Times Square bomb plot spotlights larger U.S. fear

* Waves of smaller attacks could be devastating, officials

* Warnings picked up after Christmas Day plot

By Adam Entous

WASHINGTON, May 5 (BestGrowthStock) – After the failed bombing of a
passenger jet on Christmas Day, U.S. intelligence officials
told the White House what kept them awake at night was the risk
that militants could launch waves of small scale attacks on
hard-to-protect targets on U.S. soil.

The “nightmare” of nuclear terrorism was the theme of
President Barack Obama’s security summit last month, but many
in the U.S. intelligence community believe the chances that al
Qaeda will obtain atomic weapons are at the low end of the
probability scale and they have more immediate fears.

More likely, they say, al Qaeda and other groups could
shift focus to less-sophisticated violent attacks on “soft
targets” that have the potential over time to do as much
economic damage as another massive Sept. 11-style event.

One official said Saturday’s botched car bombing in New
York’s Times Square, and other recent plots, could be a sign
that militant groups, hard-hit by U.S. drone strikes targeting
their leaders, were starting to “figure this out.”

“They do have the strategic goal of doing something
catastrophic to this country,” an official said on condition of
anonymity. “But we think it’s more likely that we’ll see a
series of smaller-scale attacks — the subway, the shopping
mall — vulnerable targets that you can’t harden.”

Such attacks are tough to crack because they often involve
American citizens who are unlikely to appear on any government
watch lists and are harder to track than suspects overseas
because of U.S. law, officials said.

“Most Americans believe that terrorism, proxy wars, violent
criminal gangs, and insurgencies affect people elsewhere, said
said Georgetown University’s Roy Godson, outlining a study on
how the “Times Square Bomb Foreshadows Threats to Come.”

“The reality is that irregular conflict conducted by armed
groups, and states that ally with them, will be our most
prevalent and enduring threat for decades.”

Frances Townsend, homeland security adviser under former
President George W. Bush, pointed to what she called a
“dangerous shift” from simultaneous, mass-casualty plots to
“higher probability but lower consequence events” that are more
difficult to detect and disrupt.

POOL OF SOFT TARGETS

During White House meetings immediately after the Christmas
Day plot, intelligence and counterterrorism officials voiced
concerns about a wave of smaller attacks, officials said.

Obama vowed to beef up defenses at U.S. ports of entry and
improve the capabilities of intelligence and law enforcement
agencies. But officials say there are limits to what can be
done quickly to protect a vast pool of potential soft targets.

There are about 450 commercial airports and more than
50,000 malls and shopping centers that National Intelligence
Director Dennis Blair and CIA chief Leon Panetta have both
warned could be targets for attack.

“We’ve had a lot of success in knocking down the terrorists
so that I have pretty high confidence that the kind of thing
they did on 9/11 we’d be able to stop,” Blair said recently.
“But that’s forced them to go into smaller pieces and that’s
going to be harder… We have to raise our game and I think we
can.”

That concern was part of the rationale behind the White
House’s decision to authorize the CIA to kill American-born
Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Counterterrorism officials see
Awlaki as a potent threat because they believe he understands
better than most how to exploit U.S. vulnerabilities.

A key figure in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Awlaki
has been linked to both the Nigerian suspect in the attempted
Christmas Day bombing and to the Army psychiatrist accused of
shooting dead 13 people at a military base in Texas on Nov. 5.

Inspired in part by Awlaki, AQAP has taken the lead in
plotting “less-than-spectacular” attacks that are easier to
plan and relatively cheap to carry out, officials say.

Prosecutors said Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad admitted
trying to detonate a bomb in New York’s Times Square and
receiving bomb-making training in a Taliban and al Qaeda
stronghold in Pakistan.

“This is a blow back, this is a reaction” to the CIA drone
strikes, Pakistani Foreign Minister told CBS News. “Let’s not
be naive. They’re not going to sort of sit and welcome you to
eliminate them. They’re going to fight back.”

Since the summer of 2008, CIA drone strikes in Pakistan’s
tribal areas have killed more 500 militant, according to U.S.
estimates. The vast majority of those killed have been
lower-level fighters.

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(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Jeremy Pelofsky;
Editing by Chris Wilson)

Times Square bomb plot spotlights larger U.S. fear