The PBS show Frontline had an excellent episode tonight looking at the threat of homegrown terrorism in the United States since 9/11, analyzing the extent of this threat, how the FBI has evolved to respond to it, and the particulars of several notable cases over the past few years, most notably the investigation and trial of a potential terrorist cell in Lodi, California.
The episode raised a number of serious questions about the nation’s efforts to detect and investigate homegrown terrorism in the United States:
- At what point in an investigation should the FBI wrap up and arrest a potential cell, instead of continuing to monitor it? (This issue has been discussed frequently in recent months as it concerns the Miami “Seas of David” plot and the UK aviation plot)
- If the FBI continues to make arrests that lead to little or no evidence of terrorist activity, at what point does that become “crying wolf” – such that the public no longer trusts serious government efforts to prevent terrorist activities?
- At what point do the FBI’s efforts to develop informants and penetrate the U.S. Muslim community become overly aggressive and backfire, leading to distrust and resentment that create a more permissive environment for terrorist activity?
These are not easy questions to answer, and the government officials who are interviewed for this piece seem to generally grasp the complexities of the environment in which they operate, and struggle from day-to-day to strike the right balances in addressing these questions. There have been clearly been examples of overzealous arrests, as the report points out – the Miami plot is probably the best example of this in recent years. And there are clearly gaps in the FBI’s abilities to carry out this mission, as the Washington Post points out in a story today that notes that only 33 out of 12,000 FBI agents have even basic Arabic language skills. But I think it would be false to say that the homegrown terror threat does not exist or can be dismissed, as some might incorrectly take away from the Frontline report.