National Security Network

The Nature of the Threat, Nine Years After 9/11

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Report 10 September 2010

Terrorism & National Security Terrorism & National Security 9/11 counter-terrorism Kean Hamilton resilience terrorism


Today, Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, the chairman and co-chairman of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, spoke with a panel of terrorism and homeland security experts, about the status of terrorism nine years after the tragic 9/11 attacks.  The conveners of the event, the Bipartisan Policy Center's National Security Preparedness Group, are also releasing a report by Peter Bergen and Bruce Hoffman, two of the world's foremost experts on terrorism and al Qaeda.  The report outlines the changing nature of al Qaeda's strategy from large scale 9/11-style attacks to   a more "diversified" approach that seeks to overwhelm its adversaries with small-scale attacks and cause overreaction from America both at home and abroad. 

The experts stressed that America's best response to the changing threat lies in resilience - preventing as many attacks as we can, knowing that we can withstand minor disruptions and not overreacting to events whose very purpose is to cause overreaction and fear.  We saw powerful examples of resilience in Times Square on May 1st, among the airplane passengers over Detroit on Christmas Day and in communities where law enforcement, interfaith groups and community leaders have come together to build trust and awareness.  However, the anti-Islamic rhetoric and behavior we have seen in recent weeks tears at our strength.  Experts say resilience demands that we cherish our global reputation as an open, tolerant country; that Muslim Americans continue to feel welcome, secure and integrated; and that we avoid feeding al Qaeda's propaganda about a "clash of civilizations."  As we approach the one-decade mark since 9/11, and successful counterterrorism strategies have put al Qaeda on the run abroad, our resilience at home holds the key to our security and way of life.

Threat assessment: al Qaeda's capability of large-scale attack reduced; smaller plots by "free agents" now focus on sparking U.S. overreaction.   The top line of Bergen and Hoffman's report: "Threats are measured by intent and capabilities. Al-Qaeda continues to hope to inflict mass-casualty attacks in the United States... However, the group's capabilities to implement such a large-scale attack are currently far less formidable than they were nine years ago or indeed at any time since." "Al-Qaeda or one of its allies might, however, successfully carry out bombings against symbolic American targets that would kill dozens... This level of threat is likely to persist for years to come; however, al-Qaeda is believed to lack the capability to launch a mass-casualty attack sufficiently deadly in scope to completely reorient American foreign policy, as the 9/11 attacks did. And it is worth recalling that only 14 Americans have been killed in jihadist terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11, something that was hardly predictable in the immediate wake of the attacks on Washington and New York."  As Stephen Flynn, one of today's panelists, said earlier in the week, "What we're looking at is a morphing of the threat to focus on less-sophisticated attacks that are going to be carried out more frequently by the ["free agents"]."

The report points to an al Qaeda's strategy of "diversification": "mounting attacks involving a wide variety of perpetrators of different nationalities and ethnic heritages to defeat any attempt to ‘profile' actual and would-be perpetrators and to overwhelm already information-overloaded law enforcement and intelligence agencies."  The report states that this is a clear strategy to spark overreaction both at home and abroad: "This is part and parcel of a strategy that al-Qaeda has also pushed on other groups. The strategy is deliberately designed to overwhelm, distract, and exhaust al-Qaeda's adversaries. There are two components: One is economic; the other, operational. Al-Qaeda has rarely claimed it could or would defeat the U.S. militarily. Instead, it hopes to wear the United States down economically by forcing the U.S. to spend more on domestic security and remain involved in costly overseas military commitments. Given the current global economic downturn, this message arguably has greater resonance now with al-Qaeda's followers and supporters, and perhaps even with recruits. The operational dimension seeks to flood already stressed intelligence and law enforcement agencies with ‘noise': low-level threats from ‘lone wolves' and other jihadist ‘hangers-on.'"  [Peter Bergen and Bruce Hoffman, 9/10/10. Stephen Flynn, 9/8/10]

On this anniversary and going forward, Americans face a choice between resilience which strengthens us, or fear which weakens us. Constant fretting about the "terrorist next door" will do nothing but empower Al Qaeda. Center for National Policy expert Scott Bates recently summed up the choice facing Americans. "I think at this anniversary of the attacks of 9-11 we have a very clear choice in this nation. We can choose to be afraid and angry, or we can choose to be strong and resilient. And that's really the choice that the American people face at this anniversary when thinking about how to respond to al Qaeda. At the end of the day, victory against al Qaeda is in our hands, because the only way al Qaeda can win is if they provoke a ‘Clash of Civilizations,' if they radicalize their population and if they provoke an overreaction in our population to the point where we pursue policies that are unwise."  Bates concluded by saying, "If we as Americans remain true to our values overseas and true to our values here at home, then al Qaeda fails. Game over."

