**ASSESSING THE TERRORIST THREAT
A REPORT OF THE BIPARTISAN POLICY CENTER’S
NATIONAL SECURITY PREPAREDNESS GROUP
BY PETER BERGEN AND BRUCE HOFFMAN
SEPTEMBER 10, 2010
...According to our count, in 2009 at least 43 American citizens or residents aligned with Sunni militant groups or their ideology were charged or convicted of terrorism crimes in the U.S. or elsewhere, the highest number in any year since 9/11. So far in 2010, 20 have been similarly charged or convicted.ii
...It is significant that both Zazi and Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber, had tribal and family ties in Pakistan that they used to make contact with either al-Qaeda or the Pakistani Taliban. These links greatly facilitated their recruitment. British authorities have always regarded the high volume of traffic between Britain and Pakistan, involving upwards of 400,000 persons annually, as providing prime opportunities for the radicalization and recruitment of British citizens and residents.27 These same concerns now exist among U.S. authorities, given the ease with which Zazi and Shahzad readily made contact with the Pakistan-based terrorist movements.28
...If Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab had succeeded in bringing down Northwest Airlines Flight 253, the bombing not only would have killed hundreds but also would have had a large effect on the U.S. economy, already reeling from the worst recession since the Great Depression, and would have devastated the critical aviation and tourism businesses. It also would have likely dealt a crippling blow to Barack Obama’s presidency. According to the White House’s own review of the Christmas Day plot, there was sufficient information known to the U.S. government to determine that Abdulmutallab was likely working for al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen and that the group was looking to expand its terrorist attacks beyond the Arabian Peninsula.34 As a senior Obama administration official responsible for counterterrorism explained shortly afterward, “AQAP was looked upon as a lethal organization, but one focused [only] on the Arabian Peninsula. We thought they would attack our embassy in Yemen or Saudi Arabia” -- not a plane in the skies over America.35 Yet the intelligence community “did not increase analytic resources working” on that threat, while information about the possible use of a PETN bomb by the Yemeni group was well known within the national security establishment, including to John Brennan, Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, who was personally briefed by Prince Nayef about the assassination attempt against him.36As Obama admitted in a meeting of his national security team a couple of weeks after the Christmas Day plot, “We dodged a bullet.”37
...After it announced its fealty to bin Laden, Shabab was able to recruit larger numbers of foreign fighters; by one estimate, up to 1,200 were working with the group by 2010.42 Today, Shabab and its allies control about half of south-central Somalia.43
...In addition to the two young men who conducted suicide operations, six other Somali-Americans ages 18 to 30 were killed in Somalia between 2007 and 2009, as was Ruben Shumpert, an African-American convert to Islam from Seattle.46 Given the high death rate of the Americans fighting in Somalia, as well as the considerable attention this group has received from the FBI, it is unlikely that American veterans of the Somali war pose much of a threat to the United States itself. It is plausible, however, now that Shabab has declared itself to be an al-Qaeda affiliate, that U.S. citizens in the group might be recruited to engage in anti-American operations overseas.
...In 2008, for the first time,53 the Taliban as a movement began planning seriously to attack targets in the West. According to Spanish prosecutors, Baitullah Mehsud, then the Pakistani Taliban’s leader, sent a team of would-be suicide bombers to Barcelona to attack the subway system in January 2008.54 Pakistani Taliban spokesman Maulvi Omar confirmed this later in a videotaped interview, in which he said that those suicide bombers “were under pledge to Baitullah Mehsud” and were sent because of the Spanish military presence in Afghanistan.
In assessing the proliferation of terrorist threats to the American homeland, senior U.S. counterterrorism officials now repeatedly call attention to al-Qaeda’s strategy of “diversification” -- mounting attacks involving a wide variety of perpetrators of different nationalities and ethnic heritages to defeat any attempt to “profile” actual and would-be perpetrators and to overwhelm already information-overloaded law enforcement and intelligence agencies. “Diversity,” one senior local law enforcement official explained, “is definitely the word.”77 Similarly, in a June 30, 2010, interview at the Aspen Security Forum, Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, also identified this trend. “What we have seen, which is I think most problematic to me and most difficult for the counterterrorism community,” he explained,
is a diversification of that threat. We not only face al-Qaeda senior leadership, we do face a troubling alignment of al-Qaeda and some more traditional Pakistani militant groups in Pakistan, and, is as well known to this group and most Americans, the threat of Abdulmutallab that has highlighted the threat we see from al-Qaeda in Yemen, the ongoing threat we see from al-Qaeda elements in East Africa.78
...This is part and parcel of a strategy that al-Qaeda has also pushed on other groups. The strategy is deliberately designed to overwhelm, distract, and exhaust al-Qaeda’s adversaries. There are two components: One is economic; the other, operational. Al-Qaeda has rarely claimed it could or would defeat the U.S. militarily. Instead, it hopes to wear the United States down economically by forcing the U.S. to spend more on domestic security and remain involved in costly overseas military commitments. Given the current global economic downturn, this message arguably has greater resonance now with al-Qaeda’s followers and supporters, and perhaps even with recruits. The operational dimension seeks to flood already stressed intelligence and law enforcement agencies with “noise”: low-level threats from “lone wolves” and other jihadist “hangers-on.” This “low-hanging fruit” is designed to distract law enforcement and intelligence personnel from more serious terrorist operations, allowing such plots to go unnoticed beneath the radar and thereby succeed.v
Four of al-Qaeda’s strengths.80 One strength is that the group’s ideological influence on other jihadist groups is on the rise in South Asia. One of the key leaders of the Taliban as it surged in strength several years after 9/11 was Mullah Dadullah, a thuggish but effective commander who, like his counterpart in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, thrived on killing Shia, beheading his hostages, and media celebrity.81 In interviews in 2006, Dadullah conceded what was obvious as the violence dramatically expanded in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2006: that the Taliban had increasingly morphed together tactically and ideologically with al-Qaeda. “Osama bin Laden, thank God, is alive and in good health. We are in contact with his top aides and sharing plans and operations with each other.”82 The Taliban also adopted the playbook of Al-Qaeda in Iraq wholesale, embracing suicide bombers, but only began deploying suicide attackers in large numbers from 2005 forward after the success of such operations in Iraq had become obvious to all. Where once the Taliban had banned television, now they boast an active video propaganda operation named Umar, which posts regular updates to the Web mimicking those of al-Qaeda’s production arm, Al-Sahab.
