In February at the U.S. intelligence community’s annual threat-assessment hearings on Capitol Hill before the national security committees, the following exchange took place in an open session of the Senate Intelligence Committee:
Sen. Diane Feinstein, D.-Calif.: “What is the likelihood of another terrorist attempted attack on the U.S. homeland in the next three to six months — high or low?”
Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair: “An attempted attack, the priority is certain, I would say.”
CIA Director Leon Panetta: “I would agree with that.”
FBI Director Robert Mueller: “Agree.”
Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency: “Yes, ma’am. Agree.”
John Dinger, acting assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research: “Yes.”
Not surprisingly, these judgments come in the wake of an attempted attack on a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day by a Nigerian with al-Qaida ties, serving as the most recent reminder that the struggle with Islamist terrorism is not over.
The thwarted attack, which exposed holes in our counterterrorism defenses, did not put our intelligence or homeland security communities in their best light, despite their valiant day-to-day efforts to keep us safe.
But assuming that their collective response (undoubtedly discussed before the hearing) was more than protecting their collective bureaucratic flanks on the chance of another attempted high-profile attack on U.S. soil, their assessment is, indeed, troubling.
The question is: More than eight years after the 9/11 al-Qaida terrorist attacks, what are we up against?
Osama bin Laden and his cohorts have clearly taken it on the chin since the early days after 9/11 because of our military’s direct-action operations in places such as Iraq and devastating CIA Predator UAV strikes in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistani tribal areas.
Law enforcement, intelligence, homeland security operations and international cooperation efforts have also played significant roles in preventing a major strike on the American homeland and U.S. interests overseas. Perhaps most notable of these is the American-British-Pakistani cooperation that scuttled the 2006 attempted 9/11-style attack on trans-Atlantic flights to the U.S. from the United Kingdom using liquid explosives.
Senior al-Qaida operatives have been taken off the streets in large numbers, but bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri are still on the loose and the global terror movement bin Laden inspires is alive and kicking, as evidenced by the foiled December airline bombing.
In fact, the U.S. intelligence community (IC), consisting of some 17 government offices and agencies with some national security function, agrees that al-Qaida is intent on attacking the U.S. as well as American interests abroad.
According to the IC, al-Qaida is still looking at major attacks that would reap mass civilian casualties or harm the U.S. economy, such as a debilitating strike on Wall Street, an area the terrorist leaders still believe is America’s Achilles’ heel.
Of course, highly symbolic targets such as those in Washington, D.C., are still high on the al-Qaida hit list because of their psychological effect, as is critical infrastructure such as bridges and dams, which might cause a horrific loss of life if attacked.
Weapons of mass destruction are not off the table, either. The IC and outside experts continue to express concern about this phantasmagorical scenario, noting that as late as 2007, bin Laden called for his followers to acquire and use WMD to “escalate the killing” of Americans.
But, despite this, the U.S. government assesses that we have made it harder to pull off an attack and that support for violent extremism remains a “minority view” in the Muslim world, especially any justification for attacks on innocent civilians. (According to some polls, about two-thirds of Muslims surveyed believe an attack on innocent civilians is never justified, which, unfortunately, raises the question that one-third may believe it can be justified.)
But in almost the same breath, IC officials remind Congress and the American public that they are not omniscient and that intelligence analysts often make their terrorist judgments off information that is incomplete — which then also applies to their consumers: senior policymakers.
Indeed, the IC believes that the U.S. faces “a persistent terrorist threat from al-Qaida and potentially others who share its anti-Western ideology. A major terrorist attack may emanate from outside or inside the United States.”
While it is clear that there exists a threat from al-Qaida toward the homeland from far beyond our borders, the growing concern is that the al-Qaida threat is increasing within our borders, especially in the form of a self-radicalized, homegrown terrorist threat.
HORROR AT HOME
Indeed, at the same annual threat assessment congressional hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden, D.-Ore., asked the IC panel: “How serious of a threat do you think a homegrown al-Qaida threat is today?”
Mueller answered: “I think it’s a very serious threat and increasing, principally because of the enhanced use of the Internet to radicalize and to be utilized to coordinate actions; and so, with a growth of the Internet, so too is grown the threat domestically. ... The homegrown radicalization by those who are radicalized in the United States who do not and have not traveled overseas for training has grown over the last several years.”
Wyden: “Are you more concerned about al-Qaida terrorists coming from inside the United States now or from outside the United States?”
Mueller: “I’m equally concerned about both — both are about equal the same level of concern. I do think that the attacks undertaken by individuals who have some association or training overseas tend to be more of a threat in terms of the capabilities than some of the threats that we have seen domestically. And so it is the training, the enhanced capabilities that come from persons traveling overseas then coming back, that would make any terrorist attack a more substantial terrorist attack, in most cases, than one taken by a lone individual.”
While this does makes sense, in a manner it does fly in the face of what many have concluded is the deadliest Islamist domestic terror attack to date, that of the now-infamous Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan at Fort Hood, Texas, in November, charged with taking the lives of 13 people and injuring dozens more with gunfire before his rampage was stopped.
