Editor's note: Ms Miller wrote this analysis of Sept. 11, 2001 for Newsmax magazine's 10th anniversary commemorative edition. If you would like to subscribe to the magazine, click here.
AMIR KHAN, A YOUNG, SAUDI-born, American terrorist, was leaving on a trip to Yemen with his fellow holy warriors when he heard that Osama bin Laden was dead. He was devastated.
“All of a sudden, the world felt a bit empty,” he lamented in the most recent issue of Inspire, the slick English-language online magazine he edits for al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Inspire presents a hip version of militant Islam to attract young English-speaking believers. “Was it really his time?” Khan carried on. “Did Allah really take the soul of the lion?”
Khan, nevertheless, was stalwart. Bin Laden’s death would not “in any way” reverse or limit his movement’s struggle to impose Islamic law “in all Muslim lands.” The “holy war” would go on.
A fierce debate has erupted among counterterrorism analysts over how badly bin Laden’s killing and the Arab Spring revolts against Arab governments have hurt al-Qaida and the violent movement he helped spawn.
Some say that threat of militant Islamism, of terrorism in general, has long been, as scholar John Mueller warned in his 2006 book, Overblown. Since the late 1960s, Mueller argues, Americans have been as likely to be killed by international terrorism as they are by getting struck by lightning, hitting a deer, or suffering an allergic reaction to peanuts.
“Al-Qaida no longer poses a national security threat to the American homeland of the type that could result in a mass-casualty attack anywhere close to the scale of 9/11,” said Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert in testimony last May on Capitol Hill after bin Laden’s death.
Analysts such as Bergen, however, warn against declaring victory over al-Qaida and the militant Islamic jihad too soon, or repudiating the notion that America will have to continue combating Islamist terror.
Militant Islamic extremism, if not the al-Qaida “core” organization, is likely to remain America’s principle enemy for the foreseeable future, they warn. “Bin Laden’s great achievement was transforming an organization into a worldwide movement that continues to attract thousands of adherents from throughout the world,” says William Braniff, a terrorism expert at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.
Others see new threats emerging, some only indirectly related to al-Qaida or militant Islam, including new dangers posed by familiar foes, such as China and Russia, and instability arising from Mexico, Pakistan, Yemen, and other poorer countries. Still others fear the intermingling of such foes and militant Islamists.
The Obama administration is optimistic that al-Qaida’s core is on the decline, but wary of claiming victory prematurely. Its caution is evident in a 69-page “Progress Report” issued in July by the Department of Homeland Security, the leviathan that Congress created in 2003 at the behest of the 9/11 Commission.
The merger fused 22 separate agencies and offices, each with its own specific culture and procedures, into a single, Cabinet-level department with a mind-boggling 240,000 employees, most of whom live outside of D.C.
Though America is “stronger, safer, and more resilient than ever before” a decade after 9/11 and has made “significant progress” reducing the vulnerabilities that enabled the terrorists to strike, wrote DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, “threats from terrorism persist” — ranging from crude homemade bombs to sophisticated biological or cyberattacks — “and challenges remain.”
Strikingly, although the report never mentions the word “Islamic” or “Muslim,” it concludes that al-Qaida and like-minded militant Islamist groups still threaten Americans, and it stresses that such groups are constantly innovating and evolving.
Rand Beers, the DHS undersecretary for national protection, defends his agency against its many critics. While still a work in progress, “we’ve gone from zero to layered, far more robust systems of defense,” he says.
In a July interview at DHS headquarters in Washington, Beers asserted that the creation of 72 state and urban “fusion centers,” which gather, receive, analyze, and share threat information, had dramatically enhanced homeland security. “Prior to 9/11, there was no home for systematically reaching out to the private sector to act together to defend critical infrastructure and institutions,” he said.
Beers, a former Marine who has served on the National Security Council staff of four presidents, sees danger as militant groups become more sophisticated. The jihadis’ persistent efforts to stage another assault against Americans using ever-more creative techniques includes efforts by Ibrahim Asiri, an innovative young Saudi bomb-maker from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemeni-based AQAP.
Asiri’s efforts to perfect a “body bomb,” implanted in the breast, belly, or rectum of an airline passenger and detonated at will, triggered a Transportation Security Admin-istration warning this summer.
Asiri is said not only to have sent his own brother off with a bomb implanted in his rectum, but to have designed the “cargo bombs” that nearly brought down two planes last December. He evaded cargo scanners and detectors by implanting a powerful explosive, PETN, in an ink cartridge, as ink and PETN emit similar chemical signatures.