A third key pillar of al-Qaeda’s resilience stems from the simple fact that its top leadership is still intact. Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are still at liberty. This matters for several reasons. First, there is the matter of justice for the almost 3,000 people who died in the September 11 attacks and for the thousands of other victims of al-Qaeda’s attacks around the world. Second, every day that bin Laden remains at large is a propaganda victory for al-Qaeda. Third, although bin Laden and Zawahiri aren’t managing al-Qaeda’s operations on a daily basis, they guide the overall direction of the jihadist movement around the world, even while they are in hiding, through videotapes and audiotapes that they continue to release on a regular basis.
Those messages from al-Qaeda’s leaders have reached untold millions worldwide via television, the Internet, and newspapers. The tapes have not only instructed al-Qaeda’s followers to continue to kill Westerners and Jews, but some also carried specific instructions that militant cells then acted on. In March 2008, for instance, bin Laden denounced the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in the Danish newspaper, which he said would soon be avenged. Three months later, an al-Qaeda suicide attacker bombed the Danish embassy in Islamabad, killing six.
A final strength is that al-Qaeda and affiliated groups can provoke a massive amount of overwrought media coverage based on attacks that don’t even succeed -- such as the near-miss on Christmas Day 2009. The person who seems to best understand the benefits of American overreaction is bin Laden himself, who in 2004 said on a tape that aired on al Jazeera, “All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations.”83
...Four operational and four strategic weaknesses trouble al-Qaeda. First, drone attacks in Pakistan have degraded the group’s central leadership and operational capability in Pakistan. In 2007, there were three reported drone strikes in Pakistan; in 2008, there were 34; and, by the date of this report being issued on September 10, 2010, the Obama administration has already authorized 113.84 Since the summer of 2008, U.S. drones have killed scores of lower-ranking militants and at least a dozen mid- and upper-level leaders within al-Qaeda or the Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal regions.
The drone program has certainly put additional pressure on al-Qaeda’s propaganda arm and its top leaders. Al-Qaeda takes its propaganda operations seriously; bin Laden has observed that 90 percent of his battle is waged in the media, and Zawahiri has made similar comments. In 2007, al-Qaeda’s video production arm Al-Sahab had a banner year, releasing almost 100 tapes. But in 2008, the year the drone program was dramatically expanded, the number of releases dropped by half, indicating that the group’s leaders were more concerned with survival than public relations. According to IntelCenter, a Washington-based group that tracks jihadist propaganda, in 2010 Zawahiri has so far released the fewest tapes in seven years -- only two audiotapes, as opposed to nine audiotapes and one video in 2009 -- while other al-Qaeda leaders such as bin Laden and Abu Yahya al-Libi similarly have fallen relatively silent this year.
According to a counterterrorism official, the fact that bin Laden and Zawahiri are keeping such a low profile is causing some criticism of the leaders within al-Qaeda itself. These critics say it is worrisome that their leaders are saying so little and are not managing the organization. Some have gone so far as to say “it would be helpful if the boss gave a damn,” according to this counterterrorism official.87
When Faisal Shahzad traveled to Pakistan to link up with the Taliban in the winter of 2009, he spent a total of 40 days in the Taliban heartland of Waziristan but only five days actually being trained, which likely accounts for his lack of skills as a bomb-maker.88 This abbreviated training schedule may have been the result of the pressure that the drone program is putting on militants in Pakistan’s tribal regions, including Waziristan.
