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Al-Qaida / Al-Qaeda Sleeper Cells

Attacks on the West have been conducted through two different types of terrorist organizations: the sleeper cell and the hit squad. The term "sleeper cell" means different things to different people, and is used to reference a variety of threats. Sleeper cells are groups of terrorists who are already in place and ready to act, as opposed to hit squads which are infiltrated into the target country shortly before an attack. Sleeper cells are trained and ready to carry out attacks at a designated time and place. According to some, the teams assembled in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were classic al-Qaeda sleeper cells. Sleeper cells are loosely organized, and blend into communities easier through legitimate employment.

The most significant Islamist terrorist plots in the US generally did not involve sleeper cells but rather terrorists who have came from abroad. Mission specific terrorist cells are the threat from the outside. They deploy aliens, assembled overseas, who enter the country with a specific mission and with legal or fraudulent visas. According to some, the September 11 attacks fell into the void between the foreign and domestic threats. The threat was not from sleeper cells. It was foreign-but from foreigners who had infiltrated into the United States.

In fact, there is very little to differentiate the embassy bombers from the September 11th teams. But some regard one or both as sleeper cells, while others classify one or both as mission specific outside hit squads. The Achilles heel of the later is an inability to cross international borders without attracting attention. The threat from the former is that they are effectively invisible until it is too late.

Prior to September 11th, counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke mentioned to National Security Advisor Rice at least twice that al Qaeda sleeper cells were likely in the United States. In January 2001, Clarke forwarded a strategy paper to Rice warning that al Qaeda had a presence in the United States.

After September 11 the Department of Justice was concerned about the possibility of additional terrorist attacks. There was great concern that additional "terrorist sleeper-cells" might become active and perpetrate further attacks. The FBI immediately sought to shut down any "sleeper" cells of terrorists who might be preparing another wave of violence.

On 11 December 2001 President Bush, speaking at the Citadel in Charleston, SC, revealed plans to transform the armed forces to confront the threats of the 21st century. He said the United States will meet the threats posed by terrorists by every means. "We will discover and destroy 'sleeper' cells," he said. "We will track terrorists' movements, trace their communications, disrupt their funding and take their network apart piece by piece."

According to one news report in July 2002, intelligence officials estimated that there might be as many as 5,000 people in the United States linked to Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network. The number of hardcore Al Qaeda members in the country who might actually do harm to Americans is in the low hundreds or even less, reportely officials believed. The 5,000 estimate included all those in the "realm of suspicion" and those who may be aware of terrorist activities but not participate, one official said. The FBI was searching for Americans and others suspected of advising Al Qaeda cells operating underground on US soil and preparing for another attack. Some of the suspected advisers are believed to be longtime U.S. citizens, fully immersed in American life and able to financially direct an attack without directly participating in it, the officials said.

Prepared Testimony of U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Progress in Afghanistan on July 31, 2002 observed that "For every terrorist plot we discover and every terrorist cell we disrupt, there are dozens of others in the works. Al Qaeda operates not only in Afghanistan, but in more than 60 countries including the U.S. Undoubtedly, coalition efforts have made recruitment harder, planning harder, and moving between countries harder. But they have trained literally thousands of terrorists who are now at large across the globe. These "sleeper" cells undoubtedly have plans for further attacks."

On September 24, 2002 Attorney General Ashcroft said "We have no reason to believe that the United States is absent al Qaeda-associated individuals. ... I believe that there are al Qaeda operatives in the United States who are assets to the al Qaeda network around the world. And if I, obviously, had specific information about an operation that they were about to carry out, believe me, I would be taking action in regard to those specific individuals."

On May 7, 2003 DHS Under Secretary Asa Hutchinson stated that "A terrorist network funded by Osama Bin Laden was established in New York and California over a decade ago. His operatives were dispatched here to train in aviation, urban warfare, and to raise money. Sleeper cells were established across the western world - and they quietly plotted their attacks to be carried out at the time of Bin Laden's choosing. Terrorist cells arrived in Africa 5 years before the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings - and some of the September 11th hijackers lived among us for more than 4 years before executing their deadly mission. Knowing this, we can not afford to relax into a false sense of security during the absence of terrorist attack here at home. As sleeper cells lurk among us - plotting, planning and waiting - we must develop systems to disable their operations."

