Evaluating the Al-Qa`ida Threat to the U.S. Homeland

Aug 01, 2010

In the nine years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the counterterrorism campaign in the United States has changed remarkably. In the initial years after 9/11, the primary counterterrorism concern was the presence of more al-Qa`ida-directed terrorists on U.S. soil. Focus was concentrated on preventing a weapon of mass destruction strike, a second coordinated mass transit attack, or a cell directed against a different infrastructure target. As time passed, the United States was able to avoid another al-Qa`ida-directed attack on U.S. soil as a result of good counterterrorism work, combined with a lack of capacity on the part of al-Qa`ida’s central leadership.

Nevertheless, in recent years the United States has faced plots from individuals in Texas, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina and other states. In contrast to the 19 hijackers on 9/11, however, many of the recent terrorist plotters are U.S.-born Muslims or converts, with few, if any, links to al-Qa`ida’s central leadership. Al-Qa`ida’s revolutionary message, starting with the group’s inception more than two decades ago and manifest in its 1998 fatwa against the United States, has clearly reached U.S. shores. Although al-Qa`ida is often viewed strictly operationally, its use of terrorism is only a tactic and the group’s primary mission is to inspire a much broader movement of affiliated organizations and like-minded individuals to see the United States as the main target for attack. For al-Qa`ida, the purpose of the 9/11 attacks was not only to cause a massive loss of life, but to show the world that the United States is vulnerable. By revealing U.S. weakness, al-Qa`ida hoped to inspire more attacks, causing the United States to reduce its support for governments across the Islamic world. This reduction in support would theoretically reduce the capabilities of “corrupt” regimes in Muslim countries and unleash a wave of Islamist revolutions.

This article reviews al-Qa`ida’s present threat to the U.S. homeland. It looks at the evolution of the threat from 9/11—including the rise of affiliated organizations and independent actors— and the problems faced by al-Qa`ida’s central organization in orchestrating attacks in the United States.

Current Threat Pattern
Core Threat

Despite rising threats from groups outside al-Qa`ida’s core leadership, the risk from al-Qa`ida central persists. The recent case of Najibullah Zazi and his plot against New York City’s subway system clearly shows that al-Qa`ida’s core leadership, despite substantial losses, remains intent on striking critical infrastructure—especially transportation—in U.S. population centers.[1] Even in the case of centrally directed plots, the threat has morphed. First of all, judging from recent plots, it does not appear that al-Qa`ida is planning attacks as sophisticated as the 9/11 events. Second, in cases where individuals are directly tied to al-Qa`ida’s central leadership, they are not typically directed out from the center of action (Pakistan/Afghanistan), but are instead drawn into it. Once they are drawn in, they receive training from al-Qa`ida operatives before being sent on a terrorist operation. Zazi, for example, was a legal resident of the United States, and it was not until 2008 that he conspired with others in New York to travel to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban.[2] It was only after he arrived in Pakistan that he came into contact with al-Qa`ida recruiters, who then moved him through training camps.[3] Cases such as Zazi’s—where individuals with no previous contact with al-Qa`ida seek out terrorist operatives on their own accord—show how al-Qa`ida’s revolutionary ideology has spread globally.

Affiliates
Al-Qa`ida central now has a number of affiliated organizations that maintain links to the core leadership, yet largely operate on their own. These affiliates include al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI), Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), among others. A significant question for the counterterrorism community is whether members of the affiliate network will use time and safe havens—in locations such as Yemen, the Horn of Africa, or the Sahel—to generate new plots.

During the past year, the ripple effect of these affiliates’ absorption of al-Qa`ida’s emphasis on the “far enemy” (the United States) can be seen. First, the case of David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American, reveals an “A-level” plotter who operated in the United States. Headley was involved with plotting attacks for Lashkar-i-Tayyiba (LT, or LeT), a South Asian terrorist group that has at least some ties to al-Qa`ida. Headley, who was born in Washington, D.C. and most recently lived in Chicago, was arrested in October 2009 in the United States for involvement in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks and for plotting against employees of a newspaper in Copenhagen, Denmark.[4]

Second, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who studied at a university in London, attempted to detonate explosives on a Northwest Airlines commercial aircraft just outside Detroit on December 25, 2009.[5] Subsequent investigations revealed that al-Qa`ida’s Yemen affiliate, AQAP, was behind the plot, showing its intent and capability to direct operations within the United States.[6]

Third, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) sponsored Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American who lived in Connecticut, to undertake an attack in New York City’s Times Square on May 1, 2010. In July, video footage emerged of Faisal Shahzad embracing Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the TTP.[7] Pakistan’s interior minister, Rehman Malik, told reporters that Shahzad “visited Pakistan seven times and he met Hakimullah Mehsud and also met other people, those so-called leaders of the Taliban.”[8]

These incidents represent three operatives from al-Qa`ida affiliates, none directed by al-Qa`ida’s central leadership yet all operating in either the United States or the United Kingdom.