While additional details are expected, according to press reports it is believed Hasan was radicalized here in the U.S, and that his actions were motivated by Islamist extremism that was evident (and regrettably not acted upon) during his Army career.
While Hasan had ties to radical Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, who is associated with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, he is not known to have traveled overseas for recruitment or terror training.
Unfortunately, this is just the most recent incident involving domestic Islamist terrorists.
Perhaps the other most recognizable name among recent cases is that of Afghan-American Najibullah Zazi, the Denver airport shuttle bus driver who received terrorist training in Pakistan from al-Qaida and was then able to re-enter the U.S. with hopes of undertaking terrorist plots.
In addition to Zazi, two of his high school classmates have also been indicted in an al-Qaida-directed conspiracy to bomb three New York City subway lines around the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, using unspecified “weapons of mass destruction.”
Based on his al-Qaida training overseas, Zazi reportedly had assembled and tested some of the explosive devices in the U.S. in preparation for the subway bombings.
But Hasan, who is often characterized as a “lone wolf” terrorist, and Zazi, who operated in a cell, are only the beginning of what seems to be a rash of domestic-related Islamist terrorism cases over the last year.
In December, a Chicago man was charged in a terrorist plot against a Danish newspaper over the publication of a cartoon featuring the prophet Mohammed. It was later revealed the suspect also allegedly “cased” sites in Mumbai, India, for the Pakistani terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba’s attack in November 2008.
Also in December, five Americans — all 18 to 25 years old from African, Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrant families — hailing from Northern Virginia were arrested in Pakistan, accused of “terrorist activities,” according to that country’s press.
The previous month, 14 people were charged in Minnesota with recruiting young Somali-Americans to travel to the Horn of Africa to fight with terrorist groups in Somalia. In October, a Boston Muslim was apprehended and charged with conspiring to attack civilians with automatic gunfire, wage jihad overseas and attack U.S. politicians.
In September, a Jordanian illegally living in Texas was arrested in connection with a supposed al-Qaida plot to detonate a bomb next to a Dallas skyscraper. Under FBI control, the suspect actually detonated an inert explosive device in a truck he believed would trigger the explosion.
The same month, the FBI in a sting operation apprehended a man who intended to blow up a Springfield, Ill., federal building. Also under FBI control, the would-be terrorist drove a truck containing inactive explosives to the target and attempted to detonate the device in what he believed was an al-Qaida operation.
In July, a terror cell led by a North Carolina man was arrested and accused of attempting to support overseas terrorists. The leader of the cell had received training in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and was recruiting others to join his cause.
And in June, an American convert to Islam, who spent time in Yemen and returned to the U.S., was charged with killing a U.S. soldier and wounding another in an attack outside an Army recruiting station in Little Rock, Ark.
Although most of these cases represent amateur efforts, this is, nonetheless, a troubling string of events that took place inside U.S. borders. It could get worse, too.
Experts believe al-Qaida is increasingly looking for recruits who may have documentation without the names or appearances normally associated with terrorist hotbeds of the Middle East or South Asia. Converts to Islam, who may want to show their enthusiasm for their new faith, are especially prized.
Al-Qaida is also reportedly looking for new foot soldiers from visa-waiver program countries, who could travel between a number of nations without having to face questioning from an embassy consular officer.
According to an article by terror expert Bruce Hoffman in The Washington Post, British and American intelligence officials believe more than 100 individuals from Western countries have been trained in Pakistani terrorist camps and have now returned home. This is especially troubling because as Mueller pointed out, the capabilities of those who have direct contact with al-Qaida training are likely greater in terms of pulling off more horrific acts that those without it.
But conscious of the red flag raised by travel to certain countries, al-Qaida is also looking to recruit followers in place by “disseminating violent Islamic extremist propaganda via media outlets and the Internet,” according to the FBI, especially to “computer-savvy Westerners.”
While this method has its limitations, such as the level of training that can be obtained, small-scale, lone-wolf operations can still achieve deadly results, even if the act of terrorism is little more than a small “victory” for al-Qaida in comparison to 9/11 or other major attacks such as on the U.S. embassies in East Africa or on the destroyer Cole.
As a terrorist organization, it is important for al-Qaida to be visible in the media for recruiting, fundraising and propaganda purposes as well as to appear to have even a remote chance of defeating its enemy.
At the moment, there is a seemingly overwhelming impression that the terrorist threat is somewhere over there, away from America’s shores, in such places as Pakistan, India, Iraq and Afghanistan. We are also quick to forget about the plots that never come to pass. Unfortunately, that is the mindset that may have set us on the path to the Fort Hood shootings and the near-tragic, close-call terror attack by the “underwear bomber” on Christmas Day.
In January, President Obama said, “In the never-ending race to protect our country, we have to stay one step ahead of a nimble adversary.” That is no doubt true.
But a corollary to that is ensuring that we also do not let complacency about the terror threat here or abroad set in among the American public, the Congress or the administration, because that state of mind is as dangerous as the terrorists.
Peter Brookes is a Senior Fellow at the National Security Affairs and Chung Ju-Yung Fellow for Policy Studies
First appeared in the Armed Forces Journal