The United States is facing a more dynamic terrorism threat than was posed by al Qaeda nine years ago as the group has spread its ideology to regional terrorist groups. That is the conclusion of a new terrorism threat assessment organized by the former chairman of the 9/11 Commission with the Bipartisan Policy Center's National Security Preparedness Group.
The assessment also says al Qaeda has staged an early stage recruitment and radicalization operation in the United States: "Al-Qaeda and its allies arguably have been able to establish at least an embryonic terrorist recruitment, radicalization and operational infrastructure in the United States with effects both at home and abroad."
The assessment was led by the former chair and vice-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton.
"Al-Qaeda and allied groups and those inspired by its ideas continue to pose a threat to the United States. Although it is less severe than the catastrophic proportions of a 9/11-like attack, the threat today is more complex and more diverse than at any time over the past nine years," The threat assessment says.
The report mentions the close calls that the United States has faced in the past year with the disrupted plot by Najibullah Zazi to attack the New York City subway system and the averted bombing of Northwest flight 253.
"Last year was a watershed in terrorist attacks and plots in the United States, with a record ten jihadi attacks, jihadi-inspired plots or efforts by Americans to travel overseas to obtain terrorist training. They included two actual attacks (Fort Hood, Texas, which claimed the lives of thirteen people, and the shooting of two U.S. military recruiters in Little Rock, Arkansas)… Al-Qaeda and its Pakistani, Somali and Yemeni allies arguably have been able to accomplish the unthinkable -- establishing at least an embryonic terrorist recruitment, radicalization and operational infrastructure in the United States with effects both at home and abroad."
While senior U.S. officials have often made reference to the low numbers of core Al Qaeda members in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- sometimes citing the use of drones to kill Al Qaeda leaders -- the assessment says that these assertions may be too broad.
"Overly optimistic arguments about al Qaeda's demise based on the attrition of its leadership overlooks three key points: first, al Qaeda has always been a small elite organization," says the report. "There were only two hundred sworn members of al Qaeda at the time of the 9/11 attacks and al Qaeda's role has always been as an ideological and military vanguard seeking to influence and train other jihadist groups....
"In Afghanistan and Pakistan, for instance, in the past several years small numbers of al-Qaeda instructors embedded with larger Taliban units have functioned something like U.S. Special Forces do -- as trainers and force multipliers."
Mentioning more than 35 cases that have come to light in the United States in the past 18 months, the report says that the U.S. was slow to recognize the potential of homegrown terrorism.
"Our long-held belief that homegrown terrorism couldn't happen here has thus created a situation where we are today stumbling blindly through the legal, operational and organizational minefield of countering terrorist radicalization and recruitment occurring in the United States," says the report." Moreover, rather than answers, we now have a long list of pressing questions on this emerging threat, on our response and on the capacity of the national-security architecture we currently have in place to meet it."
"The conventional wisdom has long been that America was immune to the heady currents of radicalization affecting both immigrant and indigenous Muslim communities elsewhere in the West. That has now been shattered by the succession of cases that recently have come to light of terrorist radicalization and recruitment occurring in the United States."