Law enforcement has a term for the period after a crisis when things revert to norm -- condition white. Well, the American people are just about there, three-and-a-half years after the 9/11 attacks.
But as the media obsess over Michael Jackson's favorite lubricants and Paula Abdul's dalliances with idol wannabes, al-Qaida is "very active" recruiting and planning to attack the United States again. "As months and years pass," Vice President Dick Cheney warns, "they are hoping that our country will grow complacent" and forget the horror of 9/11. And they're getting their wish, judging from the picayune issues that are catching the nation's attention now.
Cheney echoed President Bush's own warning a few days earlier to resist the urge to lower our guard. "One of my concerns after September the 11th is the farther away we got from September the 11th, the more relaxed we would all become and assume that there wasn't an enemy out there ready to hit us," Bush asserted.
Do they know something we don't? Short answer: yes.
Behind the scenes, homeland security officials are wringing their hands over intelligence indicating al-Qaida is preparing to attack major American cities, including Washington, using Pakistani nationals and possibly Pakistani-Americans.
Internal Department of Homeland Security documents I've obtained show officials fear Pakistan-based al-Qaida may be sending terrorists our way, including ones trained in terror camps up and running inside Pakistan -- that's right, Pakistan. The terror-training camps we shut down in Afghanistan are now open for business on the other side of the border, despite Islamabad's apparent efforts to crack down on them.
According to the closely held intelligence bulletins, officials worry Pakistanis trained in the camps are trying to sneak into America to carry out terrorist attacks. In fact, U.S. border authorities are reminded each day in shift musters that Pakistanis pose the No. 1 terrorist threat to America right now. And for the past several months, they have been under orders to increase scrutiny of travelers of Pakistani origin.
The latest advisory puts authorities on high alert for Pakistani terrorists trying to enter the U.S. with fake British passports.
"A number of Pakistani-based young men in their 20's may be traveling to the U.S. with altered United Kingdom passports in order to engage in terrorist-related activity," says the highly sensitive DHS action memo.
"Of most interest may be individuals fitting this description traveling to Washington D.C., Houston, Chicago or New York."
The FBI says al-Qaida leaders -- many of whom are believed to be hiding in Pakistan, as evidenced most recently by the capture there of senior operative Abu Farraj al-Libbi -- have discussed plans for a 9/11-type attack in which hijackers would board planes in Britain so they wouldn't have to use U.S. visas. Customs inspectors are questioning all male Pakistani travelers between the ages of 18 and 35 bearing British passports, as part of the latest DHS directive known as Intelligence Driven Special Operation #2005-07.
Even Pakistani-Americans have been subjected to special screening.
Fearing some may be returning from terrorist camps in their ancestral homeland, customs officials have been directed to not only question them about their trip and activities but to also search their arms and legs for signs of having had terrorist training. They've been told to look for anything from rope burns to bruises to possible injuries suffered from using firearms or explosives. The body searches stopped after the Pakistani Embassy complained, but they are still being asked a battery of questions.
"Many of the individuals trained in the Pakistani camps are destined to commit illegal activities in the United States," says the two-page DHS warning that launched IDSO #2004-022. (Click here to view page one and page two, parts of which I have redacted to protect some of the more sensitive countermeasures.)
The unusual steps show how desperate homeland security officials are to disrupt what they believe is a major attack planned by terrorists of Pakistani origin.
At the same time, U.S. immigration authorities are targeting Pakistanis living illegally in America for deportation. Since 9/11, they've rounded up and removed three times more Pakistani absconders than they did during the comparable period before 9/11. DHS data also show the number of Pakistani removals dwarfs those of illegals from all other Muslim nations.
Pakistanis account for most of the OTMs -- other than Mexicans – crossing the U.S. border with Mexico illegally from countries considered high risk for terrorism. And officials fear some may try to smuggle nuclear or radiological weapons across the porous border into America.
Osama bin Laden, who has long sought a nuclear weapon or radioactive materials to make a so-called dirty bomb, recently secured from a Saudi cleric a religious ruling giving him the green light to use nuclear weapons against Americans. He and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, along with much of al-Qaida's inner circle, are thought to be hiding in Pakistan's northern badlands. In fact, they've recently used couriers to deliver video- and audio-taped messages to Al-Jazeera TV's bureaus in Islamabad and Karachi. And just yesterday it was announced that one of their top operatives --al-Libbi -- was captured in that same badlands area.
Pakistan, which husbanded al-Qaida and served as a base of operations for the 9/11 plotters, has long been a hotbed of terrorist activity. The war on terror started in Pakistan, and many officials believe it will end there.
But for that to happen, they say Bush must pressure Islamabad to shut down the terrorist camps in Pakistan, because U.S. forces can't do it unilaterally. Islamabad refuses to allow our troops based in Afghanistan to cross the border into neighboring Pakistan.
After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush demanded the Taliban close terror camps in Afghanistan. On Sept. 20, 2001, he warned: "Tonight the United States of America makes the following demands on the Taliban ... Close immediately and permanently every terrorist training camp in Afghanistan."
Yet Pakistan, the cradle of the Taliban movement, gets no such ultimatums regarding its own terror camps. Too be sure, Islamabad cut formal ties with the Taliban after 9/11, and has vowed to crack down on terrorists in its country. But the seeming double standard over the camps still gripes law enforcement here.
"What gets me is while we were going after the Taliban in Afghanistan, there were a lot of training camps in Pakistan. I mean, there was like a ton. That was where the terrorists were getting most of their training -- in Pakistan -- and they're still getting training there," says John M. Cole, who until last year worked at FBI headquarters as program manager for foreign intelligence investigations covering Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.
While the arrest of al-Libbi was a blow to al-Qaida and a win for our side, untold numbers of terrorists are still plotting and training inside Pakistan -- and preparing to launch attacks against America. Cole and others don't understand why Washington is taking the unnecessary risk of trying to catch the bad guys here when Islamabad could be doing more to stop them over there -- or at least letting our troops help stop them.
Sperry, a Hoover Institution media fellow and Investor's Business Daily veteran, is author of the just-released book, INFILTRATION: How Muslim Spies and Subversives Have Penetrated Washington (Nelson Current, 2005). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.