In the context of America's war on terrorism, a U.S. air strike in 2006 killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). As important and as significant a blow as this was, al-Zarqawi's death did not end AQI attacks and, indeed, following his killing, violence attributed to the group actually increased.
The above examples are not meant to imply that killing and capturing terrorists should not be a top priority in any war on terrorism. Only that such measures-without accompanying or attendant efforts to stanch the flow of new recruits into a terrorist organization-amount to a tactical holding operation at best. That is not the genuinely game-changing strategic reversal that attrition of terrorist leaders in tandem with concerted counter-radicalization efforts to hamper recruitment can ultimately achieve.
No one denies that the drone program has been effective in making the lives of al-Qaeda's leaders far more difficult by forcing them to pay ever-more attention to their own security and survival. It is, of course, essential to the war against terrorism. Rather, the point is to emphasize that a lone tactic has never proven successful in defeating a terrorist organization. And the drone program is just a tactic; it is not a strategy. At the end of the day, the unmanned Predator and Reaper attacks can hold al-Qaeda at bay and disrupt its operations, but they can neither eliminate the network entirely nor completely neutralize the threat that it poses.
WHILE WE concentrate on the battle abroad, believing that al-Qaeda is focused on attacking the United States overseas and that radicalization and recruitment within the homeland will never occur, we are creating the largest, most devastating blind spot-America.
During 2009, at least ten jihadi terrorist plots or related events came to light within our borders-an average of nearly one a month. By any metric, this is an unprecedented development. While many of the incidents involved clueless incompetents engaged in half-baked conspiracies, some of the plans alarmingly evidenced the influence of an identifiable terrorist command-and-control apparatus.
In some cases, these terror networks merely inspired individuals: there was the plot by four prison parolees and Muslim converts to bomb two synagogues in New York City and an upstate Air National Guard base; the attempt by a Jordanian national who overstayed his visa to bomb a Dallas office building; or a similarly far-fetched plan by another Muslim convert to bomb a federal courthouse in Springfield, Illinois.
But in other instances, terrorist groups either actively recruited individuals in the United States, deliberately motivated others to carry out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil or directed trained operatives in the execution of coordinated strikes against American targets within our borders. These network-linked incidents should concern us even more. Think of Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan-born U.S. resident arrested in Colorado last September who pleaded guilty to charges of plotting a "Mumbai on the Hudson"-like suicide terrorist attack on, among other targets, the New York City subway; the shooting last June outside a military-recruiting station in Little Rock that killed one recruiter and wounded another; and the November 2009 massacre at Fort Hood that claimed the lives of thirteen people. Both shooters-Abdulhakim Muhammad, an African American convert to Islam who had spent time in Yemen, and Major Nidal Hasan-had some connection to AQAP, the same local franchise of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda movement that was responsible for the Christmas Day bomb plot. And Awlaki, the cleric who had a role in radicalizing Abdulmutallab, is also believed to have played an important part in the radicalization of Major Hasan.
It is hard to be complacent when al-Qaeda and its Pakistani, Somali and Yemeni allies arguably have been able to accomplish the unthinkable-establishing at least an embryonic terrorist recruitment, radicalization and operational infrastructure in the United States with effects both at home and abroad. Al-Qaeda's grasp is deep and wide. And it has also allowed them to co-opt American citizens in the broader global al-Qaeda battlefield. These accomplishments include the radicalization and recruitment of nearly thirty young Somali Americans from Minnesota who were dispatched for training in their mother country and the case of five young Muslim Americans from Alexandria, Virginia, who sought to fight alongside the Taliban and al-Qaeda and were arrested in Pakistan. Additional incidents involved sleeper agents like the Pakistan-born U.S. citizen named David Headley (who changed his name from Daood Sayed Gilani) whose reconnaissance efforts on behalf of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a long-standing al-Qaeda ally, were pivotal to the success of the November 2008 suicide assault in India; and both Bryant Neal Vinas and Abu Yahya Mujahdeen al-Adam, two American citizens recently arrested in Pakistan for their links to al-Qaeda.
