As the United States prepares to mark the ninth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, a new report says that terrorist threats against the United States have fundamentally changed while American counter-terrorism strategies have stagnated.
The report, "Assessing the Terrorist Threat," was produced by the Bipartisan Policy Center's National Security Preparedness Group, a predecessor to the 9/11 Commission. Detailing the evolving threat from Islamic terrorism, the report explains that al Qaida has shifted from a hierarchical organization with a clear command and control structure, to a more diffuse enemy whose ideology has inspired others globally.
A key shift, according to the report, is that the biggest threat no longer comes from abroad but from within our own borders in the form of homegrown terrorism. As Bruce Hoffman, one of the report's authors, explains:
"We are seeing more Americans turning on their country, going abroad and making common cause with terrorist groups…. The array of perpetrators and the nature of their plots against America are remarkable and there is no single government agency responsible for deterring radicalization and terrorist recruitment. The terrorists may have found our Achilles heel – we have no way of dealing with this growing problem."
Concluding that al Qaida no longer has the ability to launch extraordinary attacks on the scale of September 11, the report argues that the terrorist organization must rely upon smaller attacks which are "almost impossible for the national security and intelligence communities to detect and intercept." The report highlights the failed Christmas Day bombing by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab; the shooting rampage at Fort Hood by Major Nidal Hassan; the thwarted attack on the New York City Subway by Najibullah Zazi; and the Times Square Bombing attempted by Faisal Shahzad.
While each of these cases demonstrates the evolving threat posed by Islamic terrorists, the authors caution against reading too much into the fact that most of the attacks have failed:
"While it is easier to dismiss the threat posed by wannabes who are often snared without difficulty by the authorities, or to discount as aberrations the homicides inflicted by lone gunmen, these incidents show the activities of trained US terrorist operatives who are part of an identifiable organizational command and control structure and are acting on orders from terrorist leaders abroad."
More than simply providing Americans as foot soldiers, the report argues that Americans have taken up leadership positions within al Qaida and its affiliate organizations:
"A key shift in the threat to the homeland since around the time President Barack Obama took office is the increasing 'Americanization' of the leadership of al-Qaeda and aligned groups, and the larger numbers of Americans attaching themselves to these groups."
American leadership—for example Omar Hammami of al Shabaab and Anwar al-Awlaki of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula—have allowed otherwise regional terrorist groups to expand their area of operations. The report also details the increasing threat posed by al Qaida in Iraq, al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Lashkar-e Tayyiba, and the Pakistani Taliban.
Recognizing the shifting threat, the report urges the United States to combat the complacency which has begun to set in:
"The American 'melting pot' has not provided a firewall against the radicalization and recruitment of American citizens and residents, though it has arguably lulled us into a sense of complacency that homegrown terrorism couldn't happen in the United States."
Of note, the report explains that the United States must designate an agency that will be responsible for identifying and countering Islamic radicalization in the United States.