National Security Network

‘Real But Not Catastrophic’

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Report 15 September 2010

Terrorism & National Security Terrorism & National Security al qaeda Bergen Flynn Kean Hamilton



Today, a panel of top terrorism and homeland security experts testified before the House Homeland Security Committee on "The Evolving Nature of Terrorism - Nine Years after the 9/11 Attacks."  The message on the current state of the threat from al Qaeda was that the organization "pose[s] a real but not catastrophic threat to the United States."  Al Qaeda's limited abilities to project a catastrophic threat, in particular to obtain weapons of mass destruction (WMD), creates a changing and evolving environment to view the terrorist threat.  While the chances of a large-scale attack are reduced, the potential for smaller, one-off attacks that are specifically designed to cause an overreaction remains.  Today's panel stressed that terrorists explicitly seek to generate 24-hour media coverage and "exploit political fissures within our society."  Maintaining calm and resilience, and hewing to our Constitutional values and traditions of openness and tolerance will prevent terrorists from gaining a "big bang for the buck" and deter future attacks.  America's strength and resilience is something that our enemies cannot take away from us. 

Peter Bergen: al Qaeda does not pose a catastrophic threat and has had "minimal success" in obtaining weapons of mass destruction.  Peter Bergen, a journalist and one of the world's foremost experts on al Qaeda, presented two key conclusions with regards to al Qaeda's threat capabilities:

  • 1. "Al-Qaeda and allied groups and those inspired by its ideas continue to pose a real but not catastrophic threat to the United States.
  • 2. "Al-Qaeda and likeminded groups have had minimal success in manufacturing, buying, stealing or being given viable chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) weapons."

Referring to the smaller-scale attempted attacks that have been on the rise in recent years - such as the Najibullah Zazi case or the attempted Underwear bombing - Bergen says: "This level of threat is likely to persist for years to come, however, al-Qaeda no longer poses a national security threat to the American homeland of the type that could launch a mass-casualty attack sufficiently deadly in scope to reorient completely the country's foreign policy, as the 9/11 attacks did."

Bergen outlined four factors that help  al Qaeda: 1) Its "ideological influence on other jihadist groups is on the rise in South Asia;" 2) "Its influence has extended to jihadist groups beyond South Asia;" 3) "The preservation of al Qaeda's top leaders;" 4) "Overreactions can play into the hands of jihadist groups."

Bergen also outlined five negative factors for al Qaeda: 1) "Drone Strikes;" 2) "Increasingly negative Pakistani attitudes and actions against the militants based on their territory;" 3) "Increasingly hostile attitudes towards al-Qaeda and allied groups in the Muslim world in general;" 4) "Jihadist ideologues and erstwhile militant allies have also turned against al-Qaeda;" 5) "Al-Qaeda's four key strategy problems," which are that "Al-Qaeda keeps killing Muslim civilians,... has not created a genuine mass political movement,... Al-Qaeda's leaders have constantly expanded their list of enemies,... and [the group]... has no positive vision." [Peter Bergen, 9/15/10]

The shift to smaller attempts demands that Americans maintain resilience, to deny "terrorist groups the return on investment they hope to achieve."  Counterterrorism and homeland security expert and President of the Center for National Policy Stephen Flynn testified today on the motivation of extremists hoping to carry out acts of terrorism: "Again, one of the primary motivations for terrorist groups to embrace less-sophisticated attacks is their growing confidence that these attacks will generate a big-bang for a small buck. Specifically, they are counting on even small-scale attacks that produce few casualties and modest destruction to generate fear, political recriminations, and a rush to put in place expensive and disruptive safeguards."  Flynn concluded that, "if how we react-or more precisely, when we overreact-elevates the appeal of carrying out these attacks on U.S. soil, it follows that there is an element of deterrence by denying these terrorist groups the return on investment they hope to receive."

He added that terrorist objectives make it "important that elected officials not inadvertently play into efforts by terrorists to exploit political fissures within our society," warning that "[t]he 24-hour news cycle practically guarantees the kind of overwrought media coverage that terrorist groups are counting upon for amplifying the value of small-scale attacks."

Flynn, who participated in the National Security Preparedness Group with 9/11 Commissioners Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, endorsed the group's findings, stating: "When we demonstrate an unwillingness to inflict damage on our way of life in the face of terrorism, terrorism becomes a less attractive weapon for our adversaries to confront the United States. When federal agencies work well with each other and their counterparts at the state and local levels and reach out to the everyday Americans, we will be far better able to detect and prevent future attacks. In short, nine years after the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, the changing nature of the terrorist threat makes clear that we must be willing to reexamine many of our counterterrorism assumptions and approaches. Only then can we succeed at maintaining the upper hand in the face of an adversary who continues to demonstrate the ability to learn and adapt. " [Steve Flynn, 9/15/10. National Security Preparedness Group, 9/10/10]

American interests and values demand that we hold to our core values at home and abroad - and that Muslim-Americans feel safe, integrated and welcome.  The very worst reaction to the risk of homegrown terrorism 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 Muslims to terrorism risks missing the actual threat.  Homeland security expert Scott Bates recently 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."

Last week, Flynn 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 last week, "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 too happy to promote.  Marc Lynch, Senior Fellow at the Center for a 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

Hundreds of U.S. and Afghan troops pushed into insurgent-dominated areas west of Kandahar city, hoping to establish a foothold not far from the area where the Taliban movement was born.

Influential former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani criticized the government in unusually blunt terms, saying that it is not taking U.S.-led sanctions seriously enough and that Iran could become a "dictatorship."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced new guidelines that would accelerate a cost-saving drive launched earlier this summer, which aims to eliminate $100 billion in wasteful spending over the next five years.

The French parliament has voted overwhelmingly in favor of a law banning women from wearing the Muslim full-face veil in public.

The leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority held more than two hours of face-to-face peace talks, delving into several of the core issues but not breaking an impasse over Jewish settlements.

Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan has ended months of speculation and confirmed he will contest January's elections.

Japan waded into the currency market for the first time in six years, buying dollars to weaken the surging yen.

U.S. drone planes fired missiles at a compound in Pakistan's northwest region, killing a dozen insurgents, the 12th such strike this month.

According to the UN, the number of undernourished people in the world decreased this year for the first time in 15 years, but the level remains higher than before the 2008 food crisis.

Mexico's top immigration official has resigned, less than a month after the murder by suspected drug traffickers of 72 migrants in the country's north.

Commentary of the Day

The New York Times Editorial Board calls on the Senate to ratify the New START treaty, as does former GOP Senator Alan Simpson.

Harold Meyerson wonders why the U.S. hasn't stood up to China on currency manipulation and trade rule violations.

Enrique Krauze reflects on Mexico's wars - 1810, 1910, 2010 - and says that the current drug war has created a "truly Hobbesian situation of human brutality."