Target Bush?

It is probably only a matter of time before Al-Qaeda attempts to assassinate a Western leadership figure in response to the 'war on terror'. The obvious key choices would be US President George W Bush, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and then key members of Bush's inner group of advisers. Possible softer targets include Western leaders closely associated with US foreign policy, such as UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

US leaders would be the most desirable targets for several reasons. The US is the country identified as leading the crusade against the Muslim world. It is also perceived to be Israel's sponsor (or surrogate) in the campaign against Arab Middle East interests.

Both the US and Israel pursue active policies of assassination against Muslims who are opposed to US or Israeli strategic interests. Individuals targeted since 11 September include:

· Osama bin Laden (apparently unsuccessfully so far);

· Dr Ayman Zawahiri (Al-Qaeda's number two - also unsuccessfully so far);

· Mohamed Atef (Al-Qaeda's operational commander - killed in Afghanistan in 2001);

· Saddam Hussein, seen by many Arabs as a champion of Palestinian rights (who may have been killed);

· numerous Palestinian political and extremist leaders;

· other extremist lesser lights, such as Abu Sayyaf's faction leader Abu Sabaya (killed in 2002).

Why would Al-Qaeda take the fight to the enemy in such a direct way?

Firstly, because it could further Al-Qaeda's objective of creating a multi-regional Muslim caliphate by polarising the conflict with the US-led West and, at the same time, destabilising moderate Muslim regimes that it deems unacceptable. Al-Qaeda will also draw confidence from the knowledge that such attacks have been successful in the past. To date, four US presidents (Garfield, McKinlay, Lincoln and Kennedy) have been assassinated and several others have survived serious assassination attempts. US and other democratic leaders are particularly vulnerable when they travel and when they have to campaign for re-election (or when jogging, 'power walking' or playing golf!).

When Bill Clinton last visited Australia while in office, a member of his Secret Service advance guard was openly critical of some Australian security measures - until one of the host officials reminded him in frustration that the US had lost four presidents while Australia had yet to lose a single prime minister to assassination! The US Secret Service is continually preventing 'loony' attacks against the president, but it has not contended with a sophisticated Al-Qaeda operation.

Secondly, an Al-Qaeda assassination attempt does not necessarily require substantial resources on the ground and, even if unsuccessful, would still result in a major 'shock and awe' effect. Al-Qaeda is accustomed to making detailed plans for its operations, so planning an attack of this kind a year or more in advance - for when Bush is on the re-election campaign trail - would not be unusual.

Available options

Al-Qaeda's training courses normally include ambush or assassination scenarios and the organisation currently has a number of attack options:

·Suicide bomber. One option would be to enable a suicide bomber to approach the president and then detonate a body bomb in a Sri Lankan- or Palestinian-style attack. For an attack on Bush, this would probably require the use of an American Muslim. The chances of success for such an operation would not be high if body searches were conducted on anyone approaching the president. Conducting body searches would, however, be more difficult when Bush is 'on the road' campaigning for re-election. For example, a woman holding a baby, prepared to kill herself and the child to kill the president, might be the kind of unexpected option that Al-Qaeda would use.

·Sniper. Another possibility is a long-distance rifle shot using a .50-calibre sniper rifle with a range of up to 2,000m. It would require the target to be stationary, such as standing at a podium to give a speech. The Washington sniper case in 2002 shows that it is also practical to convert a vehicle to use as a covert sniper platform. The Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) apparently used a converted Mazda 626 platform during 1992-97 to kill nine British soldiers and policemen in Northern Ireland.

·Co-ordinated group attack. Yet another option is to conceal terrorists who would mount an armed attack at the right moment to overwhelm the president's close personal protection. Al-Qaeda regularly practices this type of attack with terrorists hidden under the canvas back of utility trucks or in other vehicles. It was an armed attack using a number of terrorists that overwhelmed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's bodyguard in 1981. Sadat's assassins were from the Vanguards of God, a sub-group of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad - now part of Al-Qaeda's international network.

·Deception attack. Al-Qaeda is well-versed in the art of deception attacks. When it considered how best to kill Afghan warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud (possibly to make it more difficult for the US to mount a counterattack against the Taliban after 11 September 2001), it played on Massoud's ready accessibility to the media. Al-Qaeda employed a two-man Belgium-based Moroccan 'TV crew' with an improvised explosive device (IED) concealed in a video camera. The Moroccans sought an interview with Massoud. When they were shown into Massoud's presence on 9 September 2001, they detonated the IED, fatally wounding him.

·Concealed IED. Another option is to conceal an IED at a place where the target figure will be at some time in the future. Leaders' public appearances often have to be organised well in advance. This provides an opportunity to conceal an IED to be activated at a time of the terrorists' choosing. An example of this type of incident was the PIRA's attack on the UK Conservative Party conference at the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984. A timer detonated a previously concealed IED that killed five prominent Conservative Party members.

·Poison. A targeted assassination attempt using poison could be made against the president, particularly when he is travelling. Al-Qaeda is knowledgeable about the use of several poisons, including ricin. Its poisons manual provides a list of suitable and readily accessible toxins for individual assassinations. This means of assassination is feasible if trusted staff can be suborned. A former chef at Perth's Government House said that an attractive Irish woman approached him before a banquet attended by the Queen on 21 April 1988, and asked him to lace the Queen's food with arsenic.

·Shoulder-launched weapons. The final credible option is an attack on Bush's transport using an aircraft or surface-to-air missile against his helicopter or aircraft. A rocket-propelled grenade or anti-tank missile could also be used against the president's armoured limousine. Chechen groups linked to Al-Qaeda have proved particularly adept at mounting such attacks.

Al-Qaeda clearly has a credible capability to kill the US president or other Western leaders if it seeks to do so. Whether it does choose to mount such an attack will depend on whether it believes it to be in its strategic interest over the longer term.

One of the potential effects of an assassination attempt would be to make Western leaders less accessible to the public. Leaders would have to decide whether they were prepared to continue to risk public appearances. It may be that in the future, the public will know US leaders in particular only by their appearance on TV, or will only get to meet them at closed events where there is tight security.

Clive Williams MG is a former intelligence officer, and director of terrorism studies at The Australian National University. He is also a visiting professor (on terrorism) at the University of California

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