepts of his phone calls referred to a woman that he knew who was ready to carry out a chemical attack in the United States.
In June a report in the New Scientist magazine, based on records from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, indicated that the risk of a radiological “dirty bomb” attack is growing. In 1996 there were eight incidents of smuggling of radioactive materials suitable for such a device, while last year there were 51 such cases. The dramatic rise in smuggling has coincided with efforts by al Qaeda to acquire radioactive materials and the arrest in Chicago of Jose Padilla, one of the group’s associates, who was allegedly planning some kind of radiological bomb attack inside the US. Such an attack would probably kill relatively few people, but would cause enormous panic and have a requisite impact on investor confidence.
If al Qaeda can successfully launch a terrorist attack within the United States, even a comparatively small one such as that planned by Padilla, the psychological effect on American investors is obvious. In June the US Justice Department announced that a Somali immigrant had been charged with planning to bomb a shopping mall in Columbus, Ohio. Such an attack on a mall in a typical American city would have a devastating impact on the consumer sector, and a ripple effect throughout the US economy. American counterterrorism officials are particularly concerned about the possibility of a terror attack during the November election, modeled on the Madrid bombings in March that killed 191 people and effectively changed the outcome of the Spanish election. Intelligence sources told me recently that al Qaeda’s desire to disrupt the US election is based both on ‘hard information and analysis’, while the threat level in New York City is ‘very high now’ particularly in the run up to the Republican convention to be held in Manhattan at the end of August.
These potential attacks are not merely political in nature: they are also deliberately designed to undermine investor confidence. In addition, the US intelligence services, all too aware of Greece’s lax record in countering terrorist groups, are showing growing concern about the possibility of an attack at the Athens Olympics in August. Aside from the obvious horror such an attack would engender around the world, the economic effects would be manifest. What sponsoring company, with its brand name emblazoned around the various stadiums, would want to be involved in an Olympics remembered not for its athletic feats but for acts of devastation? In Washington the intelligence community believes that al Qaeda is certain to target American interests wherever they are at their most vulnerable.
This is the conclusion of a senior US official who tracks al Qaeda: “When it comes to attacking the United States they are going to send the A team. They are going to be as ‘clean’ as possible. They won’t have documents showing time spent in Afghanistan,” the official said. “We are very concerned about simultaneous attacks that would rival 9/11, and possible WMD attacks by the A team.” The question then is not if, but when there will be another catastrophic terrorist attack on the world’s economic superpower — and by proxy the global economy as a whole.
Peter Bergen is an author and expert on Terrorism. A fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington and an adjunct professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, he the author of Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden.