Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 10, 2010

The Threat in 2010

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christopher Bellavita on January 10, 2010

(The following column is adapted from a series of lectures by Mike Walker at the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Mr. Walker is a former Under Secretary and Acting Secretary of the Army and a former Deputy Director of FEMA)


The foiled terrorist attack aboard flight 253 on Christmas Day was a stark reminder of just how real the terrorist threat is.

In some respects, the young man from Nigeria may have done us a favor and jolted us out of our complacency.

More than 8 years after 9-11, many analysts and members of the media had declared Al Qaeda to be irrelevant.

They pointed out that former Al Qaeda supporters had turned against the organization and that support for Bin Laden and support for suicide bombing were also declining.

As America’s favorability around the world substantially improved last year, it was easy for us to forget it only takes a handful of committed terrorists to do great harm.

It hasn’t gotten much attention but since 9-11, more than 700 people across the United States have been arrested for terror-related crimes.

In fact, it is believed that in the last 8 years we have foiled around 30 terror plots directed against the United States, a third of them last year alone.

So, what are the facts of the threat?

First, the threat is not a clash of civilizations. The terrorists want it to be. But, by far, the vast majority of Muslims around the world reject the violent ideology of Al Qaeda and its allies.

However, we are learning that a small, disaffected minority of people can be radicalized very quickly, sometimes over the internet in their own living rooms.

Today, Al Qaeda is not hunkered down and isolated along the Afghan-Pakistan border as many had hoped. It has become a franchise with tentacles throughout the world and, yes, even inside the United States

  • The arrest of Najibullah Zazi from Aurora, Colorado, and David Headley from Chicago, revealed that senior Al Qaeda leaders are making direct contact with ideological supporters in America
  • Last year, we also learned that a former Boy Scout from Long Island had become a member of Al Qaeda in Pakistan.
  • That a former nuclear engineering professor at Stanford University was coordinating an attack abroad with Al Qaeda in North Africa.
  • That at least two young Americans, one from Minneapolis and another from Seattle had become suicide bombers in Somalia, killing more than 50 people.
  • And a former college student from southern Alabama is now an Al Qaeda commander in Somalia
  • In May, a young man from Tennessee killed an Army recruiter in Little Rock, AR. His parents warned us then that he had been radicalized in Yemen.
  • In November, an Army major, who had been in communication over the internet with a radical cleric associated with Al Qaeda in Yemen, killed 13 people at Ft. Hood.
  • That cleric, by the way, is also an American citizen, born and educated in this country. He has played a prominent role in radicalizing terrorists in at least a dozen cases in Canada, the UK and here in the US, including the failed bomber on flight 253.
  • Last year, we also saw Al Qaeda affiliates in the Pacific region become resurgent with attacks against US interests in Indonesia and the Philippines.

So, the Al Qaeda of 9-11 may have been depleted. But it has morphed into a global ideology that is infecting a small, but dedicated – and violent – group of people.

What then does the future hold?

The truth is the terrorists have left their playbook lying open. Al Qaeda’s senior ideologue, Abu Musab al Suri published a 1600 page doctrine 5 years ago outlining a global insurgency. Al Suri is in jail now, but his playbook is being implemented.

In early November, Abu Basir, a Yemeni and the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, wrote an article in an online magazine saying it was time to unleash homegrown terrorists in the US and Europe. He called on them:

  • To make bombs out of whatever they have.
  • To stab media figures and assassinate leaders.
  • And to attack trains and airports.

Notice he said airports, not airplanes, a clear indication of a new threat vector we have yet to see play out.

Before 9-11, Abu Basir was Bin Laden’s secretary. If we were to kill Bin Laden, Abu Basir would be one of the top contenders for the leadership of Al Qaeda. So, we need to take his threats very seriously.

Finally, while the threat from Al Qaeda is real and resurgent, we also must not lose site of other threats we face.

  • From low level threats from environmental and animal rights extremists.
  • From what appears to be a growing nexus between criminal gangs and terrorists.
  • From attacks on our cyber infrastructure.
  • And from what is believed to be a resurgent domestic white supremacist  threat.

So, this is no time to take our eye off the ball.

One final thought about the threat from Al Qaeda.

Clearly, we face a new dimension in that threat as more American citizens are being radicalized.

But some of us see something else at work. Al Qaeda is not forfeiting its grander aspirations.

Pakistan, for instance, faces a growing internal threat, led by Al Qaeda and its allies. Last June, Abu Yazid, Al Qaeda’s regional operations chief said, in an interview on Al Jazeera TV, that if Al Qaeda can get its hands on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, they will use those weapons against us.

It may well be the case that Al Qaeda, by unleashing so-called leaderless jihadists, may be seeking to tie Western law enforcement down chasing leads while they continue their more sinister strategic planning

So, my appeal to policy makers and to American citizens alike: this is no time for complacency in America.

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Comment by Clinton J. Andersen

January 10, 2010 @ 6:08 pm


You’re absolutely right. This is not time to be complacent but I’m afraid this is also no wake up call. The only thing we will see come out of this is each side of the political line try and spin it for their agenda. Until we see consistent attacks within our borders, I’m afraid nothing major will change.

Comment by Matthew Kaney

January 10, 2010 @ 10:44 pm

In my opinion, you approach the problem from a predetermined perspective, carefully tailoring the facts to support the idea that we are facing a terrorist scourge. I would like to add some details to the “facts of the threat.” These details do not necessarily serve to dispute your conclusions in and of themselves, but they clearly illustrate an effort to frame the events within a specific context that is not accurate.

