Last night, I blogged about a City of Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications statement regarding an ongoing “routine military training exercise” that’s taking place in Chicago. The discussion reminded me of a meeting several years back with a big-wig over at the City of Chicago OEMC about possible employment there. I recall this individual originally came over from the nonprofit global policy think tank RAND Corporation. And speaking of the organization, Seth G. Jones of RAND just presented “Re-Examining the Al Qa’ida Threat to the United States” before the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade on July 18, 2013. It was interesting to read what RAND had to say about Al-Qaeda and the threat they pose to America and its interests abroad. Jones said:
In reviewing al Qa’ida’s evolution since 1988, I will make three arguments in this testimony. First, al Qa’ida has been resilient. There has been a net expansion in the number and geographic scope of al Qa’ida affiliates and allies over the past decade, indicating that al Qa’ida and its brand are far from defeated. This growth is likely caused by several factors. One is the Arab uprisings, which have weakened regimes across North Africa and the Middle East, creating an opportunity for al Qa’ida affiliates and allies to secure a foothold. In addition, the growing sectarian struggle across the Middle East between Sunni and Shi’a actors has increased the resources available to Sunni militant groups, including al Qa’ida. Second, this expansion – along with the weakness of central al Qa’ida in Pakistan – has created a more diffuse and decentralized movement. Al Qa’ida’s local affiliates largely run their operations autonomously, though they still communicate with the core leadership in Pakistan and may seek strategic advice. Third, within this disparate movement, most al Qa’ida affiliates and allies are not actively plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland. In the near term, Al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) likely presents the most immediate threat to the U.S. homeland, along with inspired networks like the Tsarnaev brothers that perpetrated the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. Other groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusrah in Syria, do not appear to pose a near-term threat to the U.S. homeland. But Jabhat al-Nusrah’s growing recruitment and funding networks in Europe should be a cause of concern for U.S. policymakers.
Jones, from the RAND Office of External Affairs, emphasized the think-tank’s belief that most in Al-Qaeda are not gunning for the United States. He added:
Al Qa’ida leaders have also attempted to target the United States and its allies as the “far enemy,” or al-Adou al-Baeed, who support them. But attacking far enemy countries is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Contrary to some arguments, most al Qa’ida leaders are not interested in establishing a global caliphate and do not seek to overthrow regimes in much of the world…
Not all al Qa’ida affiliates and allies present a direct threat to the U.S. homeland. In the near term, Al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula likely presents the most immediate threat, along with inspired networks like the Tsarnaev brothers that perpetrated the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. The growth in social media and the terrorist use of chat rooms, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other sites has facilitated radicalization inside the United States. While al Qa’ida leaders did not organize the Boston attacks, they played a key role by making available the propaganda material and bomb-making instructions utilized by the Tsarnaevs.
(Editor’s note: Italics added for emphasis)
It’s an interesting assessment by the RAND Corporation, which you can read in its entirety on their website here.
By Christopher E. Hill, Editor
Survival And Prosperity (www.survivalandprosperity.com)
The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism just released its annual report on terrorism. In the 279-page Country Reports on Terrorism 2011, there are a number of findings that may be of surprise to many Americans (but probably not to regular readers of Survival And Prosperity). From “Chapter 1, Strategic Assessment,” by the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism:
The loss of bin Ladin and these other key operatives puts the network on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse. These successes are attributable, in large part, to global counterterrorism cooperation, which has put considerable pressure on the al-Qa’ida core leadership in Pakistan. But despite blows in western Pakistan, al-Qa’ida, its affiliates, and its adherents remain adaptable. They have shown resilience; retain the capability to conduct regional and transnational attacks; and, thus, constitute an enduring and serious threat to our national security.
As al-Qa’ida’s core has gotten weaker, we have seen the rise of affiliated groups around the world.
(Editor’s note: Italics added for emphasis)
While the core of Al-Qaeda has taken a beating, Al-Qaeda affiliates, such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), appear to be growing stronger.
Another finding of the report may help explain why this is happening. Also from chapter 1:
Despite the counterterrorism successes in disrupting and degrading the capabilities of al-Qa’ida and its affiliates, al-Qa’ida and violent extremist ideology and rhetoric continued to spread in some parts of the word.
(Editor’s note: Italics added for emphasis)
The State Department still considers Al-Qaeda and its affiliates significant threats to the United States. The Bureau of Counterterrorism pointed out:
Although there were no terrorist attacks in the United States in 2011, we remain concerned about threats to the homeland. In the last several years, individuals who appear to have been trained by al-Qa’ida and its affiliates have operated within U.S. borders. Najibullah Zazi, a U.S. lawful permanent resident, obtained training in Pakistan and, in 2010, pled guilty to charges that he was planning to set off several bombs in the United States. And on October 14, 2011, Nigerian national Umar Abdulmutallab pled guilty to all charges against him in U.S. federal court in Michigan regarding his unsuccessful attempt on December 25, 2009, to detonate an explosive aboard a flight bound for Detroit, Michigan at the behest of AQAP. While these individuals had direct ties to international terrorist groups, separate incidents involving so-called “lone wolf” terrorists also pose a threat to the U.S. homeland – one that can be difficult to detect in advance.
