Is al Qaeda Coming Soon to New York?

Yesterday, the New York Daily News asked me to write about a new graphic posted to jihadi forums that has garnered a bit of media attention. The graphic depicts New York City, along with the promise that al Qaeda will be “coming soon again.” The resulting Daily News column can be read here. Space limits for print publications being what they are, I am posting a somewhat more fleshed out (yet still short) version of my thoughts here at Gunpowder & Lead.

An image posted on jihadi forums Monday caught the NYPD’s interest as a possible threat. In it, the city’s famous skyline at sunset is overlaid with the text: “Al Qaeda: Coming Soon Again in New York.” What are we to make of this? Is it a legitimate threat?

The chances are that this is mere braggadocio, not something that should scare New Yorkers. And it is virtually certain that this does not presage a large-scale attack, à la 9/11.

NYPD director of intelligence Mitchell Silber provides a powerful framework for understanding what we mean by “al Qaeda plots” in his new book The Al Qaeda Factor. Silber identifies three categories for considering al Qaeda’s role: plots where the core leadership exercised command and control, those that the leadership suggested or endorsed, and those where the core served merely an inspirational role.

Plots connected to the core leadership in a command and control capacity are our greatest terrorism concern because the leadership, at its strongest, can muster the kind of resources and pair the kind of skill sets that could pose a risk of a catastrophic strike. In recent years, two such large-scale plots have been disrupted in Western countries. In August 2006, authorities apprehended more than twenty suspects who plotted to blow up seven transatlantic flights bound for the U.S. from Britain using liquid explosives. In October 2010, a plot was disrupted in Europe that involved “urban warfare” attacks.

Al Qaeda’s central leadership has long exercised very careful operational security: many 9/11 hijackers did not even know their mission until the day of those attacks. With the recent disruption of large-scale plots, al Qaeda’s need for secrecy will only grow. The chance of some low-level figure knowing enough about an upcoming plot connected to al Qaeda’s core to post a Photoshopped graphic boasting of it in advance is infinitesimally small.

There are, however, other possibilities. One is homegrown or lone wolf terrorists unconnected to al Qaeda’s core: think, for example, of infamous Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan. Such attackers fall into the category enumerated by Silber wherein al Qaeda plays merely an inspirational role.

The second, and far likelier, possibility is that this is bluster. Even a lone wolf may get caught if he shows his hand too early. And jihadis, along with their supporters, realize that bluster may actually serve a strategic purpose: phantom threats can keep Western countries on their toes, making them pour more resources into playing defense against the threat of terrorism.

Update, 1:20 p.m.: The lack of threat represented by this photo is even clearer now than it was last night, when I wrote my analysis on a rather tight deadline. If you look at the Arabic-language introduction where this photo was posted on jihadi forums, it specifies that the graphic is a lesson in Photoshopping; it wasn’t intended as a threat in the first place, but the media ended up reporting it that way. Thanks to Rusty at The Jawa Report for drawing this to my attention; here is his writeup.

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