While it is easy to dismiss the threat posed by wannabes who are often effortlessly entrapped and snared by the authorities, or to discount as aberrations the homicides inflicted by lone individuals, these incidents evidenced the activities of trained terrorist operatives who are part of an identifiable organizational command-and-control structure and are acting on orders from terrorist leaders abroad.
THIS SUCCESSION of terrorist plots that unfolded with depressing and unprecedented regularity throughout 2009 is frightening indeed. More worrisome is that they have continued into 2010. During the first three months of the New Year, three more cases of homegrown terrorist recruitment in the United States had already come to light.
The first, in March, again involved a Somali American who was indicted in a New York district of the federal-court system on charges of raising funds for al-Shabab (an al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic organization that controls large parts of southern Somalia) and with helping to recruit persons in the United States for the group. He is also alleged to have received training at an al-Shabab camp, including in bomb-making and bomb-detonation skills. The second involves a New Jersey man whose mother is Somali, but who hooked up with AQAP in Yemen. And the third is a somewhat-peculiar case involving two female would-be jihadis from Pennsylvania and Colorado. One of the women, a petite, middle-aged, blue-eyed blonde, used the online moniker "JihadJane" to recruit others in the United States and abroad, supposedly to carry out a terrorist attack in Sweden. She boasted in e-mails how, given her appearance, she would "blend in with many people." She in particular sought to recruit other Western women who looked like her. David Kris, an assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice's National Security Division, was quoted in the Washington Post as stating that the fact that a suburban American woman stands accused of conspiring to support terrorists and traveling overseas to implement an attack "underscores the evolving nature of the threat we face." Moreover, U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence officials are reportedly deeply troubled by the unexpected speed with which all of these people were recruited, radicalized and operationally deployed. The times are rapidly changing, and we are undoubtedly falling behind.
WE HAVE failed to acknowledge that al-Qaeda has a strategy and, moreover, that it is one designed to overwhelm us. It is a strategy of attrition. And it is a strategy of attrition that focuses on strengthening its own capabilities and expanding its recruitment pool, particularly on our shores, while weakening our ability to fight. It seeks to flood already-stressed intelligence systems with "noise" and with low-level threats from "lone wolves" and other jihadi hangers-on (i.e., low-hanging fruit) that will consume the attention of law-enforcement and intelligence agencies in the hope that these distractions will allow more serious operations to slip by unnoticed.
The movement has repeatedly embarked on a concerted quest to defeat or bypass the intelligence and security measures we have put in its path. The liquid-explosive compound and ingenious detonation devices used in the August 2006 attempt to blow up seven American and Canadian airliners departing from London is one example of these unceasing efforts. The explosive concealed in Abdulmutallab's underwear, detonated by chemicals injected into it by a syringe, is the latest iteration of al-Qaeda's and its franchises' ongoing research-and-development efforts. Both were attacks directed against arguably the most hardened international target set-commercial aviation. These two tactical innovations are part and parcel of al-Qaeda's new strategy.
The organization is supported by the aggressive efforts of As-Sahab, "the Clouds," its perennially active communications arm, which has critical "input" capabilities (e.g., gathering strategic intelligence) in addition to its better-known "output" functions (e.g., the production and dissemination of propaganda). In this respect, al-Qaeda and its agents are constantly monitoring our defenses: seeking to identify gaps and new opportunities that can be quickly and effectively exploited for attacks.
A key additional dimension of al-Qaeda's strategy is economic warfare. "We will bury you!" Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev promised Americans fifty years ago. Today, al-Qaeda claims that "we will bankrupt you." Al-Qaeda has always maintained that the United States is too powerful to be defeated militarily. Instead, it seeks to undermine our economy. Given the continued financial instability both here and abroad, al-Qaeda likely believes this strategy of attrition will pay still-more dividends in the future. Over the past year, al-Qaeda's web sites have carried repeated statements, videos, audio messages, letters and press releases trumpeting its role in creating the current global economic crisis.Image: Pullquote: During 2009, at least ten jihadi terrorist plots or related events came to light within our borders-an average of nearly one a month. By any metric, this is an unprecedented development.Essay Types: Essay