USA — A 2003 FBI memo alerted law enforcement agencies that al-Qaeda hadtalked of masterminding a plot to set a series of devastating bushfires aroundthe western US.
The June 25 memo reported that an al-Qaeda detainee spoke of plans involvingthree or four people to set fires using timed devices in Colorado, Montana, Utahand Wyoming.
“The detainee believed that significant damage to the US economy wouldresult and once it was realised that the fires were terrorist acts, US citizenswould put pressure on the US government to change its policies,” the memosaid.
In 2004, an Arabic-language jihad website posted a message purporting to beal-Qaeda’s plan of economic attack on the US that included setting fires causingbillions of dollars in damage.
This week’s fires in Southern California have already cost more than $1billion in lost property and displaced more than a million people.
Today FBI officials have confirmed that a fire in Orange County was startedby an arsonist.
Professor Rohan Gunaratna, one of the world’s foremost experts on terrorismand the author of what is considered the authoritative study on al-Qaeda, InsideAl Qaeda, describes how terrorists are becoming increasingly creative whenit comes to plotting attacks.
“Guns and bombs are a terrorists’ forte, but today they are becomingincreasingly creative and imaginative because they are under pressure,”said Mr Gunaratna. “That’s why governments need to also be imaginative andcreative in their fight.”
Mr Gunaratna confirmed that the detainee who was captured in 2003 and spokeof the fire plot was a high level al-Qaeda operative.
While he said the probability of al-Qaeda setting some of the fires inCalifornia was extremely rare, he didn’t rule it out in the future and said itwas becoming increasingly possible.
“It is a matter that is of concern because there are individual membersof al-Qaeda that have expressed interest in setting forest fires,” MrGunaratna said. “It’s not a policy of the leadership of al-Qaeda, butindividual members have expressed interest.”
While communication between al-Qaeda leadership and its cells is becomingmore difficult, the greater autonomy leaders have given the organisation’smembers means the risk of terrorists setting bushfires has increased..
“Al-Qaeda cells in the western world have been given the directive thatthey are able to act autonomously,” Mr Gunaratna said. “According tothis doctrine the autonomous cells can mount their attacks without reference toleadership.”
“In the past al-Qaeda have always needed to seek permission, so there isa definite shift in thinking.”
Terrorists have used fire as a weapon in the past.
In August 1978, four Shiite revolutionaries locked the doors of a cinema inthe Iranian city of Abadan and set the theatre on fire. At least 377 people wereburned alive.
It’s considered the second-worst terrorist attack in history.
Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington DC,said that low-tech methods of terrorist attacks will be become much more common.
“While the US and other countries have devoted lots of attention tobracing themselves for the big one, we’ve spent far too little time consideringwhat we can learn from more mundane attacks,” Dr Byman said.
“They can be easily repeated, and don’t take the years of oneroustraining and planning that spectaculars demand.”