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Athens in the crosshairs

NBC News investigative producer Robert Windrem summarizes his conversations with officials in the counter-terrorism community.
/ Source: NBC News producer

The following FAQ is a composite of the counter-terrorism briefings I have attended and my conversations with members of the U.S. counter-terrorism community.

How serious is the threat of terrorism at the Olympics?
The U.S. counter terrorism community is concerned about terrorism and specifically al-Qaida linked terrorism. In some quarters of that community, the odds are better than 50-50.

Is there any threat reporting, any chatter?
In recent weeks, as could be expected there is some uptick in the reporting, but as of yet, the threat information is not yet corroborated.  If an attack is planned, the U.S.  believes it was approved months ago.

Is there anything in the recently uncovered computer files that would indicate any surveillance of Olympic sites?

Historically, has there been an al-Qaida presence in Greece?
On the positive side, there is no evidence of an al-Qaida presence in Greece, no infrastructure in place.  Al-Qaida has passed through Greece and has even used it as a vacation place, but no history of operational cells. That gives the Greeks a sense of optimism that may not be justified.

Why is that optimism unjustified?
Even if there are no operational cells, al-Qaida could bring things in across borders, from the islands. While we may not see any infrastructure in place in Greece now, there is existing al-Qaida infrastructure in Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo -- and they could move them quickly.  [There is even some speculation that we could see “false flag” operations being that this is the Balkans.  Serb groups could carry out an attack and try to pin the blame on Kosovo Muslims, etc.]

What is the biggest fear, an attack at an Olympic venue or outside the Olympics?
The fear is the vulnerability of soft targets, a fear heightened by what happened in Madrid. Terrorists are looking to Madrid with its quick implementation, its ability to carry out a devastating attack. Even without intelligence about an al-Qaida presence -- and we might not know because their operational security is so good –- there is great concern about the Madrid model. They could do backpack bombs at hotels, fast food restaurants, U.S. tourists. Think Atlanta. There was great security at the venues, but the bomber chose Centennial Park because of its low security.

Which venues might be more vulnerable than others?
As for venues, there are worries about the less notable events, the less high-profile as well as the bigger events. At the bigger events, security can interrupt their routines... particularly if they are planning for multiple simultaneous or near simultaneous attacks.  At the smaller venues, there will be less security.

Is there one target that represents a new vulnerability, one that perhaps people have not thought of?
A big concern is ferries. The Greeks move tens of thousands of people everyday on ferries. Al-Qaida has planned to attack ferries.  Abu Sayef, the Filipino terrorist group,  targeted a ferry in February and killed more than 200 people.  It doesn't take a lot to take down a ferry -- a backpack bomb, a car bomb -- and you can sink it with a great loss of life.

What about timing? Is there a more opportune time to attack?
The most likely timing: opening and closing ceremonies where there will be more people watching than at other times.  You could have diversionary attacks then.  I would say that as the Games go on, the chances of an attack diminish… until you get to the closing ceremony. 

What might an al-Qaida attack look like?
They want to kill people. You have to consider the use of truck bombs and even snipers to disrupt the Games. Five well-placed snipers could stop the Games. We already know what two snipers can do. You also have to worry about what happens in the aftermath of an attack as people try to escape the location that was hit.  Consequence management in Greece is pretty good, but will it work if one attack drives the assets off one site to another? What happens if they have a little anthrax and they use it to panic people?

Recently, new tactics have been seen that could be used at the Olympics. They breach a perimeter with smaller trucks and shooters, then bring on the follow-on truck carrying the bomb. We have seen this in both Turkey and the Saudi attacks. There is also the possibility of diversionary attacks in on part of the city followed by at attack at the Games. The first attack could look small, but would instead be the first in a series of al-Qaida attacks. Responding effectively to an attack like that would require an infrastructure the Greeks don't have.  

Why would they be interested in disrupting such an international event?
The Olympics possess all the characteristics of an Al-Qaida attack:

  • a wealth of soft targets
  • larger numbers of Americans
  • larger numbers of Westerners
  • major media attention

If an attack is successful, it would show to the world that al-Qaida can defeat security measures designed specifically to stop them. 

Might al-Qaida try to coordinate an attack in Athens with an attack elsewhere in the world?
As for whether they would coordinate an Olympic attack with other attacks around the world, that would be difficult, complicated. More likely are simultaneous or near simultaneous attacks in Athens than attacks across Europe or around the world.

Would Osama bin Laden or his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri be involved in planning an Olympic attack?
Right now, cell commanders are still taking orders out of Waziristan in western Pakistan. Cell commanders would bring the plan forward to the leadership in Waziristan using couriers and trusted intermediaries to bin Laden and Zawahiri who would go over them and check off what they like and don't like. They might say do A, B, and C but not D. In the case of the Olympics, that might be “do the tourist hotels and the sporting events and in addition hit a ferry.” If there is a plan to attack the Olympics, that proposal had already been approved, but the cell commanders pick the targets and the dates. Bin Laden might approve an attack on a hotel, but the cell commander would choose which hotel, would arrange for the casing and surveilling of security, the timing, etc. 

Is there a history of al-Qaida being interested in sporting events, previous Olympics?
There is also a history of them being interested in sporting events. Al-Qaida talked about the 1972 Munich attacks at the training camps in Afghanistan. They lectured about it, studied it, watched videos of it, admired how it attracted worldwide attention.

We know now that they planned attacks in Sydney in 2000, at tourist sites and housing for the athletes.  Some of this has come out in trials down there.

They have expressed interest in other sporting events, like World Cup venues and U.S. sporting events -- big football games.

How close did they come in Sydney?
They deliberated it, but didn't set out a plan. In Sydney, they were casing targets, watching, surveilling, determining what was the security at the locations. The plan was for truck bombings.

Are Greek security forces prepared for this?
The Greeks have a monumental challenge because:

  • they have porous borders
  • the scale of the Olympics stretches their infrastructure
  • they are in denial about al-Qaida. Their attitude is that everyone likes the Greeks
  • their focus is on home-grown terrorists

Increasingly, they are looking to NATO and the U.S. for help.

Why wouldn’t an attack succeed if attempted?
Because there are “A” teams, “B” teams, and “C” teams. The “A” team is going to be dedicated to planning out attacks against the U.S. and the U.K. The “B” team is who you can expect to be doing an Olympic attack. And the question if they succeed is “how big?”

Any concerns about local terrorist groups, those who have operated in Greece for decades?
As for the local anarchist groups like November 17 and the ELA, they are the focus of the Greeks' attention, but it will be interesting to see if the group goes beyond their norm, which is harassment attacks, improvised explosive devices at banks and corporate offices -- often in the middle of the night -- attacks that are intended to injure rather than kill. The Greeks will move and react to those attacks, but how much would that divert them from an al-Qaida attack?

Robert Windrem is an NBC News investigative producer.