– David Headley, the man from Chicago, is not a case that reveals “that senior Al Qaeda leaders are making direct contact…” Mr. Headley became radicalized while he was in Pakistan, conducting undercover surveillance activites for the DEA, as part of a plea from a 1998 drug conviction.
-Adlene Hicheur was not a “former nuclear engineering professor at Stanford University.” He was a particle physics scientist who had done some research at Stanford while working on his Ph.D. It is doubtful whether he had the capacity to successfully carry out any of the attacks he had written about.
– The two guys from Seattle and Minneapolis were born in Somalia, and had returned to Somalia to fight against the secular government which, though propped up by the U.S. and others, does not have the support of the country’s people. Clearly, these incidents have nothing to do with the United States, never posed a threat to the United States, and were not the result of Al-Qaeda recruitment inside the U.S. in the sense that you insinuate
-The guy from Alabama was also focused on the Somalia situation
-There is no credible evidence that Carlose Bledsoe, who killed the army recruiter, was actually even recruited by Al Qaeda. His statements about the process of his radicalization have been shown to be false. The guy was just a sociopath.

Disaffected criminals will frequently connect themselves to a larger group or cause that is in the spotlight, for the sake of attention or to try and rationalize their actions.

In any case, some of the information I provided shows a pretty clear effort to recast these incidents in a way that suits your argument, and in my opinion, at a sufficient level, that should lead readers to question the accuracy of your perspectives as a whole.

Comment by Timothy O'Brien

January 12, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

I find Mr. Walker’s comments intriguing, and helpful in improving our focus – if we’re listening. His warning that we can’t lose sight of the ball carries added significance in light of events in the past few weeks, both here and abroad. Political discourse often confuses direction and muddies the water, and can prevent us from keeping our eye on the ball – a point I believe Mr. Walker is trying to drive home.

Examples? The al-Queda/Taliban attack on the forward operating base in Afghanistan, and the Christmas day attempt in Detroit. Two seemingly disparate events, but both have disturbing indications that we are in danger of missing because of all the political positioning. In the Christmas day failed attack, it is the first time – in a very long time – that al-Queda has (nearly) successfully projected its power on to U.S. soil without attempting to utilize “homegrown” elements within the U.S. In the second instance, it hit a platform that had been hurting it in the Afghan-Paki border. An impressive feat, one that shows it still has an effective operating network that is creative and cunning. Both instances show, graphically, it is still taking the fight to us – just like we took the fight to them.

Al-Queda may not be as marginalized as everyone is posturing. But it is counting on the fact that we are talking that way. They’ve adapted and changed, and suddenly taken advantage of the fact that we’ve grown a bit complacent; we, in fact, lost sight of the ball.

The damage could have been much worse.

I am heartened that this President has now come out and unequivocally called this a “war”. The election is long past. Now we need to not only regain our focus on the ball, but watch the pitcher’s arm, to see how they’re going to throw it again…

Comment by christopher tingus

January 12, 2010 @ 9:42 pm

From my perspective here on Main Street USA, we are our worst enemies as it is our corporate and Wall Street greed, blantant partisan politics very much influenced by special interests, let’s face it, while all the enlightened and wonderful perspectives are shared in this essential blog, until transparency is depicted in local, state and national government and ethics in business becomes a reality, well….

….it is not necessarily AQ and the Taliban who are foremost our daily worry, but the void in government leadership, “entrusted” public servants who prefer self agenda versus the US Constitution and State Constitution….folks like Pelosi, Barney Frank and as we have seen, Harry’s comments about the color of the President’s skin and isn’t it intersting how we recollect the hoopla about the police officer “doing his juob” and the President’s buddy up here in Cambridge….I guess if you’re a Democrat, all goes and is forgiven….

This independent voter and so many of us are tired of the same ‘ol, same ‘ol…We are for the most part beyond the narrow minded perspectives and prejudices as we are in the 21st century and our Republic demands that the US Constitution is adhered to, immigration laws are adhered to, etc., etc.

Printing fiat dollars to cover up the past only promises the end of our American standard of living. stood in the past in protest for three years, three very cold winters, 1,491 hours in a one-man crusade to demand that local government stop its politicizing and reopen a closed fire station, today the busiest in town. I point this out because as we sit watching the “biggest loser” deriving hopefully a sense of wellness, to cut our portions and exercise, we as individuals can make a difference and it is not only at the polls, but in becoming a participant in local, state and even national issues….

We are not only at war with those who willingly prepare and perform dastardly and cowardly deed as outright killers of innocents, but we are at war with those who seek to enslave we the citizens who have lost trillions in assets while the good ‘ol fellas of Wall Street write their bonus checks….

Churchill stood tall and despite the critics, his willing and lonely stance made the difference….You, too can do the same and demand that the principles of this beloved nation remain as the substitute places us in much peril in the air and on the ground!

Christopher Tingus
64 Whidah Drive
Harwich, MA 02645 USA

Comment by Matthew Kaney

January 14, 2010 @ 7:24 pm

I am complete agreement with Mr. Tingus. The threat from within is huge, but our focus is being diverted to “Al Qaeda.” It is important to note that Al Qaeda is not a monolithic force by which we are threatened. It is barely a definable organization. This speaks loudly to the fact that something is motivating large numbers of people, without any centralized support, into seeking out opportunities for aggression against America.

However, void of significant centralized support, these attacks will generally be small in size. Mr. O’Briend, in his comment, talks about how the Christmas bombing attempt demonstrates that the terrorists maintain an “effective operating network that is creative and cunning.” A small amount of research will demonstrate, in fact, that this bombing demonstrates the exact opposite. The chances of a bomb this size has very little chance of actually downing an airliner. Most successful aircraft bombs have been much larger and placed in the cargo hold, or in the passenger compartment directly above a wing. The latter scenario is no longer possible given the configuration of modern aircraft, and ALL aircraft systems being redundant, this failed attack demonstrates that Al Qaeda is in no way creative or cunning, nor maintains an “effective operating network.”

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