A Good Time for a Terrorist Attack

America is wounded like it hasn’t been for four years, reeling from a major shock to its infrastructure and economy, unsettled by the flailing of government in the face of chaos and anxious about steadily escalating oil prices.

So, with the nation’s attention _ and much of its homeland-security and emergency-response muscle _ concentrated on Hurricane Katrina’s ugly aftermath, what better time for al Qaeda to again hit the “Great Satan” than now.

The approach of the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, a date that for its symbolism alone has annually been considered a high-risk time, might make this moment even more attractive to terrorists.

But U.S. homeland-security officials, who say they have not been distracted from their counterterrorism responsibilities despite the enormous demands of dealing with Katrina’s wake, say they have detected no signs of an attack in the works.

“There is no specific intelligence to suggest there is an effort on the part of terrorists to conduct any imminent attacks,” said Russ Knocke, principal spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which handles both counterterrorism and emergency management in the country.

Knocke emphasized that the absence of such detected signs is not the result of a preoccupation by the federal government with Katrina-related matters or any other sag in vigilance.

“I can assure you our guard has not dropped at all,” he said.

That is the same message sent this week by the U.S. Northern Command, based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. Even with more than 70,000 U.S. part-time and active-duty troops assigned to Gulf Coast rescue-and-recovery missions, there has been no reduction in attention or the ability to respond, commanders there said.

“We’re watching the terrorist situation . . . very, very carefully,” Navy Adm. Timothy Keating, NORTHCOM commander, told reporters this week.

So far, the only al Qaeda-linked diatribe about the hurricane has come from a group in Iraq affiliated with Abu Musab al Zarqawi, whom U.S. forces consider a top insurgent mastermind there.

“God attacked America and the prayers of the oppressed were answered,” the Sept. 4 statement said.

Some experts say they find it hard to believe that terrorists can resist the temptation to take advantage of America’s post-Katrina focus. Now, even a small-scale attack would have a disproportionate effect, at the very least, on the psychology of the country, they say.

“It’s good terrorist weather,” said John Pike, a national security analyst at GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Va.

Christopher Brown, a terrorism analyst at the Hudson Institute in Washington, agrees, and says the chances are good for some sort of an attack in the next three weeks. He bases that ominous assessment on a number of factors, including the release of a Sept. 2 videotape in which al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader _ Ayman al Zawahiri _ was featured vowing vengeance on America for its “aggression” in Iraq and elsewhere.

In the past, video pronouncements such as this one have preceded al Qaeda attacks. Brown said one potential target could be a Texas oil refinery or pipeline, or, far easier to pull off, an attack on an oil facility in Saudi Arabia. Even if any such strike itself lacked the scope and flash of the 2001 attacks, it would likely trigger an economic tsunami.

“If they do that, oil will go over $80, 90 a barrel,” which would itself accomplish bin Laden’s often-stated goal of harming the United States in the purse, Brown said.

Other terrorism experts _ while cautioning that the task of divining the thinking and plans of bin Laden and his allies is akin to predicting the precise track of a hurricane _ say that al Qaeda’s M.O. has also been to take a long-term approach in its self-avowed war against America and others it considers enemies.

Instead of leaping into action in response to this or that current event, the group methodically plans an attack that may not be launched for a substantial period of time. That is the deepest fear of U.S. anti-terror agents _ that undetected al Qaeda sleeper cells are quietly mustering for an attack with an unpredictable trigger point.

But other experts say the lack of any post-9/11 attacks on American soil reflects the widespread “hardening” of potential U.S. targets, the often-unpublicized behind-the-scenes successes in disrupting al Qaeda’s operative capabilities and the common overestimation of the group’s power and reach.

“I think one could certainly conclude that good intelligence work and law-enforcement work have been a bright spot. This is something government has done quite well,” said Lee Strickland, a retired CIA senior intelligence officer and a University of Maryland professor.

Even so, he and others say the nation’s enemies are certain to study the wrath wreaked by Katrina on a key portion of the country’s infrastructure, and the immediate post-hurricane chaos, for what they each reveal about America’s soft underbelly.

“If you are a bad guy, this does highlight a plethora of targets,” Strickland said. “Hopefully, (the bad guys) are stupid.”

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at hoffmanl(at)shns.com.)