Asiri is thought to be working with surgeons and doctors on surmounting the challenge of detonating a body bomb more easily and reliably and preventing the suicide bomber’s body from muffling the power of the bomb. This is no longer the stuff of science fiction, says Beers.
Topping the list of current threats that are likely to be even more devastating in the future are cyberattacks. William Schneider, a former undersecretary of state and senior fellow on the Defense Science Board, is alarmed by the prospect of sophisticated strikes that go far beyond “denial of service” attacks, but which disrupt or destroy the infrastructure which underlies modern societies — electrical grids and dams, transportation and communications systems, and the U.S.’ financial service sector.
A prime example of what can already be done, he says, is the Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear program, which damaged the centrifuge cascade of the Islamic Republic’s main uranium enrichment plant. But the insidious virus is only an initial volley in what is emerging as an Internet war involving multiple, often mysterious enemies.
“Computer network attacks on the power grid can literally destroy a power turbine, as the Department of Energy demonstrated at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory four years ago,” Schneider says. “The consequences of such attacks are potentially greater than any kinetic attack an enemy could launch.”
The U.S. government has already lost thousands of files — intellectual property exceeding the size of the Library of Congress each year — and not just from government networks. The Pentagon announced in July that an unidentified “foreign intelligence service,” believed to be China, had stolen 24,000 files from a defense contractor in March.
Gen. Keith Alexander, the National Security Agency director and head of U.S. Cyber Command, recently told Charlie Rose that such high-tech government contractors as RSA, Lockheed, and even Nasdaq have already lost files to malware. “Our infrastructure is not protected where it needs to be,” he says. “And the Defense Department relies on that infrastructure.”
America invented the Internet. “We ought to be the first ones to secure it.”
In a significant policy shift, Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced in July that the United States would reserve the right to retaliate against a debilitating cyberattack with its own virtual weapons or with traditional military force.
Militant Islamists have never abandoned the idea of striking the U.S. with a nuclear, chemical, or biological weapon. Disrupting potential plots involving radiological and germ attacks retains high priority, at least on paper, within the intelligence community and at the DHS. New York Republican Rep. Peter King says that Congress added $20 million this year to the already $100 million effort to install more radiological detectors in New York.
Biological attacks also remain a concern and not just because the biotech revolution with its stunning advances in synthetic biology make it at least theoretically easier for private sector or government scientists working with hostile nations or terrorist groups to invent and spread “designer” pathogens — and more terrifying ways to kill.
The threat is also rising, despite the absence of any known plots involving WMD, because U.S. government efforts to counter naturally, or such deliberately inspired epidemics, have fallen short of the leaps in offensive capabilities.
Jerome Hauer, a former emergency services director and former assistant secretary of public health under President George W. Bush, argues that Washington has wasted millions of dollars on often faulty detection equipment and gear that “has never, and will never, be used.”
Pointing to numerous critical studies by the Government Accountability Office, he underscores a lack of “medical countermeasures.”
“We’re simply not where we should be for all the money we have poured into this,” he says.
The same weaknesses apply to programs aimed at countering or responding to the detonation of an improvised nuclear device. “Virtually no city could handle that,” he says, “not even New York, which is far more prepared than other targets.”
Lone Wolves, Militant Islamic and Other Groups
The savage attack in Norway by a right-wing fundamentalist Christian obsessed with what he saw as the threats to his country from Muslim immigration and culture — in which at least 76 people, including many children, were killed — demonstrates the ability of a lone individual to inflict death and havoc. It also reminds us of the dangers of focusing exclusively on Muslim extremists as a source of potential terror.
That being said, terrorism databases show that the main source of suicide bombing and violent attacks in the United States remains militant Islamist groups affiliated with, or individuals inspired by, al-Qaida’s militant ideology.
Bergen says that a survey of 180 individuals indicted or convicted in Islamist terrorism cases in the United States since 9/11 by Syracuse University’s Maxwell School and the New America Foundation shows that jihadist terrorism cases involving U.S. citizens or residents spiked in the past two years. “In 2009 and 2010 there were 76, almost half of the total since 9/11, but in the first half of 2011 the number of such cases subsided rather dramatically,” he says. By May of this year, there were only six jihadist terrorism cases.
Could this downturn be but a lull as jihadists regroup or their geographic center of gravity shifts? Some analysts think so. Analyst Paul Cruickshank cites the record number of terrorist plots in 2010 — most of which failed or were foiled, fortunately — as evidence of this trend.
