A new report to be released later Friday says that in the nine years since the Sept. 11 attacks, the terrorist threat against this country has fundamentally changed. The biggest threat is no longer coming from the dusty landscape of Afghanistan or the mountains of Pakistan border regions. Instead, experts say, the threat is now coming from within our own borders, in the form of homegrown terrorists.
“A key shift in the past couple of years is the increasingly prominent role in planning and operations that U.S. citizens and residents have played in the leadership of al-Qaida and aligned groups,” a new report by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Preparedness Group says, “and the higher numbers of Americans attaching themselves to these groups.”
The report is based on interviews with a wide range of senior U.S. counterterrorism officials at both the federal and local levels as well as research by its two authors, terrorism experts Peter Bergen and Bruce Hoffman who, between them, have more than 50 years of experience in the terrorism field. The center’s National Security Preparedness Group is basically the successor to the 9/11 Commission.
NPR obtained the 42-page report early. It will be released publicly during a news conference at 10 a.m. Friday.
Perhaps what’s most striking about the report is the belief of its authors that all the hand-wringing about dirty bombs, chemical weapons and mass-casualty attacks is misplaced. Al-Qaida, they say, doesn’t have the ability to launch an extraordinary operation on the scale of Sept. 11 anymore. Instead, it has to content itself with attacks that kill dozens or, at best, hundreds at a time.
The plot to bomb New York City subways last year, which was described as the worst plot leveled against the U.S. since Sept. 11, would have killed dozens had Najibullah Zazi succeeded in mixing the chemicals and getting them on the trains. Had the bombing of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day succeeded, it might have killed hundreds. Those kinds of operations should be seen as the new normal, the report said.
“This level of threat is likely to persist for years to come,” it said. “Al-Qaida is believed to lack the capability to launch an attack sufficiently deadly in scope to reorient completely the country’s foreign policy, as the 9/11 attacks did.”
The report makes the case that part of the reason the group’s reach is diminished is because its core leadership is under siege. Drone attacks in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan have gutted its midlevel operatives and sent Osama bin Laden, and his No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri, underground. (One of the more interesting tidbits in the report was a comment from a terrorism official who said U.S. intelligence is hearing militants grousing that bin Laden and Zawahiri don’t “give a damn” about the organization.)
The report also focuses on the erosion of al-Qaeda’s support in the Muslim world. That’s not new; it has been seen in local polling. But the report also talks about something that has been less obvious -– the growing number of Muslim scholars and religious groups that are singling out bin Laden and al-Qaida for having spilled too much blood. From a counterterrorism perspective, that’s good news. The way terrorist groups die is when they lose public support.
In the continental U.S., casualties because of terrorism are down significantly. Since Sept. 11, only 14 Americans have been killed in jihadist terrorist attacks in the U.S. Thirteen of those people were gunned down at Fort Hood, Texas, last year and the 14th was a young military recruiter who was shot outside a recruitment center in Little Rock, Ark. In both cases, the suspects were Americans -– Maj. Nidal Hasan and Carlos Bledsoe -– who appeared to have some connection with al-Qaida’s arm in Yemen.
These kinds of operations have offered new challenges for law enforcement officials, the report says. In many ways, trying to catch homegrown terrorists is more complicated — the suspect is no longer a poor kid from Pakistan who has come to the U.S. to attack. Now he (or even she) could be an MBA from Connecticut or a college student from Minneapolis.
The Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, was a young American of Pakistani descent with an MBA. Shirwa Ahmed, a young Somali-American from Minneapolis, was a college student. He went to Somalia and now has the dubious distinction of being America’s first suicide bomber. He drove a truck full of explosives into a U.N. building in Puntland. The FBI matched his prints to the remains of a finger found at the scene.
Back in June, CIA Director Leon Panetta told leaders on Capitol Hill that there were only 50 to 100 al-Qaida members in Afghanistan now. While that sounds like a paltry number, the report also seeks to put that into perspective. In the run up to the Sept. 11 attacks, al-Qaida was a very small and elite organization. There were only about 200 sworn members at the time and yet they were able to pull off a complicated terrorist operation. The report says al-Qaida members should be seen as force multipliers, not individual soldiers.
They are operating like U.S. Special Forces do -– that is to say, as trainers. To put that in perspective, there have been recent reports about the U.S. stepping up its counterterrorism operations in Yemen. The Obama administration is said to have doubled the number of U.S. trainers in the country: from 25 to 50. When one looks at it that way, 50 to 100 al-Qaida members in Afghanistan can still be a very real threat.
The report finished by offering some broad recommendations. Although radicalization in the U.S. been steadily growing, there isn’t any specific agency responsible for identifying it. To a certain extent it has fallen to the FBI, and that is usually done in the context of a criminal or terrorism case.
Similarly, the report says there is no real strategy to counter the homegrown threat. There are Joint Terrorism Task Forces that bring together local and federal law enforcement, but the report says the surge in homegrown terrorism cases means those ties have to get stronger.
The report also says there has to be a lot more responsibility put on ordinary Americans. It makes the point that when the Christmas Day bomber tied to blow himself up on that Northwest flight near Detroit, alert passengers put out the fire. And it was a T-shirt vendor who pointed out the smoking car in Times Square.