Would-be terrorist Faisal Shahzad’s attempted Times Square bombing doesn’t surprise Bruce Hoffman. For the last four years, give or take, he has wondered whether our war-on-terror gameplan is effectively deterring al-Qaeda and the group’s offspring. Hoffman argues that gaps in our post-9/11 national-security structure are being exploited by ever-diversifying terrorists. Time and again, from the arrest of aspirant-suicide-bomber Najibullah Zazi to the rampage of Major Nidal Hasan, his argument is, at times horrifically, reinforced. Terrorists have “discovered our Achilles’ heel”: Washington doesn’t have a strategy to counter extremists that fly under the radar, defy demographic profiles, rapidly radicalize and, in some cases, live right down the street.
Shahzad is just the latest in a long line of terrorist threats that Washington should have seen coming according to Hoffman, a TNI contributing editor and Georgetown professor. He spoke Friday at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where he is a public policy scholar, updating his piece in the May/June issue of The National Interest, “American Jihad,” in light of Saturday’s plot.
However comforting it is to think that Shahzad was acting alone, that he was an incompetent amateur, evidence is quickly mounting that he was connected to the Pakistani Taliban, which, in turn, has links to al-Qaeda. These days, said Hoffman, al-Qaeda doesn’t directly control all of the operations. It is a transnational organization that is incredibly active behind the scenes, enhancing the visibility of organizations like al-Shabab on the Internet and teaming up with groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan to train recruits.
And an additional problem for Washington is that extremists don’t fit our accepted molds. It used to be assumed that terrorists were poor and uneducated. In fact, the most educated and well-off are some of the most dangerous recruits. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the attempted Christmas Day underwear bomber, is the London-educated son of a prominent Nigerian banker. Shahzad had a comfortable suburban life in Connecticut.
Plus, al-Qaeda and its inspired groups aren’t concerned about delivering a single, crushing blow anymore. They’re playing the odds. Their goal is to flood the system and to do it quickly, when the opportunity arises. Hoffman contended that the groups behind the scenes are “willing to accept degraded competency when they see the opportunity to strike.” They hope one of the plots will work. If not, they’re taxing the intelligence system and providing cover for the bigger attacks still to come. And as Hoffman noted, “even a failed plot carries with it enormous consequences.” An attempted attack can inspire new recruits and boost fundraising efforts.
All of this means that terrorists are being radicalized and deployed faster. Hoffman contested the oft-reported assertion that Shahzad’s plot and other recent schemes were “amateurish.” The plots failed instead because they were rushed. Unfortunately for Washington, these perpetrators haven’t been in the system long enough to offer up intel of lasting value once they’re apprehended.
Hoffman explained al-Qaeda’s new strategy in terms of the Irish Republican Army’s warning to Margaret Thatcher back in 1984, after the group didn’t achieve what it had hoped after bombing a Conservative Party conference: “Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You have to be lucky always.”
We’ve been pretty lucky. Shahzad’s case has even left Hoffman wondering what truth there is behind the government’s oft-repeated statement that the system worked. “Was there not just a lot of luck involved?” he asked. True, luck comes to the skilled, but we can’t go on overlooking the flaws in our national-security architecture. For too long, argued Hoffman, we’ve been blinded by our “it can’t happen here,” melting-pot theories.
And what about the reports that Shahzad’s terrorist foray was fueled by outrage over drone strikes in Pakistan? Surely, Hoffman said, we need to understand the repercussions of using drones. This probably means that tactic is turning out to be successful. It shows a desperation as the higher ranks are being decimated to quickly hit our homeland. But the drone attacks can only do so much. As Hoffman argued, it’s like checkers, not chess. We can knock people out and hold things at bay, but we won’t get to the deeper ideological roots behind the drive to extremism this way.
There’s more to countering terrorism than killing the known bad guys. One vast black hole is the Internet. Much of our public diplomacy according to Hoffman is aimed at traditional media, like television and radio, and elites. To get to the younger generations, those not yet radicalized, we have to be a bit more with-it than that.
And our current policies are too reactive. Washington needs to be more proactive, and on that front, we can learn from the UK’s Quillam Foundation, which is attempting to alter the ideological side of the equation. The think tank is made up of former UK-based extremists who essentially try to convert radicals to a more moderate flavor of Islam. Plus, we’re too divided here at home. Hoffman isn’t sure which agency is responsible for cutting off the domestic terrorist supply chain. One of the hurdles to come will be figuring out who is really in charge. Until then, the internal threat festers and terror continues to evolve.
Rebecca N. White is The National Interest's assistant managing editor.