The latest “conventional wisdom” in counterterrorism holds that the threat to America posed by al-Qaida and its affiliates is greatly diminished since 9/11. Recent news headlines read: “With Al Qaida Shattered, US Counter-Terrorism’s Future Unclear” and “Al Qaida Threat 2013: The Ghost that Feeds the Hogs of the U.S. National Security ‘Complex.’ ”
Today, it is claimed, al-Qaida is supposedly less well organized, with many of its top leaders eliminated (especially in Pakistan and Yemen), and is so broken into geographically disparate franchises that it is unable to recruit, train and deploy specialized cells to carry out a comparable catastrophic attack against the American homeland and its overseas interests.
In particular, the fact that no major al-Qaida terror attacks have been carried out in America since Maj. Nidal Hasan’s alleged shooting rampage in Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009 ( his trial is set to begin in late May) while more than 20 people plotting to carry out attacks were arrested and convicted during the pre-incident phases in the past several years, is seen as evidence that the threat is decreasing domestically.
Therefore, according to this thesis, US law enforcement authorities need not be overly concerned about overseas-based catastrophic attacks against America, but should prepare for what may be numerous, low-casualty attacks by less well-trained and capable homegrown operatives, particularly by what are termed “lone wolves.”
But when looking at terrorist operations comprehensively, it is clear al-Qaida continues to recruit and prepare operatives to attack the US and that a variety of future terrorists, conducting low- to high-impact operations, will need to be pre-empted.
Although at the time this article was written, it was not known if al-Qaida and its affiliates were involved in the April 15 bombings at the Boston Marathon, it serves as a reminder that the terrorist threat remains undiminished.
Downplaying the terrorist threat has significant political implications due in part to the estimated $70 billion spent annually on America’s domestic counterterrorism programs (with larger amounts expended by the U.S. military for overseas operations), all of which needs to be justified as cost-effective.
Purported declines in al-Qaida attacks domestically (even while al-Qaida affiliates are gaining ground in countries such as Syria, Somalia, Yemen and Mali) are now being seized upon by those who want to cut funding for counterterrorism programs, including weakening the Patriot Act.
Patterns can be discerned in the trajectory of attacks by al-Qaida and its associates. Specifically, every time the threat is underplayed, it is invariably followed by a major attack.
In the months before the November elections, the media was filled with pronouncements that al-Qaida’s threat had greatly diminished, its leadership eliminated and its operational role over attacks by what is termed “al-Qaida Central” in Pakistan’s tribal areas reduced.
While accurate on one level, this did not stop al-Qaida and its affiliates from launching major terrorist attacks, including one by its Libyan affiliate against the US consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. This was followed by the cross-border attack against a natural-gas facility in eastern Algeria in mid-January.
And, as mentioned earlier, terrorist explosions took place in Boston on the day of its iconic marathon and “Patriots Day,” killing three and wounding more than 170.
Although America has suffered no catastrophic attack comparable to 9/11 over the past 11 years, several planned attacks were thwarted. Major plots included the summer 2006 plan to detonate liquid explosives onboard 10 airliners flying from the UK to America and Canada, Najibullah Zazi’s 2009 plot to attack the New York City subway system and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt to detonate plastic explosives while onboard an airliner heading to Detroit.
Organizing such attacks requires extensive planning and funding. A terrorist group that feels strong will take its time to carefully plan few, devastating, attacks, while a group that regards itself as weak may feel compelled to carry out frequent, but low-casualty, attacks to remain relevant.
Thus, we cannot afford to be lulled into a false sense of security that “lone wolf” attacks are not a product of al-Qaida recruitment and support.
This may explain why their propaganda organs urge followers in the West to embark on any attack feasible while still planning catastrophic operations. ■