(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.