Terrorist 'Probing Attacks' Said to Be Happening Nationwide

By Scott Wheeler and Heather Wier, CNSNews.com

The account of a Northwest Airlines passenger, detailing how the suspicious activities of a group of Middle Eastern men aboard the plane had convinced her that it was being hijacked, is one of hundreds, if not thousands of similarly events reported to U.S. authorities since the 9/11 attacks.

Counter terrorism experts interviewed by CNSNews.com say these incidents, many of which were "probing attacks" by terrorists methodically casing locations for an actual assault in the future, indicate the extent to which the United States currently finds itself threatened.

"What we have seen all across the country -- at military bases, at critical infrastructure facilities, at soft civilian targets such as schools, shopping malls [and] sports arenas, and domestic and international airline flights -- are probing attacks" said Peter Leitner, co-founder of the Higgins Counter Terrorism Research Center in Arlington, Va.

"Probing attacks are designed to elicit a response in an effort to map out patterns of reactions by law enforcement, the ease of approaching and withdrawing from a target and to test the reaction of the civilian population to a potential attack situation," Leitner told CNSNews.com.

Leitner said the June 29 Northwest Airlines flight from Detroit to Los Angeles, involving the suspicious activities of 14 Syrian male passengers, "was undoubtedly a probing attack."

Journalist Annie Jacobsen, a passenger on the flight, described the events for Women'sWallStreet.com in an article titled, "Terror in the Skies Again?"

"After seeing 14 Middle Eastern men board separately (six together, eight individually) and then act as a group, watching their unusual glances, observing their bizarre bathroom activities, watching them congregate in small groups, knowing that the flight attendants and the pilots were seriously concerned, and now knowing that federal air marshals were on board, I was officially terrified," Jacobsen wrote.

Government and aviation officials have confirmed the events, indicating that the Northwest Airlines pilot radioed to the ground that there was potential trouble and that upon landing the 14 men were detained, questioned and then released. Authorities confirmed the men were all Syrian.

In another example, the Washington Times quoted an airline pilot describing an incident in which a "man of Middle Eastern descent" locked himself in a lavatory for a long period of time before an air marshal forced his way in. The pilot told the Times that the air marshal found "the mirror had been removed and the man was attempting to break through the wall. The cockpit was on the other side."

Many incidents of suspicious videotaping have also been reported. Last month, two security guards at Iran's mission to the United Nations were expelled by the U.S. State Department after they were caught taping landmarks and infrastructure in New York City. The Iranians, according to State Department officials, were expelled on a technicality related to their official capacity, but most individuals caught videotaping are simply questioned and released.

Another videotaping incident involved a Jewish girls' school near Baltimore, Md., last October. The Baltimore Jewish Times reported that outside the Bais Yaakov School for Girls, "a man described as Middle Eastern in physical appearance was observed videotaping the school.

"A parent chased the man's car, wrote down the license plate and informed the FBI, whose agents later questioned the man," the newspaper reported. The man was not on any terrorist watch lists and no arrests were made in connection with that incident.

Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, a Washington Times article reported that the U.S. Navy was "investigating 11 incidents in which 'Arab' or 'Middle Eastern' males appeared to be conducting surveillance of naval bases, and, on one occasion, a truck loaded with munitions."

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service issued a press release, stating that Arabic males near the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington state "were on the beach with fishing gear; however, [they] did not do any fishing and their gear was not appropriate.

"The same individuals had been ordered out of a restricted area by park rangers earlier in the day where they were observed videotaping the Deception Pass Bridge," the Naval Criminal Investigative Service stated.

On Aug. 1, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced that the national, color-coded terror threat was being elevated from yellow to orange for specific areas on the East Coast based on "new and unusually specific information about where al Qaeda would like to attack."

According to press accounts and sources interviewed by CNSNews.com, the information was gleaned from the computer used by two al Qaeda suspects who were arrested in Pakistan last month. The computer contained logs of surveillance conducted by terrorists at the Citigroup Center Building and New York Stock Exchange in New York City, the Prudential Building in Newark, N.J., and the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington, D.C.

It's believed that the author of the surveillance logs, which reportedly referred to the security, construction and other details of the financial buildings, was Abu Eisa al-Hindi, a top al Qaeda operative arrested in Great Britain last week in a raid that netted eleven other suspects.

Leitner said the information on the computer used by the al Qaeda suspects confirms "that these probing attacks are well planned, systematic and increasingly provocative."

Jason Korsower of the Washington, D.C., counter-terrorism think tank, The Investigative Project, told CNSNews.com that "these events could be dry runs or decoys designed to divert the intelligence community's attention to planes while the next attack might be maritime or a truck bomb."

Another counter-terrorism official, who spoke with CNSNews.com on condition of anonymity, said air passengers must take steps to ensure their own safety in situations similar to the one involving the Northwest Airlines flight from Detroit to Los Angeles.

"The only real line of defense in isolated situations such as on airlines is intentional chaos. Being a compliant hostage in the post 9-11 period will not buy you safety," the official said. "You have a gun at both temples, one wielded by the terrorists aboard the plane and the other by the U.S. Air Force scrambling fighter jets to prevent another disaster on the ground such as on September 11th."

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, dismissed the reports of suspicious behavior on the part of Middle Eastern individuals.

"In these kinds of situations if the people had not looked -- quote -- Middle Eastern, I doubt the same behavior would have attracted any attention whatsoever," Hooper told CNSNews.com. "Going to the restrooms or other activity somehow becomes suspicious when the person looks Middle Eastern. That's the reality we live in today," he added.

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