Has al-Qaida targeted Christmas?
Stars and Stripes
WASHINGTON –Gone are the days when two warring sides would meet in no-man's land for a Christmas truce.
Iraqi officials are saying that suspected insurgents have confessed al-Qaida wants to launch attacks in the United States and Europe during Christmas. Meanwhile, recent bombings in Sweden targeted Christmas shoppers, and a man was arrested in Oregon for trying to blow up a Christmas tree lighting ceremony.
Last year, a man tried to detonate a bomb hidden in his underwear to bring down a passenger plane on Christmas Day.
Just this week the FBI and Homeland Security Department issued a warning to law enforcement agencies to be wary of anything that could be related to terrorist plans.
Does the danger of terrorist attacks go up during Christmas because al-Qaida understands the holiday’s religious importance to Christians?
Yes, says terrorism expert Peter Bergen, who noted that Islamic militants attacked churches on Dec. 24, 2000, in Indonesia. The year before, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the future leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, planned attacks against tourist sites in Jordan linked with Christian saints, such as John the Baptist.
“These guys are religious fanatics and this part of their calculation,” said Bergen, who has interviewed Osama bin Laden for CNN.
But an intelligence official told Stars and Stripes that al-Qaida’s primary goal is not to strike a symbolic blow but to kill as many people as possible and that ultimately determines when and where they strike. Officials believe the would-be underwear bomber was not given a specific date to attack.
“It also appears it may have been the availability of an airline seat rather than a calendar date that was the determining factor for his travel on Christmas,” the official said in an e-mail.
Al-Qaida thinks pragmatically when deciding when to strike, said Frances Townsend, former homeland security adviser for President George W. Bush. To al-Qaida, the importance of Christmas is that a lot of people are traveling, not the date itself.
“This is not an organization that is particularly tied to dates or holidays,” she said.
But Bergen noted that al-Qaida’s August 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa came on the anniversary of U.S. troops entering Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield. Other times, al-Qaida has attacked on dates that have no meaning at all.
“It’s not an either-or,” he said.
Al-Qaida puts operational concerns first when deciding when to attack, said Philip Mudd, a counter-terrorism expert who used to work for the CIA.
“I’ve seen them pick dates occasionally,” Mudd said. “For example the  attacks in Spain in advance of the elections, but typically dates haven’t been a motivator for them. It’s, ‘When are we ready to go?’”
That doesn’t rule out the possibility of an attack during Christmas, he said. Recent would-be attackers have been carried out by people who believe in al-Qaida’s ideology but are not part of the terrorist organization, so they are beyond the group’s control.
“You might see a Christmas Day attack,” Mudd said. “I think it would be more likely some kid who decides, ‘That’s my way of joining this al-Qaida revolution.’”