John Brennan, President Obama's advisor on terrorism and homeland security, affirmed this approach earlier this year: "As a strong and resilient nation, we will strengthen our ability to withstand any disruption, whatever the cause. For even as we put unrelenting pressure on the enemy, even as we strive to thwart 100 percent of the plots against us, we know that terrorists are striving to succeed only once... Instead of giving into fear and paralysis, which is the goal of terrorists, we must resolve, as a nation, as a people, that we will go forward with confidence, that we will resist succumbing to overreaction, especially to failed attacks and not magnify these perpetrators beyond the despicable miscreants that they are, that as a proud and strong nation, we will not cower in the face of a small band of cowards who hide in the shadows and send others to their slaughter and to slaughter the innocents."[Scott Bates, 9/8/10. John Brennan, 5/26/10]

American interests and values demand that we be a good partner to Muslims at home and abroad - and that Muslim-Americans feel safe, integrated and welcome.  The very worst reaction to the risk of domestic radicalization would be to discriminate against and alienate Muslim Americans - a source of the country's strength and vital allies against extremism. The vision of an America that welcomes all is a core source of our strength and one that we cannot compromise away.

Wrongly connecting the overwhelming majority of mainstream Muslims to terrorism risks missing the real threat completely.  Bates pointed out the false connection between religion and terrorism, saying: "The folks who are most knowledgeable of the religion are the least likely to get recruited. It's those who have almost a voyeuristic attraction to it that get drawn in."  In the context of the Quran burning controversy, David Schanzer, who studies terrorism and homeland security at Duke University, explained that a sense of alienation or lack of identity contributes to radicalization and that "the anti-Islamic rhetoric can contribute to that."

Terrorism and homeland security expert Flynn, recently said, "Muslim communities are an essential part of ensuring our national security community... Muslim Americans are an indispensable part of our nation's response to the al Qaeda threat. To see them any other way is a loss for our national security."

As CIA Director Leon Panetta said today, "The diversity of talent that we send into the field against al-Qa'ida includes officers with roots in the countries and communities suffering and sacrificing on the front lines--Arabs and South Asians, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.  I see the powerful contributions they make by virtue of their knowledge, insight, and sheer courage.  They are our brothers and sisters.  I hope many more Americans like them will join us.  We are one family, bound together by our values, our liberty, and our Constitution."

Worse still, Islam-bashing and anti-Islam rhetoric contributes to a "clash of civilizations" narrative that Al Qaeda is only happy to promote.  Marc Lynch, Senior Fellow at the Center for New American Security and professor at George Washington University, writes, "the U.S. has a vital national security interest in preventing a spiral towards a ‘clash of civilizations' which would strengthen al-Qaeda's appeal and narrative." Similarly, Malcolm Nance, a former military intelligence officer, master Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) instructor and author of An End to al-Qaeda, recently explains, "When you frame it as a fight against Islam and Islamic fundamentalism ... you're almost encouraging Osama bin Laden's line of thinking. He loves this idea that this is seen as a clash between Islam and the West; he wants that, he thrives on that." [Steve Flynn, 9/8/10. Scott Bates, 9/8/10. David Schanzer, 9/8/10. Marc Lynch, 7/22/10. Malcolm Nance, via the American Prospect, 6/30/10]

What We're Reading

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's recent attempts to placate the Taliban have alienated some crucial old friends: the country's ethnic minorities, who have been a linchpin of Mr. Karzai's American-backed government.

Protests in Afghanistan turned violent over plans by a Florida pastor to burn copies of the Koran.

The Obama administration is encouraging a major new power-sharing arrangement in Iraq  that could retain Nuri al Maliki as prime minister but in a coalition that would significantly curb his authority.

Defense Department officials are negotiating to buy and destroy all 10,000 copies of the first printing of an Afghan war memoir they say contains intelligence secrets.

The Mexican police officers who arrested infamous drug suspect Edgar Valdez Villarreal, alias "La Barbie," did not initially know who they had caught.

Iran is developing an underground military installation in the mountains west of Tehran, according to U.S. officials and Iranian dissidents, but the facility's exact purpose is in dispute.

A federal judge declared the U.S. military's ban on openly gay service members unconstitutional, saying the "don't ask, don't tell" policy violates the 1st Amendment and due process rights of lesbians and gay men.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has widened his lead over powerbroker Ichiro Ozawa ahead of a party leadership vote, days before the contest that could set Japan's fiscal priorities.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said parliamentary democracy would be catastrophic for Russia.

In a predawn raid with helicopters hovering nearby, 24 American Marines scaled aboard a hijacked ship in the Gulf of Aden, arrested the nine pirates on board and freed the ship - all without firing a shot.

Commentary of the Day

George Shultz, Madeleine Albright, Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel write that it's time for the Senate to vote on New START.

Ted Koppel argues that the goal of any organized terrorist attack is to goad a vastly more powerful enemy into an excessive response -- and over the past nine years, the U.S. has blundered into the snare with one overreaction after another.

Gen. Paul Eaton says that burning Qurans will hamper the U.S.'s ability to win allies, forcing America to shoulder a greater war burden.

Gordon Adams asks: Is Defense Secretary Robert Gates behind the curve when it comes to cutting defense spending?