Jihadist Threat Keeps Evolving


May 10, 2010

This commentary originally appeared on NationalJournal.com on May 10, 2010.

The attempted attack in Times Square has less to do with blowback, more to do with the jihadists' current situation. U.S. counter-terrorist efforts have reduced al Qaeda central's ability to launch terrorist operations worldwide, and have managed to thwart most domestic attempts like this one, but the jihadists remain determined and authorities will never be able to intercept every terrorist plot. That almost any determined terrorist group—or individual terrorist—can attack something, somewhere, somehow, we have known long before 9/11.

The lesson of the Times Square attack is that the terrorist threat posed by the jihadist movement continues to evolve. It is today more decentralized, more dependent upon al Qaeda's affiliates, allies and individual acolytes to continue its global terrorist campaign. A continuing stream of communications from al Qaeda leaders and spokesmen exhort would-be jihadists, wherever they are, to do whatever they can.

Other galaxies in the jihadist universe like the Pakistani Taliban, influenced by al Qaeda's vision of global jihad and seeking revenge for attacks on their leaders, have expressed their determination to carry out attacks in he United States. The Taliban in Pakistan, who reportedly assisted the Times Square bomber, however, appear to be less sophisticated than al Qaeda. Although a Pakistani-American walk-in with a U.S. passport would be seen by terrorist planners as gold, the Times Square bomber does not seem to have been carefully trained and prepared. Meanwhile, the Taliban's claim of responsibility, then subsequently withdrawn, would seem to indicate internal debate about strategy.

According to a recent RAND paper, there were 46 cases of radicalization and recruitment to jihadist terrorism in the United States between 9/11 and the end of 2009. This does not include attacks from abroad like the failed Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. airliner. In all, 125 persons were identified and indicted. Two more cases and several more arrests in 2010 bring the total to 130. Many of the cases involve single individuals; the remainder are tiny conspiracies. The number of cases and the number of persons involved both increased sharply in 2009. Whether this presages a trend we cannot yet say, but the total number of would-be jihadist warriors remains small.

These cases indicate that self-radicalization and recruitment to terrorist violence does occur in the United States, and poses a continuing domestic threat. The cases clearly demonstrate intent. Fortunately, America's jihadists thus far have not proved to be very competent, although amateurs potentially can still be dangerous.

Of 24 domestic plots to carry out attacks in the United States, only three got as far as implementation, including the Times Square attempt—an undeniable intelligence success. All three involved individual terrorists. And only two resulted in fatalities. Both of these were carried out by lone gunmen.

Although about a quarter of these cases involve previous links to al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, or other jihadist groups abroad, they offer no evidence of a continuing terrorist organization in this country. They are, for the most part, individual responses to a combination of world events, U.S. policies, personal circumstances, and jihadist propaganda.

Many of the arrested jihadists expressed anger about some aspect of U.S. policy—the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the American-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, the missile strikes in Pakistan. But the jihadists have broader complaints about U.S. foreign policy—U.S. backing of Israel, support for despotic governments in the Middle East—as well as the perceived peril of Islam. Personal crises also figure in their self-recruitment to terrorism. Al Qaeda's jihadist ideology has become a conveyer for individual discontents.

Decades of terrorism have demonstrated repeatedly that small groups or individuals, with a limited capacity for violence, but determined to kill, can attack public places. Despite improvements in intelligence and security, it is an unrealistic expectation that authorities will be able to detect or prevent every terrorist attempt.

Brian Michael Jenkins, Senior Advisor to the President of the RAND Corporation

This op-ed was one of a panel of experts' responses to "Times Square Bomber: A New Type of Threat to the U.S. Homeland?" on security.nationaljournal.com.

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