Sooner or later, American paranoia about terrorists had to bring the conspiracy theorists out of the closet to claim the sniper who has killed nine ordinary people in the Washington suburbs the past two weeks is part of a giant al Qaeda plot.

“Yeah and he could be a little green man from Mars,” laughs Jonathan Burlingame, a former intelligence agent who tracked terrorists for 30 years. “Suggesting this is part of some al Qaeda plot only shows how little most people know about how international terrorism works.”

Homeland Security officials say publicly they are “not ruling out” international terrorism as a motive behind the string of killings that have left Washington area residents afraid to go to their local Home Depot or gas station, but privately they say such a possibility is “remote at best.”

“Under these horrific circumstances, you don’t want to draw any premature conclusions,” says Homeland Security director Tom Ridge. Translation: It’s possible but not probable.

“What happened is that somebody said they saw someone who may have been dark-skinned or olive-skinned and that set off the alarmists who now want to scream that ‘Oh my God it’s bin Laden’s army, shooting people right here on American soil,’” Burlingame says. “Consider this: the report of a dark or olive skinned man came from people who saw the van at night. Those who saw a van in daytime said the driver was white. The truth is, we still don’t know all that much about the shooter, but we do know that this is not the way these people wage war.”

Burlingame points to a number of red flags which he says rules out a Muslim terrorist plot behind the shootings:

–Single shot deaths are not the terrorist way. “Success is measured in body count, in shock value and in an ability to spread fear over the widest possible area,” Burlingame says. “If this were part of an al Qaeda plan, we would see multiple sniper attacks in several cities, not just the Washington suburbs.”

–Neither are single shot weapons. “The weapon of choice is a fully-automatic AK, spreading many shots in a wide angle and taking as many lives as possible. Squeezing off a single shot and killing only one person when so many targets are available runs counter to their philosophy. Again, body count is important.”

–The Tarot card proclaiming “I am God,” is a clear signal. “No Muslim will lie about such a thing. They will lie about their name, their nationality or their intentions, but claiming to the God would be blasphemy. It would deny the shooter an afterlife.”

–The sniper didn’t take out a law enforcement officer when he had the chance. “A Virginia State Trooper was working a traffic accident during last week’s shooting in Fredricksburg. He was clearly in the line of fire yet the shooter chose to fire over the trooper’s head to hit his primary target. An al Qaeda operative would never have passed up an opportunity to take out someone in uniform.”

So, who is the shooter?

“Probably someone with military or law enforcement training,” Burlingame says. “Someone who craves the media attention and the power he has from this situation. I agree fully with the profilers who say this is a homegrown shooter.”

Of course, Burlingame could be wrong. So could the profilers, at least those who say the shooter is a young, white male. Even the experts can’t agree on who the guy might be or what drives him to kill. About they only thing they can agree on is that the shooter is probably not a 45-year-old soccer mom with an anger-management problem.

But the rush to claim the shooter is a Middle Eastern terrorist simply because a witness said he thought he saw someone who was “olive skinned” or “dark skinned” is a frightening trend.

It goes beyond paranoia and becomes racism.

Even in a time when unknown killers disrupt our lives and terrorism threatens our freedoms, such attitudes have no place in America.