Terror Watch: New Al Qaeda Threat?

The FBI, spurred in part by this week's unusually menacing audio message from Ayman Al-Zawahiri, today advised state and local law enforcement officials to expect an increase in Al Qaeda propaganda messages aimed at inciting followers to commit terrorist acts.

FBI and counterterrorism officials stressed today that they have no fresh intelligence about any specific threats—one reason why today's FBI intelligence bulletin, issued in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security, was blandly worded and low-key in tone.

But privately some analysts are worried about the blunt new message from Zawahiri, the deputy to Osama bin Laden. "It's a little spooky," said one senior official. Seeking to exploit a worldwide Muslim backlash over recent Israeli bombing strikes in Gaza, Zawahiri exhorted followers to "attack the interest of the Jews and the Americans." He then added, "Select your targets, collect the appropriate funds, assembly your equipments, plan [your attacks] accurately, and then charge toward your targets … There is no place today for those who claim that the battlefield with the Jews is limited to Palestine."

Counterterrorism officials and analysts have been debating for the last few days whether Zawahiri's directive to "select your targets" was a direct command to operatives in the field or a more general incitement to sympathizers.

Evan Kohlmann, a government counterterrorism consultant who studies Al Qaeda messages, says the new tape seemed "palpably different" from Zawahiri's usually fiery anti-American tirades. "It's quite rare that he would be this direct and blunt about it," Kohlmann says. "My personal opinion is when he said this"—referring to the "select your targets" line—he "wasn't talking in the abstract, he was saying, 'We're doing it.' It was very much a call to arms."

But counterterrorism officials say that they have no idea what "it" might be—or any hard indicator that a major Al Qaeda strike is imminent, at least not in the United States. There has been no spike in terrorist "chatter" picked up by U.S. surveillance in recent weeks or recent arrests suggesting an operation might be underway, said one official who asked not to be identified talking about intelligence information.

But Europe may be another story. One development cited in today's FBI intelligence bulletin is the imminent release of an anti-Muslim video by Geert Wilders, a stridently right-wing member of the Dutch parliament who has made a point of baiting the country's Muslims. Wilders has said he will release the film, which is expected to directly criticize the Koran, by April 1. Dutch authorities, bracing for a backlash, recently increased their security threat level from "limited" to "substantial."

"There is a real possibility of a terrorist attack in the Netherlands," the Dutch counterterrorism office now states on the home page of its Web site.

Today's FBI/Homeland Security bulletin, called a "Joint Homeland Special Assessment," makes no such dire warnings. It does note that Al Qaeda, despite setbacks, has been able to maintain a "robust media and propaganda capability" evidenced by a steady increase in the number of audio- and videotapes from the terror group's leaders. The number of such tapes released by Al Qaeda's As-Sahab media arm jumped from 58 in 2006 to 97 in 2007—with 12 new ones so far in 2008. Just before Zawahiri's tape appeared, Osama bin Laden surfaced in his own audiotape. Like Zawahiri, he too invoked the "siege laid upon Gaza" and other recent developments. "The recent wave of audio statements from Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri over the past week attempts to capitalize on flashpoints—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iraq and the Danish cartoon controversy—to inspire others to take violent action against what they believe are transgressions against Muslims worldwide," the FBI bulletin states. Among developments that could trigger more such tapes, the FBI bulletin says, are the U.S. presidential election and the release of Wilders film.

One big concern among FBI officials is that the tapes are registering with terrorist "wannabes" and other sympathizers inside the United States. "It's the home-grown guys who are downloading this stuff and watching them on their computers," says Richard Kolko, an FBI spokesman.