A Year of Terror Plots, Through a Second Prism
WASHINGTON — As terrorist plots against the United States have piled up in recent months, politicians and the news media have sounded the alarm with a riveting message for Americans: Be afraid. Al Qaeda is on the march again, targeting the country from within and without, and your hapless government cannot protect you.
But the politically charged clamor has lumped together disparate cases and obscured the fact that the enemies on American soil in 2009, rather than a single powerful and sophisticated juggernaut, were a scattered, uncoordinated group of amateurs who displayed more fervor than skill. The weapons were old-fashioned guns and explosives — in several cases, duds supplied by F.B.I. informants — with no trace of the biological or radiological poisons, let alone the nuclear bombs, that have long been the ultimate fear.
And though 2009 brought more domestic plots, and more serious plots, than any recent year, their lethality was relatively modest. Exactly 14 of the approximately 14,000 murders in the United States last year resulted from allegedly jihadist attacks: 13 people shot at Fort Hood in Texas in November and one at a military recruiting station in Little Rock, Ark., in June.
Such statistics would be no comfort, of course, if an attack with mass casualties succeeded some day.
Nor do they excuse the acknowledged missteps at the United States’ bulked-up security agencies that helped allow a makeshift bomb to be carried onto a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines plane on Christmas Day — the attempted attack that set off the flood of news coverage.
But even that near miss, said Mark M. Lowenthal, assistant director of the Central Intelligence Agency for analysis from 2002 to 2005, may offer indirect evidence of the enemy’s diminished strength, compared with the coordinated attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Sending one guy on one plane is a huge step down,” Mr. Lowenthal said. “They’re less capable, even if they’re still lethal. They’re not able to carry out the intense planning they once did.”
Counterterrorism experts inside and outside the government are intensely debating the meaning of the flurry of plots last year, and there is no settled consensus. Somalia and Yemen have emerged decisively as jihadist hot spots that may pose a direct threat to the United States. C.I.A. drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas have by no means ended the threat from there, as the Dec. 30 suicide bombing that killed seven C.I.A. employees in nearby Afghanistan grimly underscored. The Internet continues to prove a powerful tool for radicalization, as long-distance propagandists stir the ire of young Muslims about American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But Mr. Lowenthal and others who urge a calmer, more strategic assessment of the recent rash of violent schemes insist that the country is far safer than it was in 2001. They also argue that since the goal of terrorism is to spread terror, hyperbole about threats only does the extremists’ work for them.
“We give comfort to our enemies,” said Charles E. Allen, a 40-year C.I.A. veteran who served as the top intelligence official at the Department of Homeland Security from 2007 to early last year. Exaggerated news coverage and commentary, he said, “creates an atmosphere of tension and fear, and to me that’s exactly the wrong way to go.”
Mr. Allen said the United States needed “resilience” in the face of the terrorist threat. He noted with admiration that public transportation barely paused in London in 2005 when 52 people were killed by four suicide bombers attacking the subway and a bus.
“I believe in heightened attention to security; I just don’t believe hysteria is useful,” Mr. Allen said.
The 10 jihadist plots or attacks inside the United States in 2009 — a count by Bruce Hoffman, who studies terrorism at Georgetown University — had no evident links to one another and little in common beyond their apparent ideological motive.
The deadliest was allegedly carried out by Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of the Fort Hood shootings, who does not appear to have been directed by any group, though he exchanged e-mail messages with a radical cleric in Yemen. Schemes broken up in Newburgh, N.Y.; Springfield, Ill.; Raleigh, N.C.; Boston; and Dallas seem to have developed independently and largely under surveillance from the F.B.I.
More disturbing to counterterrorism officials were two cases with ties to Pakistan’s tribal region, where Osama bin Laden and the remaining core of Al Qaeda are thought to be hiding. They involved Najibullah Zazi, the former Manhattan coffee vendor accused of traveling to Pakistan for explosives training, and David C. Headley of Chicago, who is charged with aiding the 2008 assault on Mumbai and plotting attacks in Denmark.
The term “Al Qaeda,” used as a catchall in many of the plots, blurs important distinctions. By most accounts, apart from possibly the Zazi case, none of the 2009 cases appears to be directly tied to “Al Qaeda central,” as experts refer to the Pakistan-based group led by Mr. bin Laden.
Others involved ersatz “Qaeda” agents who actually worked for the F.B.I. Still others, including the Christmas Day attempt, had links to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a loosely linked affiliate of Mr. bin Laden’s group in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
Audrey Kurth Cronin of the National War College said Qaeda affiliates borrow the name to enhance their appeal but are usually more interested in local goals than in the global jihad proclaimed by Mr. bin Laden.
“The proper response is to stop calling all these plots ‘Al Qaeda,’ ” Ms. Cronin said. “We’re inadvertently building up the brand.”
In 2008, in his book “Leaderless Jihad,” Marc Sageman, a psychiatrist and former C.I.A. officer who has long studied terrorism networks, wrote that Al Qaeda was in decline, to be replaced by dispersed terrorists for whom it provided mostly inspiration. The new generation of extremists, he believed, would be less skilled and would likely pose less of a threat than the network responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Dr. Sageman said he saw no reason to revise that judgment today. The plots of the last year should be carefully analyzed and the findings used to improve counterterrorism, not turned into fuel for thoughtless anti-Muslim panic and discrimination, he said.
“If we overreact and upset 1.5 billion Muslims,” Dr. Sageman said, referring to the global total, “then we’ll have a lot bigger problem on our hands.”