In 2003, the FBI's fifty-six field offices began developing demographic profiles of their localities in order to root out undetected sleeper cells. Those profiles feature variables on opportunity and skill development. Indicators of "vulnerable assets" include the presence of flight schools in the area, the existence of Islamic charities and "criminal" mosques, as well as the number of bridges, dams, and nuclear plants.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, of Iowa said on September 9, 2003 "We know there are sleeper cells still lurking in this country, plotting to harm us and providing support for future attacks. Some have been arrested, some are under surveillance, and I'm sure some are still at large."

By September 11, 2003 Federal agents had broken up terrorist "sleeper cells" in Portland, Detroit and Buffalo, and apprehended the Ohio truck driver who plotted with Osama Bin Laden to cut the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, to list only the publicly reported successes. But some of these cases were revealed as something less than earth shattering, when the details emerged. The Justice Department held a press conference to announce the disruption of a Buffalo, New York "al Qaeda terrorist cell," In reality those arrested had lied to federal investigators about briefly attending a Taliban training camp. There was no evidence that that those arrested in Buffalo were involved in terrorism of any kind, or had ever been part of al Qaeda. And the plans for cutting the suspension cable of the Brooklyn Bridge involved anf acetylene torch, laughably unlikely to succeed.

As late as February 2004, one report claimed that Al Qaeda sleeper cells were believed to be operating in 40 states, according to the FBI and other federal authorities, awaiting orders and funding for new attacks in the United States.

On July 8, 2004 a Senior Intelligence Official stated: "There is intelligence that al-Qaeda has individuals dispersed worldwide, and worldwide would include the United States, that are -- they are using in order to facilitate the operational planning necessary to carry out attacks successfully. ... "

Sleeper cells are lodged in the immigrant communities. These have included the Brooklyn cells in the first World Trade Center bombing and the plot to bomb New York City landmarks, the Lyon cell in the 1994-96 attacks on French trains and the Meliani cell broken up across Europe in 2000-2001. Sleeper cells could develop from Muslim charities, foundations, academic groups and non-government organizations. Alienated segments of Muslim immigrant communities constitute a possible source of sleeper cells.

By early 2005 there was little to no evidence of Al Qaeda sleeper cells in the US. When he testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in February 2005, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III testified that he is "very concerned" about the lack of data on a network of al Qaeda "sleeper" cells in the United States. He went on to say that, "Finding them is a top priority for the FBI, but it is also one of the most difficult challenges."

In March 2005 a leaked FBI report concluded that "US Government efforts to date also have not revealed evidence of concealed cells or networks acting in the homeland as sleepers."

One book published in late 2005 repeated the claim of 5,000 Al Qaeda sleeper cell agents in the United States. This calim is made in the context of Osama's "patient" long term plan to execute an "American Hiroshima" in a simultaneous nuclear attack on seven major US cities. This is beyond even Hollywood's wildest imagination.

To this day, finding al Qaeda sleeper agents in the United States remains one of the paramount concerns in the War on Terror. As the President has explained, "[t]he terrorists want to strike America again, and they hope to inflict even more damage than they did on September the 11th." There was substantial concern that al Qaeda and its allies were preparing to carry out another attack within the United States. Al Qaeda had demonstrated its ability to introduce agents into the United States undetected and to perpetrate devastating attacks, and it was suspected that additional agents were likely already in position within the Nation's borders. As the President has explained, unlike a conventional enemy, al Qaeda has infiltrated "our cities and communities and communicated from here in America to plot and plan with bin Laden's lieutenants in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere." Press Conference of President Bush (Dec. 19, 2005).

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Page last modified: 14-06-2012 12:18:39 ZULU