Several disquieting trends converged in New York City’s fabled Times Square entertainment district last May. First, a foreign terrorist group, with a hitherto local agenda and otherwise parochial aims, once again is believed to have stretched its wings and sought to operate on a broader, more ambitious global canvas. Second, the conventional wisdom, which long held that the threat to the United States was primarily external and involved foreigners coming from overseas to kill Americans in this country again has been shattered. Third, the comforting stereotype that terrorists are poor, uneducated, provincial loners—and thus are both different from us and can be readily identified—has once more been compromised. And, finally, that the American “melting pot”—our historical capacity to readily absorb new immigrants—would provide something of a “fire wall” against radicalization and recruitment has now fallen by the wayside. The Times Square incident, despite initial claims to the contrary, was not a “one-off” event perpetrated by an individual variously described as “isolated” or a “lone wolf” but is rather part of an emerging pattern of terrorism that directly threatens the United States and presents new and formidable challenges to our national security.
This was precisely the message that Faisal Shahzad sought to communicate when he appeared in Federal District Court in New York last month. Declaring himself a “holy warrior” (mujahid) and a “Muslim soldier,” who had been deployed by the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP, or Pakistani Taliban) to wage “war” in the United States, Shahzad described himself as “part of the answer to the U.S. terrorizing Muslim nations and the Muslim people.” He further promised that if Washington did not cease invading Muslim lands and did not leave Iraq, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries, there would be more attacks on the United States. Americans, Shahzad explained, "don’t see the drones killing children in Afghanistan . . . . [They] only care about their people, but they don't care about the people elsewhere in the world when they die." Accordingly, attacks on children and innocents, in his view, were both justified and should be expected in the future.
The Times Square plot marked the second time in less than six months that a local group whom it was believed lacked the capability to operate outside its traditional battleground had struck. On Christmas Day, a young Nigerian student acting at the behest of another close al-Qaeda ally, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), nearly succeeded in bringing down a Northwest Airlines flight in the skies over America. 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” —and not in the United States The Obama administration has now twice been caught either underestimating or dismissing the possibility that local terrorist groups may harbor grander international aspirations—that is, to attack in the United States itself as well as against overseas American targets. It was of course the Bush administration’s similar dismissal of al-Qaeda’s ability to strike at the United States in this country that led to the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Last year was a watershed in terrorist threats and plots in the United States. A record nine jihadi incidents, jihadi-inspired plots or efforts by Americans to travel overseas to obtain terrorist training, and one tragically successful attack at Fort Hood, Texas, that claimed the lives of thirteen persons, occurred. Furthermore, last year at least twenty-five persons were indicted in the United States on terrorism charges (according to CBS News “60 Minutes,” the number is over forty)—another record. Thus far in 2010 there have been at least five such episodes. It is therefore difficult to see the Times Square incident as a “one-off” or an isolated phenomenon when an average of one plot is now being uncovered per month over the past year or more—and perhaps even more are being hatched that we don’t yet know about.
In this respect, what appears as “amateurish” may in fact be more a reflection of the attack having been rushed. At a time when the capability of the TTP and al-Qaeda in Pakistan are being relentlessly degraded by the United States drone attacks, both groups may feel pressed to implement an operation either sooner or more precipitously than they might otherwise prefer. Fears of the would-be attacker being identified and interdicted by authorities may thus account for what appears to be a more compressed operational tempo and faster “soup to nuts” process by which a recruit is hooked, trained and operationally deployed.
As my “American Jihad” article, published in the May-June 2010 National Interest argued, this is part and parcel of an al-Qaeda strategy that it also has pushed on other groups. It is a strategy that is deliberately designed to overwhelm, distract and exhaust the terrorists’ adversaries. Thus already stressed intelligence and law-enforcement agencies are deliberately flooded with “noise”: low-level threats from “lone wolves” and other jihadi “hangers on”—e.g., the “low-hanging fruit” that are designed to consume the attention of our national-security apparatuses in hopes that this distraction will permit more spectacular terrorist operations—such as the al-Qaeda-directed plot uncovered last September to attack the New York City subway system—to go unnoticed, sneak beneath the radar and therefore succeed.
Comforting theories about poverty, lack of education and lack of opportunity have long figured prominently in explanations for the eruption of terrorism. But both the historical and contemporary empirical evidence fails to support such sweeping claims—with Shahzad himself the latest example. Shahzad, for example, has a Bachelors of Science degree in computing and an MBA. Until he quit his job, he was gainfully employed. Shahzad had a wife and two children and, for all intents and purposes, seemed to be living the suburban American dream with a single-family home in Shelton, Connecticut. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab—the Christmas Day would-be bomber—similarly defied the conventional wisdom about the stereotypical suicide terrorist. He is a graduate of University College, London, one of Britain’s best universities, and the son of a wealthy Nigerian banker and former government official. The Shahzads and Abdulmutallabs we repeatedly encounter should therefore no longer surprise us.
Finally, the wishful thinking that the American “melting pot” theory provided a “fire wall” against the radicalization and recruitment of American citizens and United States residents—whether naturalized, born or living here—arguably lulled us into a sense of complacency that homegrown terrorism couldn’t happen in the United States. Accordingly, we are today stumbling blindly through the legal, operational and organizational minefield of countering terrorist radicalization and recruitment occurring in the United States. Moreover, rather than answers, we now have an almost-endless list of pressing questions on this emerging threat, on our response and on the capacity of the national-security architecture we currently have in place to meet it.
Among the most salient questions are the following:
On the threat. What do we do when the terrorists are like us? When they conform to the archetypal American immigrant success story? When they are American citizens or United States residents? When they are not perhaps from the Middle East or South Asia and in fact have familiar-sounding names? Or, when they are “petite, blue-eyed, blonde” suburban housewives who, as the infamous JihadJane boasted, “can easily blend in” to our society to perpetrate terrorist attacks?
On our response. Who in fact is responsible in the U.S. government for identifying radicalization when it is occurring and then interdicting attempts at recruitment? Is this best done by federal law enforcement (e.g., the Federal Bureau of Investigation) or state and local jurisdictions working closely with federal authorities? Is it a core mission for a modernized, post-9/11 FBI? Or an additional mission for the Department of Homeland Security? Can it be done instead by the National Counterterrorism Center, even though it has only a coordinating function and relies on other agencies for intelligence collection, analysis and operations? What is the role of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in homegrown terrorism, recruitment and radicalization? Will coming to grips with these challenges be the remit of the next FBI director given the incumbent’s impending retirement?
On our current national-security architecture. Despite the reforms adopted from the 9/11 Commission’s report and recommendations, and the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, have terrorists nonetheless discovered our Achilles’ heel in that we currently have no strategy to counter the threat of homegrown terrorists and other radicalized recruits? Did “the system really work,” as we are repeatedly told? Or was a lot of luck involved because of the Times Square plot’s rushed nature? And finally, can we deter al-Qaeda and its affiliates and associates from attacking in the United States? If even a “hard target” like New York City continually attracts terrorist attention, what does this tell us about vulnerabilities elsewhere in the country?
That there are more questions than answers nearly a decade into the war on terrorism is indeed fundamentally disquieting.
Bruce Hoffman is a professor at Georgetown University, where he is also the director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies. He is a contributing editor to The National Interest.