Bruce Hoffman

A Diverse and More Complex Threat

A diverse and more complex terrorist threat is the conclusion of a new report published by the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center's National Security Preparedness Group (NSPG) titled, Assessing The Terrorist Threat.

The NSPG is co-chaired by Governor Thomas Kean and Congressman Lee Hamilton, who had also co-chaired the famed 9/11 Commission. The NSPG seeks to carry forward the work of the 9/11 Commission by ensuring that the United States is adequately prepared to counter current and future terrorist threats.

The report was written by Peter Bergen and myself, with the assistance of fellow NSPG member Dr. Stephen Flynn and Ms. Katherine Tiedemann of the New America Foundation.

It concludes that al-Qaeda and allied groups 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.

Al-Qaeda or its allies, we argue, continue to have the capacity to kill dozens, or even hundreds, of Americans in a single attack. A key shift, though, in the past couple of years is the increasingly prominent role in planning and operations that U.S. citizens and residents have played in the leadership of al-Qaeda and aligned groups, and the higher numbers of Americans attaching themselves to these groups.

Another new development is the increasing diversification of the types of U.S.-based jihadi militants, and the groups with which those militants have affiliated. Indeed, these jihadi do not fit any particular ethnic, economic, educational, or social profile.

Al-Qaeda’s ideological influence on other jihadi groups, Peter and I conclude, is on the rise in South Asia and has continued to extend into countries like Yemen and Somalia; al-Qaeda’s top leaders are still at large, and American overreactions to even unsuccessful terrorist attacks arguably have played, however inadvertently, into the hands of the jihadists.

Working against al-Qaeda and allied groups, fortunately are the ramped-up campaign of drone attacks in Pakistan, increasingly negative Pakistani attitudes and actions against the militants based on their territory, which are mirrored by increasingly hostile attitudes toward al-Qaeda and allied groups in the Muslim world in general, and the fact that erstwhile militant allies have now also turned against al-Qaeda.

Our main conclusion, however, is sobering. 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. We maintain that has now been shattered by the succession of cases that have recently come to light of terrorist radicalization and recruitment occurring in the United States.

And while it must be emphasized that the number of U.S. citizens and residents affected or influenced in this manner remains extremely small, at the same time the sustained and growing number of individuals heeding these calls is nonetheless alarming.

Given the succession of incidents during the past year or so variously involving homegrown radicals, lone wolves, and trained terrorist recruits, the U.S. is arguably now little different from Europe in terms of having a domestic terrorist problem involving immigrant and indigenous Muslims as well as converts to Islam.

In sum, the diversity of these latest foot soldiers in the wars of terrorism being waged against the U.S. underscores how much the terrorist threat has changed since the September 11, 2001, attacks.

In the past year alone the United States has seen affluent suburban Americans and the progeny of hard-working immigrants gravitate to terrorism. Persons of color and Caucasians have done so. Women along with men. Good students and well-educated individuals and high school dropouts and jailbirds. Persons born in the U.S. or variously in Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, and Somalia. Teenage boys pumped up with testosterone and middle-aged divorcees.

The only common denominator appears to be a newfound hatred for their native or adopted country, a degree of dangerous malleability, and a religious fervor justifying or legitimizing violence that impels these very impressionable and perhaps easily influenced individuals toward potentially lethal acts of violence.

The report is based on interviews with a wide range of senior U.S. counterterrorism officials at both the federal and local levels, and embracing the policy, intelligence, and law enforcement communities, supplemented by the authors’ own research.