Terrorist groups, particularly religious groups, place a high premium on historical dates that are significant to their religion or their community. Other types of historical dates are also significant.
In the case of the bombings of the World Trade Center, for example, 11 September may have been especially significant because the conspirators who carried out the 1998 African embassy bombings were to be sentenced the following day for their crimes. During that period, the conspirators were in a holding cell at a courthouse near the World Trade Center.
Significant historical dates that are likely to trigger al-Qaeda attacks include:
- 17 January - the commencement of Operation Desert Storm
- 19 March - Jerusalem Day proclaimed by Ayatollah Khomeini to demand the “liberation” of Jerusalem
- 30 March - referred to by Israeli Arabs as “Land Day,” it annually features protests against alleged expropriation of Arab property
- 7 May - Israeli Independence Day
- 31 May - the annual pilgrimage in Mecca begins
- 5 June - the beginning of the 1967 Six Day War between Israel and her Arab neighbors
- 4 July - U.S. Independence Day
- 31 December-1 January - New Year's Day
Excerpt from How to Forecast the Next Waves of Catastrophic Terrorism by Joshua Sinai, Ph.D., ANSER.
To better understand where the next terrorist attack is likely to occur, let's look at several past terrorist incidents directed against the United States or its interests.
We focus our efforts on two target types: passenger rail and commercial aviation. While there are other target categories (e.g., maritime, fixed target, or industrial infrastructure), these two stand out because of:
- Demonstrated terrorist intent to attack these targets
- Demonstrated terrorist capability to conduct such attacks
- Potential for mass casualties
- Particular aspects inherent in the design of these targets which could impact the success or failure of attempted attacks
1. Aum Shinrikyo attack on Japanese subway trains, March 20, 1995. Although this event occurred over a decade ago, it remains highly informative. This incident demonstrates one of the only terrorist attacks to use chemical weapons with a modicum of success. This event is also one of the first terrorist attacks on trains or subways; as such, it illustrates possible terrorist organizational learning for future attack planning.
2. Suicide bombing plot, New York City subway system, July 1997. While this plot never reached the execution phase, trains—especially high-volume urban subway systems—are particularly vulnerable and attractive targets to terrorists. While there have been other similar attempts (many successful) overseas, this case is of interest because it involved a system in the United States.
3. Attacks on the London transit system, July 7, 2005. This successful series of attacks suggests that attacks on rail systems pose a significant future threat. This case is instructive due to significant similarities between London mass transit and mass transit systems across the United States. It also demonstrates potential terrorist organizational learning, building upon similar events in Madrid and elsewhere. Furthermore, the case displays a shift in terrorist trends toward the use of attackers who were born and raised in the target country.
4. Plan to attack the London transit system, July 21, 2005. This unsuccessful attempt occurred only two weeks after the successful attack and against the same target system. It is useful to contrast this case with the successful attacks of July 7, 2005. The case demonstrates potential terrorist organizational learning, although in this case, perhaps a failure to do so.
1. Air France Flight 8969, December 1994. In this case, terrorists from the Armed Islamic Group successfully entered the execution phase by hijacking an airliner and forcing it to fly to France. The case exhibits a precedent for terrorist organizational learning. It was the first planned attempt to use a commercial aircraft as a weapon in and of itself, and subsequent efforts, such as the attacks of September 11, may have been informed by mistakes made by the terrorists that prevented them from ultimately reaching their target. The case also demonstrates successful counterterrorism methods: although the terrorists succeeded in entering the execution phase, counterterrorist forces were able to free all hostages.
2. The Bojinka Plot, December 1994-January 1995. This plot had several elements: an attempt to kill Pope John Paul II in Manila, a plan to crash an aircraft into the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency, and an effort to simultaneously destroy 11 or 12 U.S.-flag airliners in flight over the Pacific Ocean. None of these components reached the execution phase. This case illustrates potential terrorist organizational learning as a precedent. It was the first attempt to destroy multiple airliners simultaneously in flight, it was the first significant attempt to use liquid explosives to circumvent existing screening technology, and (like the Air France plot) it was an early attempt to use an aircraft as a weapon by crashing it into a target.
3. The attacks of September 11, 2001. Al-Qaeda succeeded in entering the execution phase of this plan, using four commandeered airliners to destroy targets of significant symbolic and material value and kill nearly 3,000 Americans. This case exhibits organizational terrorist learning, with commercial aircraft being used as weapons successfully for the first time. It also demonstrates a significant shift in terrorist and counterterrorist trends: not only was it the largest, most complex terrorist attack on U.S. soil to date, but it led to major changes in security measures.
4. The plot to destroy U.S. airliners with liquid explosives, August 2006. British authorities successfully prevented a group of approximately 20 terrorists from destroying multiple U.S.-flag airliners en route from the United Kingdom to the United States. The case illustrates terrorist organizational learning: like the Bojinka plot, this plan called for the use of liquid explosives. The method for smuggling the explosives on board was more sophisticated than in the Bojinka plot. The use of liquid explosives also exhibits a significant shift in terrorist trends, in that it has forced a major adjustment to screening procedures for commercial aircraft. Finally, the effective international and interagency information sharing that disrupted this plan is a useful “lessons learned.”
One phenomenon stands out: terrorists are rarely caught in the act during the execution phase of an operation, other than instances in which their equipment or weapons fail. Rather, plots are most often foiled during the pre-execution phases. Therefore, there must be an observant and sensitive public that recognizes potential indicators of terrorist planning.
Excerpt from Underlying Reasons for Success or Failure in Terrorist Attacks by The Homeland Security Institute (PDF Download 907.79 KB)