Pakistan, too, deserves special scrutiny. The Pakistani Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harakat-ul-Jihad Islami, the Islamic Jihad Union, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan all have a significant presence in Pakistan’s tribal regions and have tried to attack American or Western targets. If Pakistan were to collapse, who would inherit control of that country’s nuclear arsenal, estimated to total nearly 100 bombs, about 30 percent of which are believed to be mobile? And while drone attacks succeeded at first in killing militants in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, Western jihadi recruits have recently told interrogators that they have adapted to the strikes by conducting sessions indoors, Cruickshank says.
Another distressing trend, he says, is the increasing ability of such groups to use the Internet to exercise greater “command and control” over their trainees through encrypted communications. “Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, was communicating with his handlers in real time and was not intercepted,” he says. According to court records, Shahzad used software that was installed on his laptop while he was in Pakistan to “exchange information about the bomb he was building, the vehicle he purchsed, and other topics,” without being detected.
According to trial records, Rajib Karim, a convicted U.K.-based AQAP operative, also used encrypted software to communicate in early 2010 with Anwar al-Awlaki, the extremist American cleric who fled to Yemen, to discuss the importance of attacking the United States. Those communications also went undetected.
Iraq, too, remains a source of concern. While al-Qaida in Iraq as of 2008 seemed on the verge of defeat, it still conducted large-scale bombings in 2010 and 2011. Ben Venzke, the founder and director of the IntelCenter, which monitors jihadi videos and Internet communications, worries about the graduates of that extended campaign against American occupation. “What is happening to this large pool of young Muslims who flocked to Iraq to set off car — these battle-hardened jihadists who have returned home, and may now be looking for something to do?” says Venzke. “There is no shortage of their videos showing up in the West.”
Also looming large as potential sources of danger are the political vacuums created by the collapse of governments in the Horn of Africa. In Yemen, for instance, AQAP is said to already control the towns of Zinjibar and Jaar and is advancing on the key port of Aden. Somalia has attracted dozens of young Somali immigrants from Minnesota to fight in al-Shabaab’s declared “jihad.”
Larry Sanchez, a former assistant commissioner of the New York Police Department, worries about what he calls the intermingling of jihadi and pirate networks. “The Islamists are already selling arms to Somali pirates for a cut of their booty,” he says. Drug cartel experts fear a similar intermingling of drug and terrorist networks in Mexico, where drug cartels have been battling the central government for control.
No future problem worries the NYPD more than the emergence of homegrown terrorism, or jihadis who are radicalized through friends, recruiters, and material on the Internet, a trend first identified in 2007 by former analysts Arvin Bhatt and NYPD chief intelligence analyst, Mitchell Silber.
Rather than being the uneducated young Arab immigrants of popular imagination, Bergen says the homegrown militants fit no particular socioeconomic or ethnic profile. Their average age is 30.
Only a quarter are of Arab descent, while 10 percent are African-American, 13 percent are Caucasian, 18 percent are South Asian, 20 percent are of Somali descent, and the rest are either mixed race or of other ethnicities. About half the terror cases involved a U.S-born American citizen; another third were naturalized citizens. Converts to Islam — particularly Hispanic converts, are disproportionately represented.
What worries many analysts the most is not the threat of terrorism per se, but Washington’s apparent inability to stay focused on the challenge. Rep. King, for one, says that America can stave off catastrophic terror strikes “if we stay on top of it.” But his hearings on homegrown radicalization provoked a torrent of criticism from the Muslim and civil libertarian communities.
Add to that, Congress itself is problematic. “There are still over a hundred committees that claim some jurisdiction over counterterrorism programs,” King says.
Venzke complains about the slash in counterterrorism funding — between 30 and 50 percent in some of the agencies for which he works. And the recent DHS report boasts of having identified “over $1 billion in cost avoidances and cuts under this administration” as well as $800 million more in further cuts in the agency’s fiscal 2012 budget request.
While counterterrorism funding probably should be cut, pressure to declare victory in the war on terrorism and focus on other challenges mounts every year without an attack.
“You must go back to the 1960s to find such an absence of attacks,” says Brian Jenkins, Rand’s senior adviser on terrorism who launched the corporation’s terrorism studies almost 40 years ago.
Bin Laden’s death and the Arab Spring uprisings have intensified pressure to pronounce the campaign over, Jenkins adds. “Declaring victory and turning our back would be dangerous,” he writes in a Rand study, “The Long Shadow of 9/11, America’s Response to Terrorism.”
America needs to be smarter in finding ways to sustain the hunt for bin Laden’s successor. Washington will no longer be able to devote another $3.8 trillion, the estimated cost of the global war on terror since 2001, on deterring future attacks.
“We are very much the victims of our success,” says King, adding, “That is our greatest counterterrorism future challenge.”
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