Counterterror officials say smaller and quicker is the new approach
Report warns of small-scale attacks by al-Qaida (MSNBC, Sept. 25, 2010) – A Washington Post report says that the risk of small-scale attacks by al-Qaida and its allies are on the rise. MSNBC’s Alex Witt talks with international terrorism consultant Evan Kohlmann. (03:19)
By Pete Williams
September 22, 2010
As terror groups move away from planning complex 9/11-style attacks, involving months of planning and a large group of participants, it’s more difficult to detect and disrupt plots against the United States, according to three of the nation’s top counterterrorism officials.
The past year has brought the largest number and quickest pace of attempted attacks since 9/11, said Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, even though “al-Qaida in Pakistan is at one of its weakest points.” U.S. and Pakistani offensives against al-Qaida have reduced the freedom of movement and sense of security of its leaders, he said.
But Leiter, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate Homeland Security Committee Wednesday that groups and individuals inspired by al-Qaida are switching to smaller-scale attacks that are easier to plan and carry out, involving fewer people, and put together more quickly.
Terror groups understand, Mueller said, “that launching a larger attack, perhaps a more devastating attack, is not worth the additional effort when you can get substantial coverage and impact with smaller attacks.” Mueller cited the 2008 gunfire attacks in Mumbai, India [link added] and the shooting in 2009 at Fort Hood, Texas [link added].
The past 12 months saw Najibullah Zazi’s plot to bomb New York City subway stations [link added], Faisal Shazad’s abortive plan to set off a car bomb in Times Square [link added], and the attempt to blow up a U.S. jetliner bound for Detroit on Christmas day [link added].
Leiter also listed a shooting in Arkansas targeting military recruiters and other arrests in Texas, Alaska, and Illinois in failed plots. Though unrelated operationally, he said they are “indicative of a collective subculture and common cause that rallies independent extremists to want to attack the homeland.”
The Internet, the three officials agreed, is making it much easier for Islamic extremists to find people already in the U.S. who can be radicalized and persuaded to undergo training and carry out attacks here. One especially influential voice, they said, is Anwar al-Awlaki [link added]. They cited his familiarity with the U.S. and his growing operational role in al-Qaida’s affiliate group in Yemen [link added].
But they also agreed that the Muslim community in the U.S. is becoming more willing to report potential trouble and to urge members of their families not to go to countries overseas where they could become terrorism recruits.
“What I would say is a silver lining, I hope is, that through greater awareness and engagement with these communities of the risks to their children of traveling overseas to Somalia or Yemen [link added], that the community engagement will over time reduce the likelihood of radicalization,” Leiter said.
FBI Director Mueller agreed. “My message to the Muslim community is, the worst thing that could happen to the Muslim community is another attack,” he said.
By Peter Finn
September 22, 2010
Al-Qaeda and its allies are likely to attempt small-scale, less sophisticated terrorist attacks in the United States, senior Obama administration officials said Wednesday, noting that it’s extremely difficult to detect such threats in advance.
“Unlike large-scale, coordinated, catastrophic attacks, executing smaller-scale attacks requires less planning and fewer pre-operational steps,” said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “Accordingly, there are fewer opportunities to detect such an attack before it occurs.”
Terrorism experts have puzzled over al-Qaeda’s apparent unwillingness after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to use car bombs, improvised explosives and small arms to conduct assaults in the United States. The group appeared fixated on orchestrating another dramatic mass-casualty event, such as the simultaneous downing of several commercial airliners.
Indeed, attacks inspired by al-Qaeda in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005 involved multiple, coordinated bombings targeting mass-transit systems.
But the risk of a single-target bombing or an attack by a lone gunman has increased, officials say, with the rise of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in the tribal areas of Pakistan, in Yemen and in Somalia, and with the emergence of radicalized Americans inspired by the ideology of violent jihad.
“The impact of the attempted attacks during the past year suggests al-Qaeda, and its affiliates and allies, will attempt to conduct smaller-scale attacks targeting the homeland but with greater frequency,” said Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, pointing to plots against the subway system in New York, the attempt to down a commercial airliner approaching Detroit and the failed car bombing in Times Square.
Leiter said in his testimony that “al-Qaeda in Pakistan is at one of its weakest points organizationally,” but he noted that “regional affiliates and allies can compensate for the potentially decreased willingness of al-Qaeda in Pakistan — the deadliest supplier of such training and guidance — to accept and train new recruits.”
Officials in the United States and Europe have expressed concern about some of their citizens and residents turning to the Taliban in Pakistan; al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; and al-Shabab, a militant group in Somalia, for inspiration and training.
“The spike in homegrown violent extremist activity during the past year is indicative of a common cause that rallies independent extremists to want to attack the homeland,” said Leiter.
“Key to this trend has been the development of a U.S.-specific narrative that motivates individuals to violence. This narrative — a blend of al-Qaeda inspiration, perceived victimization and glorification of past plotting — has become increasingly accessible through the Internet, and English-language Web sites are tailored to address the unique concerns of U.S.-based extremists.”
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said it is troubling, and a challenge for investigators, that homegrown extremists have increasingly diverse backgrounds.
“During the past year, the threat from radicalization has evolved,” he said. “A number of disruptions occurred involving extremists from a diverse set of backgrounds, geographic locations, life experiences and motivating factors that propelled them along their separate radicalization pathways.
“Beyond the sheer number of disruptions and arrests that have come to light, homegrown extremists are increasingly more savvy, harder to detect and able to connect with other extremists overseas.”
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FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago — September 22, 2009
One year ago today, I provided my weekly report of U.S. military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan and reported that Al-Qaida marked the 8th anniversary of 9/11 with a new 106-minute video predicting President Barack Obama’s downfall.
Ayman al-Zawahiri (Photo: IntelCenter / As-Sahab via AP)
FROM THE ARCHIVES: Two Years Ago — September 22, 2008
Two years ago today, on the 13th day after losing my 2008 primary challenge against U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann in Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District, in line with my focus on national security, I reported on tensions between Pakistan and the United States stemming from U.S. cross-border raids from neighboring Afghanistan; bombings and kidnappings in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and ongoing violence in Iraq.
Pakistani Shiite Muslims burn flags of Israel and the United States to condemn alleged U.S. strikes in Pakistani tribal areas along the Afghanistan border, Monday, Sept. 22, 2008 in Karachi, Pakistan. (Photo credit: Shakil Adil / AP)
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