National Political Conventions and the Increased Terror Threat

Terror Expert Evan Kohlmann
Terrorism is, by its very amorphous nature, difficult to predict or defend against. Modern international terrorist movements like Al Qaeda are often highly secretive and compartmentalized, and tend to act erratically in order to confuse and disorient their enemies.  Lately, a combination of terrorist chatter and other developments — including the arrests of suspected Al Qaeda operatives on U.S. soil — have set many law enforcement and intelligence officials on edge.  Details concerning the precise target and tactics are relatively scarce, leading some critics to caution that this may yet prove to be a new form of disinformation and misdirection. 

However, at present, the general consensus among most credible law enforcement and intelligence sources is that Al Qaeda or a similar international terrorist network will seek to strike a major blow to America sometime between now and the U.S. election in November, with a particular emphasis on the electoral process itself.  Naturally, with these considerations in mind, both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions this summer loom ominously as potential targets in such a renewed terrorist campaign directed at the U.S. homeland.

"Boston has been a relative headquarters of activity for Al Qaeda and affiliated radical organizations for a very long time."

There seems ample evidence to indicate that the March 11 Al Qaeda train bombings in Spain represented a new evolution in terrorist tactics and strategy.  The 3/11 attacks occurred only days before the Spanish national election — which had developed into an informal virtual referendum on Spain’s continued participation in securing post-war Iraq.  As early as December 2003, Al Qaeda ideologues and propagandists on the Internet reasoned in a book about the jihad in Iraq, “in order to force the Spanish government to withdraw from Iraq, the militants should hit its forces… It is very important to exploit the coming general elections in Spain… If its troops will remain in Iraq despite the attacks… [then] the victory of the Socialist Party is almost certain, and the withdrawal of the Spanish forces will be on its agenda for the elections.” The book referred to Spain as “the first tile” in a series of geo-political “dominos” whose retreat would cause other coalition members to likewise “fall quickly.”  By following the expectations of the terrorists and caving-in to their demands, Spain has emboldened Al-Qaeda and its allies by demonstrating that a small amount of strategically-timed explosives can drastically change the outcome of a major Western democratic election.

Unfortunately, coinciding at a time when terrorists would be most interested in striking the U.S., both national political conventions provide appealing and familiar target opportunities for them.  As reflected in the latest 9/11 Commission Report, many of the most dangerous terrorist recruits active over the past five years were trained at a select group of Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.  In these crude “jungle-gym” camps, would-be airline hijackers and suicide bombers were given a surprisingly regimented and technically-oriented education.  Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian terrorist who attempted to destroy Los Angeles International Airport on the eve of the Millenium, was one of the men studying at the “University of Jihad” during this period.  Ressam has since told investigators that recruits at the Khalden camp in eastern Afghanistan were taught “how to blow up the infrastructure of a country… Electric plants, gas plants, airports, railroads, large corporations… [and] Hotels where conferences are held.”   Ressam added that his comrades at Khalden were also given lessons in complex political assassinations, including “how to mix poisons with other substances, put them together and smear them on doorknobs… designed to be used against intelligence officers and other VIPs.”  It is easy to see how both presidential nomination conventions — occurring in major East Coast U.S. cities — would fit right into the generic target paradigm of this current generation of trained terrorist operatives.

As emphasized by the schooling that Ressam and others received at Khalden, Al Qaeda also seeks to study previous contemporary terrorist plots (both failed and successful) in an effort to replicate and improve upon them.  In the city of New York alone, numerous failed terror schemes and assassination attempts have been foiled over the past decade, some of which have been traced back to the loosely-organized Arab-Afghan corps led by Usama bin Laden.  In 1993, a group of locally-based Egyptian militants, trained in Afghanistan, plotted a “wave of terrorism” against the city of New York, including the murders of visiting diplomats, the destruction of the U.N. building and FBI headquarters, and the bombing of the Holland and Lincoln tunnels. 

Needless to say, as part of their nefarious plans, the conspirators had carefully mapped out the air routes taken by world leaders as they arrived for major events in New York; on an FBI wiretap, one of the men explained, the U.S. President “comes with a helicopter from the airport, La Guardia Airport… or there are private airports, there is an airport in New Jersey called Outerboro… So there are small helicopters which pick them up from the airport and take them to… the one next to the [South] Ferry.”  Luckily for Bill Clinton and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the 1993 conspirators did not, at the time, possess the proper means to bring down one of these aircraft.  However, much has changed in the years since, and now, mobile surface-to-air missile launchers pose quite a realistic terrorist threat.

But what about Boston?  Some area residents may already be aware that Boston has been a relative headquarters of activity for Al Qaeda and affiliated radical organizations for a very long time.  Mohammed el-Zahabi, a former resident of Boston, was recently indicted by a grand jury as a suspected terrorist operative hiding inside the U.S.  El-Zahabi, whose name appeared immediately after 9/11 on a public FBI terrorist watch list, is the one-time roommate of Boston cab driver Raed Hijazi, executed in Jordan after being convicted of conspiring to kill hundreds of American and Israeli tourists in Jordan on the eve of the Millenium for Al-Qaeda.  Zahabi is also rumored to be linked to other known terrorists, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has been suggested as the likely senior mastermind behind the March 11 bombings in Madrid. 

Meanwhile, despite his appearance on a publicly-released terrorist watch list, el-Zahabi was still able to renew his federal license to transport hazardous chemicals and other materials across state lines as recently as May 2003.  Given such facts, it is easy to see why federal authorities would be so concerned about a possible chem-bio attack on either Boston or New York during the political conventions.

The job of protecting America and its political process from imminent terrorist acts is now squarely in the hands of our intelligence and law enforcement agencies.  After the furor raised by the 9/11 Commission over missed opportunities in the summer of 2001, where even a slight degree of raised vigilance might have averted impending disaster, it is no wonder why everyone — from the CIA to local police — are so apprehensive about the climax in this year’s political season.  Let us all hope that these latest terrorist threats prove ultimately groundless, but in the meantime, we as a nation must remain vigilant and prepared for the unexpected.

Evan Kohlmann is an International Terrorism Consultant and author of the forthcoming book, Al-Qaida’s Jihad in Europe: the Afghan-Bosnian Network (Berg Publishers).  His website is located at