Al Qaeda: Operational Planning and the Calendar
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan concluded Nov. 3 with celebrations marking the holiday of Eid al-Fitr. Many believe that Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, constitutes a greater terrorist threat than other months because of Ramadan’s great religious and historical significance. Though several reports indicated that militants were planning to carry out global offensive attacks against Western targets during the 2005 Ramadan season, as Stratfor predicted such attacks did not materialize. There are several reasons for this.
Historically, al Qaeda has made strategic decisions to attack only when operational components are in place that would allow for an attack’s successful completion. To al Qaeda, the fulfillment of its operational planning is much more important than striking on a particularly significant date. Though it is certainly possible that militant attacks could be launched during Ramadan, it is no more likely than at any other time of year.
Despite the popular idea that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were carried out on that date to increase the attacks’ significance — because of the numbers “911” — the attacks were in fact planned to occur much earlier. According to the 9/11 Commission report, al Qaeda operational planners, including Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, originally intended to carry out the attacks in May 2001. However, because the operational teams were not fully prepared to strike, the attacks were postponed. When al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden learned that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would be visiting the White House that summer, Mohammed was urged to strike in June or July 2001. But again, the operation was put off because the hijackers were not yet prepared. Planning and readiness trumped the possible benefits of launching the attacks to coincide with a particular date or event.
Also, once preparations for an attack are complete, any militant group exposes itself to additional risks by waiting for a specific date — and the longer the wait, the higher the risk. As a potential attack moves further into the operational cycle, the chances of detection grow significantly. Hesitation after preparations are complete can put the entire plan in jeopardy — an unacceptable risk. Al Qaeda emphasizes the successful completion of attacks and thus will strike as soon as possible once all operational components are in place.
Al Qaeda’s operational planning and training also show a preference for striking at times when attacks are unexpected. Specific anniversaries and dates seem to increase the amount of law enforcement vigilance as authorities attempt to thwart potential attacks. That additional attention creates an added risk for terrorists, who prefer to operate in times of decreased attention and awareness.
Al Qaeda’s leadership undoubtedly has read the 9/11 Commission report and thus learned just how close the attackers were to being thwarted on several occasions. With law enforcement’s increased awareness of al Qaeda tactics and vulnerabilities, the group’s leadership likely is more aware than ever that waiting to carry out an attack could be a serious miscalculation and could result in failure.
Recent years have seen some increase in attacks in the Iraqi theater during Ramadan, but this probably is because the number of large soft targets increases significantly during this time and probably has little to do with the holy month itself. Large groups of Muslims congregating in mosques, restaurants and other gathering places during Ramadan — and similarly in Muharram, the first month of the Muslim calendar that holds particular significance for the Shia — are attractive targets that have the potential for particularly high casualties.