Top Justice Department Security Official Describes Changing Terror Threats

Kris worries about radicalized Americans plotting attacks.

June 11, 2010 -- The terrorism threat facing the United States continues to evolve and remains challenging to monitor, said a top Justice Department official today.

David Kris, the Justice Department's Assistant Attorney General for the National Security Division, said at an event at the Brookings Institution, "The threat is evolving in a way that makes it look more diverse and in a way that makes geography less relevant.

"I think it is a very serious environment. ... I think there are a lot of people out there who wake up every morning and go to bed every night and try to think of ways to kill us in between those two things." Kris attends daily threat briefings with Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller III.

Asked what he sees as the key points of the emerging threats facing the United States, Kris cited the rise of regional al-Qaeda affiliates and like-minded groups around the globe beyond the Federal Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan where al-Qaeda central has retained a foothold.

Mentioning the groups behind the attempted Christmas Day bombing of Northwest flight 253 and the Times Square case on May 1, Kris said, "We've got a couple of new nodes beyond the FATA region. We've got APAQ [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] operating in Yemen and we know [Christmas day bomber] Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab came out of that, and now we seem to have…the Pakistani Taliban going….[groups] that can produce externally directed terrorists."

Kris said he was concerned about Najibulah Zazi and David Headley, U.S. citizens who were radicalized enough to plan acts of terrorism.

Zazi was arrested by the FBI days before it was believed he would have tried to bomb the New York City subway system. Headley, an American citizen, was a key planner in the 2008 Mumbai attacks in India that left 175 dead, including six Americans.

Kris called Headley's case "unusual" because he was, "A U.S. person..physically here but externally directed out of the United States for attacks with an AQ [al-Qaeda] affiliate, that kind of turns things on its head."

Headley was arrested in the United States and pleaded guilty to terrorism charges for conducting on-site planning for the Mumbai attacks. Under his plea agreement U.S. officials recently allowed Indian investigators to question the terrorism suspect as they try to run down additional intelligence leads and threats about his contacts in Pakistan.

With the increase of attempted attacks on U.S. soil, Kris was asked about the heightened political debate over terrorism and national security issues. "It is a backing and forthing, and that's part of the American political system," said Kris, who served in the Clinton and Bush administrations from 2000-2003 before returning to serve in the Obama administration. "It is part of the changing perceptions about the threat environment and the changing reactions to the threat environment."

"It's been, for us, extremely busy, very hectic, very challenging for a little more than a year now," said Kris. The justice department has been pursuing a lot of cases, he said: "We are flat out to stop every one of these cold."