Like-Mindeds
There has also been a surge in the third prong of plotters who represent the spread of al-Qa`ida’s ideology from the core group and its affiliates to new recruits who are inspired but not trained by the group. These represent unaffiliated “like-mindeds,” individuals or clusters of individuals on U.S. soil. Like-mindeds have played significant roles in the al-Qa`ida revolution elsewhere; the numbers of solitary foreign fighters crossing from Syria into Iraq earlier this decade are evidence, similar to the arrival of foreign fighters in Chechnya, Bosnia, Somalia, and elsewhere. There is now a similar phenomenon of individuals signing up for the cause in Texas (Hosam Smadi), Illinois (Michael Finton), and New Jersey (the Fort Dix plot).

Broadened Threat
The rise of the ideologically inspired means that even as the strategic threat from al-Qa`ida declines—the likelihood of a 9/11-style attack has dropped markedly as a result of security operations worldwide—the number of people absorbing the ideology has broadened the threat, both operationally and geographically. As the core group suffers—and perhaps eventually dies off—the broader movement is alive and well, and the sheer numbers of like-mindeds suggest that one of the plots in the United States will succeed. Indeed, both the Abdulmutallab and Shahzad plots only failed due to mistakes made creating or detonating the explosive devices.

These affiliates and like-mindeds are harder to target with classic intelligence techniques than a centrally directed organization, and the geographic breadth and frequency of plots during the past two years are clear indicators of how far the revolutionary message has spread. The sophistication of the attackers will not reach what was witnessed nine years ago, but if the goal of the organization is continued recruitment—proving to potential donors and recruits that “al-Qa`idaism” remains relevant—a strike on the scale of the London transit attack in 2005 would be significant to their cause.

The proven presence of plotters from affiliated groups—LT, AQAP, or the Pakistani Taliban—during the past two years is perhaps the most significant evolution of the threat faced during this period. The Detroit airliner and Times Square attempts represent a rare and significant step by an ideological affiliate of al-Qa`ida to show intent and capability to reach into the United States, the first time an affiliate has succeeded since 9/11. Meanwhile, as LT targeting indicates its slow move into al-Qa`ida’s ideological orbit, Headley’s ability to operate in the United States underscores that group’s capabilities should it decide to attack within U.S. borders.[9]

The emergence of affiliated groups—candidates might extend as far afield as AQIM or Southeast Asian remnants of Jemaah Islamiya—means that security services that might have previously focused on Pakistan’s tribal areas as the center of training and plotting for attackers headed to Europe and North America must now assume that these emergent groups are conducting similar training, with a focus on the American heartland. The breadth of sophisticated, resource-intensive intelligence operations will have to grow. Trained operatives from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region will not be the sole, or even primary, source of bombing suspects.

In the midst of global economic pressures, Middle East tensions, Russia’s re-emergence, the rise of China and India, and energy debates, the global scope of the al-Qa`ida revolutionary creep requires that security services, despite diversions, will have to maintain focus on the jihadist problem. Recent plots have implicated potential terrorists as far afield as North Carolina, New Jersey, Colorado, New York, Missouri, Virginia, Minnesota, Illinois, and Connecticut. All of these plots have involved overseas activities that require the assistance of foreign security services from Western Europe through the Balkans to Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. Maintenance of the informal web of security service cooperation is labor intensive, and it grows more difficult as countries turn to new problems or threats. It will also remain expensive for the United States to conduct intelligence, law enforcement, diplomatic, and military operations in these countries, as well as to support foreign governments with money, training, technology, and equipment to maintain the counterterrorism fight.

Successes
The years of this counterterrorism campaign have clearly improved the security capabilities of the many countries that are working tactical threat problems regularly. Domestic and international operations against terrorists are far more efficient and effective than they were when security services first escalated activities after 9/11. One of the unwritten success stories of the counterterrorism campaign in the United States is the evolution of threat management from inefficient coordination nine years ago to smooth processes today. Time, effort, resources, and practice have combined to make the United States better and safer. The same holds true overseas, from Indonesia to the United Kingdom.

The pace of operations against the central organization has heavily damaged its capability to plan long-term plots from a safe haven. Measuring the impact of every operational takedown is not productive. Yet the accruing numbers of operational players eliminated, coupled with a pace of operations during the past few years that has prevented the group from finding its feet, represents the most significant damage brought to al-Qa`ida to date. Maintaining this pace of operations over subsequent years would eventually cripple the core group.

