In 2006, Attacks Were Thwarted. But Why?

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The week between Christmas and New Year's is a time of high alert for counter-terrorism officials. The fear is that as the number of travelers swells, so do the opportunities for terrorists to strike. In Britain, Home Secretary John Reid has warned it's "highly likely" that terrorists will attempt an attack over the holidays.

This past weekend, a British newspaper, The Observer, added to the holiday jitters with a report that the Channel Tunnel is being targeted.

But as the year draws to a close, security officials can take solace in the fact that 2006 has not yet brought a single terror attack of note in the West. That's in sharp contrast to last year, when suicide bombers attacked London; and 2004, when almost 200 people died in the Madrid train bombings.

You could call 2006 the year of the thwarted terror attack. From the Heathrow airline plot to the Miami men indicted for wanting to blow up the Sears Tower, security officials were busy this year talking about attacks that were averted.

Some seemed more serious than others — even the FBI admitted the Miami "plot" was far from fruition. But it should be noted that there were no terrorist attacks of note this year in the West. But experts disagree on the reason behind the lull, whether it was better intelligence, a weaker al-Qaida — or mere dumb luck.

In addition to London and Miami, attacks were also apparently averted in Germany, where bombs placed in suitcases on trains near Cologne failed to explode. And in France, dozens of suspected members of an Algerian-based network were arrested. French authorities cited links to three terror plots, including an alleged plan to blow up an airport in Orly.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's second-in-command, has kept up a steady stream of taped messages, threatening attacks and rallying supporters. Last week, Zawahiri released his fifteenth tape of the year.

In it, Zawahiri warns of the consequences of U.S. military action in Muslim countries. He concludes: "Just as our emir, Sheik Osama bin Laden, may God watch over him, told you: 'As you bomb, you shall be bombed, and as you kill, you shall be killed.'"

The question is, does al-Qaida have the ability to make good on this threat? Some experts say no, that if it could, the group would have struck already.

Ohio State University professor John Mueller, author of a book about al-Qaida titled Overblown, says the terrorist threat has been massively exaggerated.

"Osama Bin Laden is constantly talking about doing things in various places," Mueller says. "Not only the United States, but also Italy and Australia, for example. And nothing has happened there either. If al-Qaida was so dedicated, numerous, devoted, diabolical and so forth as the common image has it, you'd think they'd have been able to do something by now."

U.S. terrorism expert John Brennan says he is guardedly optimistic that things are moving in the right direction in the fight to stop terrorism.

Brennan, a CIA veteran and former head of the National Counterterrorism Center, lists international intelligence cooperation and increased security measures among the reasons why this year passed peacefully in the West.

"I don't think the terrorists are as plentiful or as powerful as some people would suggest," Brennan says. "They are very dangerous. And it only takes one cell to do tremendous damage, or cause significant loss of life. But I think sometimes the terrorist threat is overstated, giving one the impression that terrorists are everywhere to be found. That's not the case."

But Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, believes the United States should take Zawahiri's threats at face value. Hoffman says, "That Zawahiri and his minions are still trying is beyond doubt. They know they only have to get lucky once."

Hoffman argues that the Heathrow plot is evidence that al-Qaida remains undeterred in its ambitions. And he agrees with recent assessments from U.S. Intelligence officials, who say the tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border have given al-Qaida and its supporters a place to rebuild after being routed by U.S.-led forces in 2001.

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