Geopolitical Diary
Forwarded by BGen Bob Clements USAF (Ret) 4/26/04

The FBI issued a warning of an al Qaeda threat against refineries in Houston, Texas. The refineries are clustered in an area known as Pasadena and have long been identified as a potential al Qaeda target. Stratfor has speculated on this scenario. Pasadena contains a substantial proportion of U.S. refining capacity. With good luck for the attackers — and the right wind — a well-planned attack could render part of a major American city uninhabitable.

There is, of course, a difference between a potential target and a real threat. The FBI obviously thought it detected a real threat against Houston. What it detected is secret, but it could have been a suspected al Qaeda member moving to the region, or a cell phone conversation intercepted in Pakistan. It could also have been al Qaeda testing the system again — exercising its tendency to put out false information in order to confuse U.S. security services and observe their patterns of response.

Or it could have been a real threat that has been deterred by the warning, with would-be attackers abandoning the project, now that they have been detected. Or it could have been the FBI, concerned that there might be a threat, trying to reduce it by issuing the alert. Or it could have been the FBI trying to confuse al Qaeda by generating a false alert. The permutations are endless.

The struggle between U.S. intelligence and security services and al Qaeda is complex, and a good deal of it has to do with trying to manipulate the psychology of the other side. The FBI announcement could mean many things.

What is clear is that U.S. intelligence is braced for attack on a global basis. The U.S. Embassy in the United Arab Emirates, for example, closed Thursday because of threats. The global situation is extremely tense. The situation in Pakistan is fluid and developing in uncertain directions. The killing of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin by the Israelis introduces another variable. The bombing in Madrid indicates that at least one militant unit is operational in Europe. There is a sense that something is about to give — and the Texas warning symbolizes it.

In general, al Qaeda rarely attacks when and where it is expected. The bombing in Madrid, like Sept. 11, came out of nowhere. It was only after the fact, with perfect hindsight, that the indicators could be seen — and al Qaeda is expert at fragmenting and diffusing indicators. When you look closely, for every Madrid there are a dozen feints or aborted missions where the indicators match. Al Qaeda did not manage to drive the United States and Europe wild with doubt and uncertainty by being predictable.

There are constantly enough indicators out there to call a general alert throughout the world. Al Qaeda makes certain of that. On occasion, an indicator breaches the wall of the routine to become a public warning. Most public warnings turn out to be counterindicators: the higher the alert, the less likely the attack — or so it has been until now.

With global indicators of attack rising — and local indicators increasing — we would expect al Qaeda to go quiet. Politically, however, this would be enormously difficult. At the same time, refineries in Texas might not be — logically, at least — the most likely target. A refinery attack can certainly cause massive casualties, but such attacks can also fizzle. There is a risk of failure, and al Qaeda can't risk many failures at this point. Still, the FBI point is made. The danger is out there, and this is a target-rich environment in which a sparse global network has the tactical advantage.