The United States is due for a deadly terrorist attack that will likely be carried out by a new breed of extremists radicalized in America's cities and towns, the country's top counterterrorism official said today in an unusually candid press conference.
Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, warned that despite a spate of thwarted recent bomb attempts, the country is facing an evolving threat from homegrown terrorists who will one day successfully kill Americans.
"We aim for perfection," Leiter said, but "perfection will not be achieved … Innocent lives will be lost."
"Just like any other endeavor we will not stop all the attacks. … To say that we will not successfully defend against all attacks is certainly not to say that we are not trying to stop all attacks, we are. It is certainly not to say that any attack is OK. If there is an attack it may well be tragic," he said.
Last week, the FBI arrested Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, a Somali-born U.S. national accused of planning to bomb a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Ore. Law enforcement officials said Mohamud was one of a growing number of Americans to self-radicalize and choose to carry out terror attacks on their own.
"We have to be honest that some things will get through, Leiter said. "And in this era of a more complicated threat, a more diverse threat and lower-scale attacks to include individuals who have been radicalized here in the homeland, stopping all the attacks has become that much harder."
Many of those Americans find inspiration online from Anwar Al Awalaki, an American radical cleric, who Leiter described as a dangerous threat directly involved in planning attacks on the U.S.
Leiter said Al Awlaki, believed to be hiding in Yemen among a dangerous Al Qaeda cell, had gone from being a propagandist to planning attacks outright. According to the New York Times, the cleric is currently the only American the government admits to having on its hit list.
The strength of Al Qaeda's central leadership, which organized the 9/11 attacks, has diminished he said, but the group is still capable of carrying out lethal attacks, and pointed to the recent threats in Europe as originating from the group's hideout along Afghanistan's porous border with Pakistan.
Leiter said other attacks could come from splinter cells, including Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group affiliated with Al Awlaki, and believed responsible for last year's Christmas Day plane plot, and last month's thwarted printer-cartridge plot.
Leiter also warned against a knee-jerk reaction in the wake of an attack that would slow the country's ability to operate regularly. The country must be prepared to move forward following a deadly incident, including immediately pursuing the responsible terrorists, and reviewing the steps taken by law enforcement agencies.
He said it was essential for the country to show resilience in the wake of an attack, and not assume that terrorists posed an existential threat to the nation.
He said concerns about an impending attack and the ability to move the country forward following an attack were "very much a bipartisan sentiment."