The ideological missteps of the group and its affiliates since 9/11 have been more notable than its operational setbacks. Jihadists viewed the failures of the 1990s in Algeria and Egypt as the foundation for the evolution in thinking that led al-Qa`ida to argue that until the United States and other powers left the region, regimes would be able to weather the Islamist surge. The post-9/11 attacks, though, have been marked by the same alienation of local populations across the Islamic world that Algeria and Egypt experienced during the strife there. Attacks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, and elsewhere resulted in declines in support for the al-Qa`ida organization, its leadership, and the use of suicide bombing as a tactic.[10]

The organization is aware of its missteps but seems unable to control them. The now well-publicized intercepted exchanges between Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi had the second-in-charge of al-Qa`ida warning his affiliate in Iraq to focus away from local casualties, a warning al-Zarqawi ignored.[11] Moreover, in 2008 al-Zawahiri publicly, in an internet session, chose as the first question to answer a request by a writer from Algeria to explain the justification for al-Qa`ida attacks that killed Muslims. Clearly, al-Qa`ida’s thinkers, with now 20 years of experience in alienating populations in the countries they recruit and raise funds, understand that indiscriminate killings are undermining the spread of the very revolution they want to propagate. Yet they continue to do just that.

The debate about the killing of innocents has had a ripple effect on propagandists who have influence in the United States. Anwar al-`Awlaqi, the Yemeni-American cleric who has been implicated in a number of recent terrorist plots, supported the killing of military personnel at Fort Hood in 2009, as he did the attempted bombing of an airliner that landed in Detroit.[12] Yet in the latter case, he said that it would have been better had the target been military. Faisal Shahzad, too, obliquely referred to the debate about the killing of innocents in a quote attributed to him after his capture, suggesting that lower-level echelons of the movement are well aware that their killings have raised serious questions among scholars and potential recruits far down the ideological food chain.[13]

Current State
Today, the United States is experiencing continued al-Qa`ida plotting, coupled with threats from individuals and affiliated organizations that now target the U.S. homeland. The spread of the al-Qa`ida message in the United States was inevitable, and the range of plotters today matches the expansion of the movement elsewhere in the world, beyond individuals trained in Waziristan.

Yet the corrosive effect of al-Qa`ida’s murder of so many innocents, including Muslim civilians, suggests that these plots are emerging even as the movement itself suffers, perhaps irreparably, from its own missteps. The United States will face attacks from affiliates and like-mindeds—the sheer volume of discrete plots makes a successful strike inevitable—but one strike will not herald the expansion of the movement, nor should it suggest that the counterterrorism campaign is losing ground. If anything, how the U.S. counterterrorism community responds to these strikes will play the most significant role in whether the movement’s credibility continues to decline.

Nine years into this campaign, the core organization appears to be struggling; its followers, while dispersed and dangerous, are facing more questions about their tactics. Patience is the key. As the nine year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, the United States is safer and the jihadist ideological wave has crested. Unfortunately, it will be years before those who believe in al-Qa`ida’s message finally die off.

Philip Mudd is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation. He was the senior intelligence adviser at the Federal Bureau of Investigation until his departure in March 2010, and he was Deputy Director of the Counterterrorist Center at the Central Intelligence Agency until his assignment to the FBI in August 2005.

[1] For details on the Najibullah Zazi case, see “Najibullah Zazi Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy to Use Explosives Against Persons or Property in U.S., Conspiracy to Murder Abroad and Providing Material Support to Al-Qaeda,” press release, U.S. Department of Justice, February 22, 2010.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “Although Zazi and others initially intended to fight on behalf of the Taliban, they were recruited by al-Qaeda shortly after arriving in Peshawar. Al-Qaeda personnel transported Zazi and others to the Waziristan region of Pakistan and trained them on several different kinds of weapons. During the training, al-Qaeda leaders asked Zazi and others to return to the United States and conduct suicide operations. They agreed. Zazi later received additional training from al-Qaeda on constructing the explosives for the planned attacks in the United States.”

[4] Andrew Stern, “David Headley Pleads Guilty in Mumbai Attack, Danish Plot,” Reuters, March 19, 2010.

[5] “Video Shows Christmas Day Bomber Abdulmutallab,” CBS/Associated Press, April 27, 2010.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Pakistan Acknowledges Faisal Shahzad Met Taliban Chief,” Dawn, July 26, 2010.

[8] Ibid.

[9] During LT’s attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, the group targeted Westerners, a change in the group’s previous targeting pattern.

[10] For details, see Juliana Menasce Horowitz, “Declining Support for bin Laden and Suicide Bombing,” Pew Research Center, September 10, 2009.

[11] “Letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,” U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, July 9, 2005.

[12] Patrick Goodenough, “Alleged Fort Hood Gunman a Hero, Says Islamic Cleric With Suspected 9/11 Links,” CNSNews.com, November 9, 2009; “Abdulmutallab: Cleric Told Me to Bomb Jet,” CBS/Associated Press, February 5, 2010.

[13] AOL News, May 17, 2010.