The well-known fact that the drones have killed hundreds of militants in Pakistan’s border regions is also having an effect on where Western militants -- including from the United States -- are seeking training, as some are opting to go to Somalia or Yemen, according to a counterterrorism official.89
Second, Pakistanis have increasingly negative attitudes about the militants based on their territory, and Pakistan has made more concerted efforts to take on the extremists militarily. If there is a silver lining to the militant atrocities that have plagued Pakistan in the past several years, it is the fact that the Pakistani public, government, and military are increasingly seeing the jihadist militants there in a hostile light.
...Support for Pakistani army operations against the Taliban in Swat has increased from 28 percent two years ago to 69 percent today. Support for suicide bombings has dropped from 33 percent to 8 percent in Pakistan over the past several years, while the number of Pakistanis who feel that the Taliban and al-Qaeda operating in Pakistan are a “serious problem” has risen from 57 percent to 86 percent since 2007.91
A third key weakness of al-Qaeda is the increasingly hostile attitude toward the group and its allies in the Muslim world in general. This is because most of the victims of these groups are Muslim civilians.94
A fourth problem for al-Qaeda is that some jihadist ideologues and erstwhile militant allies have now also turned against it. They include religious scholars and militants whom the organization had relied upon in the past for various kinds of support. Around the sixth anniversary of September 11, Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, a leading Saudi religious scholar, addressed al-Qaeda’s leader on MBC, a widely watched Middle East TV network: “My brother Osama, how much blood has been spilt? How many innocent people, children, elderly, and women have been killed ... in the name of Al-Qaeda? Will you be happy to meet God Almighty carrying the burden of these hundreds of thousands or millions *of victims+ on your back?” What was noteworthy about Awdah’s statement was that it was not simply a condemnation of terrorism, or even of September 11, but that it was a personal rebuke of bin Laden himself.96
Similarly, leaders of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which was once loosely aligned with al-Qaeda, in 2009 officially turned against al-Qaeda’s ideology of global jihad and made a peace deal with the Libyan government.
...2. Distinctive Western brand names, in particular American hotel chains. Since the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups have increasingly attacked economic and business targets. The shift in tactics was in part a response to the fact that the traditional pre-9/11 targets, such as American embassies, warships, and military bases, are now better defended, while so-called “soft” economic targets are both ubiquitous and easier to hit. In 2002, a group of 11 French defense contractors were killed as they left a Sheraton hotel in Karachi, which was heavily damaged.106 In 2003, suicide attackers bombed the J.W. Marriott hotel in Jakarta; bombers struck it again six years later, simultaneously also attacking the Ritz Carlton hotel in the Indonesian capital.107 In October 2004, in Taba, Egyptian jihadists attacked a Hilton hotel. In Amman, Jordan, in November 2005, al-Qaeda attacked three hotels with well-known American names -- the Grand Hyatt, Radisson, and Days Inn.108 Five-star hotels that cater to Westerners abroad are a perennial target for jihadists: in 2008 the Taj and Oberoi in Mumbai, the Serena in Kabul, and the Marriott in Islamabad, and in 2009 the Pearl Continental in Peshawar. Such attacks will likely continue, as hotels are in the hospitality business and cannot turn themselves into fortresses.
3. Israeli/Jewish targets. This is an al-Qaeda strategy that has only emerged strongly post- 9/11. Despite bin Laden’s declaration in February 1998 that he was creating the “World Islamic Front against the Crusaders and the Jews,” al-Qaeda only started attacking Israeli or Jewish targets in early 2002. Since then, al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups have directed a campaign against Israeli and Jewish targets, killing journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi, bombing synagogues and Jewish centers in Tunisia, Morocco, and Turkey, and attacking an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, killing 13. Al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate attacked the Israeli embassy in Mauritania in 2008.
4. American soldiers fighting wars in two Muslim countries. A few months before Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s murderous spree in Texas, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, an African-American convert to Islam, attacked two U.S. military recruiters in Little Rock, Arkansas, killing one and wounding the other. Despite the fact that the FBI had had him under surveillance following a mysterious trip that he had recently taken to Yemen, Muhammad was still able to acquire guns and attack the recruiting station in broad daylight. When Muhammad was arrested in his vehicle, police found a rifle with a laser sight, a revolver, ammunition, and the makings of Molotov cocktails.109
Daniel Boyd, the alleged leader of the jihadist cell in North Carolina, obtained maps of the Quantico Marine base in Virginia, which he cased on June 12, 2009, for a possible attack. He also allegedly possessed armor-piercing ammunition, saying it was “to attack Americans,” and said that one of his weapons would be used “for the base,” an apparent reference to the Quantico facility.110
...In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the consensus within the national security and intelligence communities was that when it came to attacks on the U.S. homeland, al-Qaeda was intent on matching or besting the loss of life and destruction it caused that day. Since catastrophic-scale attacks require high levels of planning and coordination to succeed, they also generate more opportunities for detection and intervention. Now it is clear that terrorist groups see operational value in conducting more frequent and less sophisticated attacks that can place severe stress on finite intelligence and law enforcement resources. In addition, al-Qaeda has concluded that these attacks can have strategic value by generating a “big bang for the buck,” given that even a near-miss (e.g. the Christmas Day 2009 plot) can generate so much media and political fallout.