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The next big fear

By Henry Schuster
CNN

Editor's note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism, and efforts to combat them.

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The 1993 bomb killed six people at the World Trade Center and workers like Brian Rolchford had to flee.

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(CNN) -- A battle-hardened veteran of the jihad comes to a major American city. He has all the skills and tradecraft he learned fighting a military superpower.

This jihadi recruits a small group of like-minded sympathizers and together they carry out a bold plan to attack the most striking symbols in that city.

Sound far-fetched? Think again. Think about the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the first one. A man named Ramzi Yousef was the veteran of Afghan training camps who brought together a group of plotters to deadly effect.

Now consider the Iraq war and the possibility that it might spin off hundreds or thousands of committed jihadis who have a combination of fervor and lethality - and that one might be coming to a city near you, ready to repeat history.

That's the next big fear -- the one that has intelligence and counterterrorism experts in places like the Pentagon, the National Security Agency and some of America's biggest cities so worried.

Osama bin Laden raised the specter of such an attack in his recent audio message: "Iraq has become a magnet for attracting and training talented fighters."

Bin Laden boasted Islamic terrorists were able to carry out attacks in Madrid and London, adding, "the reason of the delay of similar operations in America is only a matter of time. It is not because we could not penetrate your measures. The operations are in the planning stages, and you will see them in the heart of your homeland as soon as the planning is complete."

While bin Laden may be in no position to order fresh attacks, he remains a powerful inspiration for jihadis.

The Afghan parallel

Probably the most cogent unclassified version of this new doomsday scenario comes from my colleague Peter Bergen, who, along with co-author Alec Reynolds, lays it out in an article titled "Blowback Revisited" in the November-December issue of Foreign Affairs.

The subtitle of the article gets right to it: "Today's Insurgents in Iraq are Tomorrow's Terrorists."

They make essentially the same argument that bin Laden did, expanding on the parallel to Afghanistan. The theory is that Iraq is the next Afghanistan -- where, from the war against the Soviets in the 1980s until the U.S.-led coalition invaded in late 2001, at least one generation of young men and possibly two attended fundamentalist training camps.

Estimates from the 9/11 commission and congressional reports on 9/11 are that between 50,000 and 125,000 men passed through the Afghan camps. Not all of those camps, it should be noted, were run by bin Laden and al Qaeda, which only came into existence in the late 1980s.

In fact, most of those who went through the camps did so after the Soviets pulled their troops out in 1989, when Afghanistan descended into a lawless state and years of civil war. Even after the Taliban took power in 1996 and 1997, most of the training camps continued to turn out recruits.

Members of the first generation were known as Afghan Arabs and after they had done their jihad in Afghanistan many were unwelcome back in their native countries. And it was this group that spawned the first World Trade Center bombers.

It is important to remember that these men were certainly not discouraged - and were often encouraged - by the United States to join the fight in Afghanistan, because the Reagan administration and CIA were helping run the war.

Which is how it came to pass that Ramzi Yousef was able to transform a group of New York immigrants into a terrorist cell that blew up a truck under the World Trade Center.

Could it happen again?

Reynolds and Bergen argue that it can. And in large cities across the country, particularly in places like New York and Los Angeles, it is an ever-present concern.

Reality check

One expert on the Iraqi insurgency says the scenario could be different.

This military intelligence official, who asked not to be identified because of his government position, says, "the size and scale of it [the insurgency] is no comparison to the Afghan conflict."

When he does the math, here is how it comes out: "Overall 100 to 150 [fighters] go in every month." Out of those, he says, 40 to 60 die every month from suicide bombings and other actions.

start quoteIt doesn't take very much, 10 to 50 people, including financiers and cutouts [to launch a terror attack].end quote
-- Military intelligence official

Some of the others, he says, "just go to get their combat badge and are vacation warriors," something that also happened during the Afghan war with the Soviets.

He makes the point that Iraq has not yet reached the point that Afghanistan did in the early 1990s when the Soviets were gone and the training camps flourished there.

But that doesn't mean this official isn't worried, especially about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is the most prominent foreign fighter in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi, he says, has proven to have networks and reach across Europe, especially in Germany.

He thinks al-Zarqawi is under pressure in Iraq from both the U.S. military and local tribes and that he's looking to mount operations elsewhere (an assessment that Jordanian intelligence sources agree with).

Al-Zarqawi was behind the triple suicide bombing in Jordan last November, and now the concern is he will look to attack in Europe or the United States.

In that case, says the official, the numbers may not matter.

"It doesn't take very much, 10 to 50 people, including financiers and cutouts."

Which is why from New York to Los Angeles, 13 years after the first World Trade Center bombing, this is the next big fear.

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