The Truth Behind Al Qaeda's Holiday Terrorism Threat

In this week's Intelligence Briefing: MI5, malls and making it work at the Pentagon.

The week began with stunning news out of England. It was my day off and I was taking some time to read the paper and one story immediately caught my attention. The head of MI5, her majesty's intelligence service, a man who rarely speaks publicly, said 2000 extremists are living in Great Britain and there are maybe twice as many they don't even know about — stunning information.

The trend the British are seeing is important and has implications for this country because British citizens typically do not need special visas to travel to the U.S. British intelligence has identified this pattern: extremists travel to Pakistan, generally the tribal areas where Al Qaeda leadership has gained a foothold, or Afghanistan to train, and then they return to their own country to launch attacks.

The top counterterrorism official in this country recently told me of two big terror busts in Europe: one in Germany targeting the U.S. airbase at Ramstein, and another plot in Denmark — both tied to the tribal areas of Pakistan. This is an area where Al Qaeda has regained a foothold, allowing them to plan operation, recruit jihadists who don't fit the typical profile, and, most importantly, teach people how to make IEDs. It's not so hard to learn in Iraq, where explosives are everywhere, but back in their own country, these recruits will need to buy the materials and put the device together with a detonator, from scratch.

Stop and think about it. Europeans going to Pakistan to train. As one counterterrorism official put it, "They are trying to move west." So far, they have been successful in London and Madrid — but, what they'd really like to do is hit the U.S. In fact, according to the national intelligence estimate, the intelligence community's best projection over the next year, states that Al Qaeda will likely intensity its effort to get operatives into the U.S.

By late in the week, another law enforcement bulletin is leaked to the media. This is a pretty common occurrence. It's not classified information or anything, just often the result of persistent reporting. The intelligence was picked up in late September that Al Qaeda wants to hit malls in Chicago and Los Angeles. It came from a reliable source. That means they've delivered the goods for us in the past. But, the problem lies in the fact that the source does not have first-hand knowledge of the threat, it came to them, through a second or even a third-hand source so there is no way to corroborate it.

So, a lot of people ask me why bother putting it out there in the first place. Well, that is how law enforcement and Homeland Security works these days. They get something, in this case it was specific to malls in Chicago and Los Angeles, so they put it out there so local cops and local security can decide whether to ramp things up.

For some context, about this time every year, before Thanksgiving leading up to Christmas, there is usually some sort of threat information targeting the U.S. Some years it is malls, others, if my memory is correct, it’s at airports or mass transit. This is part of Al Qaeda's plan — to disrupt the economy. In their mind, this may be enough to scare people away from a little shopping, even if nothing is in the pipeline.

It is hard to say how credible this intelligence is. You can't dismiss it out of hand. One of my contacts is noticing a lot more chatter on the jihadist forums about striking small blows. That may be code for smaller attacks which could be equally effective at hurting the economy and our resolve than the "big spectaculars" like 9/11. In some of the recent tapes, Al Qaeda has spoken of this as well. I am paraphrasing here, but why dream of a nuclear strike on the U.S. if you can never get a hold of a bomb that works?

It seems like a lot of confusing contradictory information, so always try to remember the context. This is what a good Intel analyst always tells him or herself.

And today, Friday, for a change of pace, I am over at the Pentagon filling in. Jennifer Griffin has been logging some travel overseas with Secretary Gates, so I am here to pick up the slack. It is fun to work here. My husband is in the military, so I sometimes run into familiar faces and the producer Justin Fishel couldn't be more pleasant.

The Pentagon is an easy place to get lost in — the first time you come, you want to bring a ball of string so you can find your way back out again. I have it down pretty well now. It is a lot of fun to swap hats for a day or so!

Catherine Herridge is the Homeland Defense Correspondent for FOX News and hosts FOX News Live Saturday 12-2 p.m. ET. Since coming to FOX in 1996 as a London-based correspondent, she has since reported on the 2004 presidential elections, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Medicare fraud, prescription drug abuse and child prostitution. You can read the rest of her bio here.

Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.