Washington For Osama bin Laden, who spent years in seclusion with little to do but devise new ways to kill Americans, the first big plans to emerge from his compound paint a picture of a terrorist who stuck to what he knew best and what worked before: planes, trains and ships.
The computer files hauled from his hideout in Pakistan have provided intelligence officials with an unparalleled glimpse into the mind of al-Qaida’s founder. But perhaps most surprising about the first two attack scenarios to surface in those documents is just how predictable they were.
He hoped to attack trains, just as terrorists had done in Mumbai, India, and Madrid. He retained his fascination with attacking airplanes. And, according to U.S. officials and a law enforcement bulletin Friday, he wanted to hijack oil tankers and blow them up at sea.
The fact that they were old ideas made them no less deadly. Yet with no specific plan in motion and after so many warnings about similar plots over the past decade, the revelations were met with little more than a shrug by many in the security business. Oil prices weren’t affected. Shippers said it was business as usual.
“This is nothing new,” said Christopher Davidson, a professor of Middle East politics at Durham University in northern England. “This is just confirmation of what most security and terror analysts had guessed.”
In short, bin Laden wanted to attack just where the U.S. figured he would.
Part of that is due to the billions of dollars that the U.S. has spent on intelligence and security since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. So much has been spent on secret wire taps, satellite surveillance and new spies and analysts that the U.S. isn’t supposed to be caught by surprise. Anything less than foreseeing and preventing an attack is a failure.
But the predictability of bin Laden and his commanders is one reason why the core group of al-Qaida is no longer the gravest threat to America. That has fallen to the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen, where operatives have proved more clever and nimble than the terror group’s founders, now forced deep into hiding by CIA drone attacks.