(Editor’s note: Italics added for emphasis)
Even though there were no terrorist attacks on American soil last year, a number of U.S. citizens fell victim to acts of terrorism around the world. According to the report, 17 citizens worldwide were killed, 14 citizens worldwide were injured, and 3 citizens worldwide were kidnapped as a result of incidents of terrorism.
(Editor’s note: Info added to “Resources” page)
Has an Al-Qaeda-trained terrorist of Norwegian descent finally received his marching orders? From the Daily Mail (UK) website yesterday:
A terrorist plot to blow up a U.S. passenger jet timed to coincide with the Olympics has been uncovered by security agencies, according to intelligence sources.
Al Qaeda intended to use a radicalised Norwegian Islamic convert to attack U.S. planes in the build-up to the London Games – which start in 26 days on July 27 – it is understood.
The plan centred on using the so-called ‘clean skin’ – a terrorist with no previous criminal record and are unlikely to raise suspicions among the security services – in order to evade airport security…
It is believed the suspect tasked with the attack uses the Islamic name Muslim Abu Abdurrahman, had converted to Islam in 2008, and was recruited in a terrorist training camp in Yemen, sources told the Sunday Times.
According to the Daily Mail piece, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP), based in Yemen, is thought to be behind this plot. As far as I know, there’s no comment yet from U.S. officials regarding the plan. However, CBS News picked up the story this morning, and from their website:
CBS News senior correspondent John Miller, a former Deputy Director of National Intelligence, said that despite foiled bomb plots targeting airliners, al Qaeda has not lost its fascination with commercial aviation – and that AQAP (al Qaeda’s branch based in Yemen) has been specifically assigned to find a way to blow up a U.S. plane.
“They were the architects of the first underwear bomb, they were the architects of the ingenious printer bomb which was interdicted before it could go off,” Miller said. “And I think what we’re seeing once again is they’ve tried to put a bomb on a person and get them on a plane. Whether it has anything to do with the Olympics or the Fourth of July – one of the chosen target holidays by bin Laden – is something we don’t yet know.
“Norwegian At Center Of New Al Qaeda Plot Fears”
CBS News Video
“Al Qaeda ‘plot to blow up passenger jet’ in run up to Olympics uncovered by security forces.” Daily Mail. 1 July 2012. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2167166/Al-Qaeda-plot-blow-passenger-jet-run-Olympics-discovered-security-forces.html). 2 July 2012.
“Norwegian at center of new al Qaeda plot fears.” CBS News. 2 July 2012. (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505263_162-57464755/norwegian-at-center-of-new-al-qaeda-plot-fears/). 2 July 2012.
On May 1, 2011, Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs taking part in Operation Neptune Spear in Pakistan. With the one-year anniversary of his death fast approaching, intelligence agencies are concerned about a possible retaliatory strike(s) by Muslim extremists. Mike Levine wrote on the FOX News website this morning:
Just days before the one-year anniversary of Usama bin Laden’s death, federal authorities are telling partners around the country there is no specific, credible threat to the U.S. homeland but they remain concerned “lone wolf” terrorists could use the date to avenge the former Al Qaeda leader’s death.
In an intelligence bulletin issued late Wednesday, the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Northern Command note that terrorist groups such as Al-Shabaab in Somalia, Northern Africa’s Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Pakistani Taliban have called for revenge against the United States for killing bin Laden during the May 1, 2011, raid on his hideout in Pakistan.
The bulletin says Al Qaeda or its affiliates would view an attack “on this anniversary as a symbolic victory,” especially in the wake of losses suffered by Al Qaeda through U.S. drone attacks and other efforts overseas.
In addition, according to the bulletin, authorities remain concerned that so-called “lone-wolf” extremists not already identified “will execute attacks with little or no warning on or about the anniversary of bin Laden’s death.”
(Editor’s note: Italics added for emphasis)
Levine added that the intelligence bulletin cited Al-Qaeda’s emphasis on symbolic dates to launch terror attacks, and that Muslim extremists might be particularly motivated to carry out a strike in retaliation for recent controversies including Koran burnings and the desecration of corpses in Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, Steven Chase wrote about the concern over “lone wolf” terrorists on The Globe and Mail (Canada) website. From the article:
Richard Fadden, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, also acknowledged Monday that al-Qaeda’s switch to a sole-actor approach to inflicting damage is presenting a problem for Western anti-terrorist agencies…
Mr. Fadden predicted al-Qaeda’s recent embrace of smaller, leaderless acts of terror is a sign of things to come.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has as recently as last fall published an online magazine called Inspire that called for “open source jihad” and instructed readers to how to carry out their own attacks, he noted. “How to make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom” was the title of article in the Summer, 2010, issue.
“My colleagues in Britain, Australia and the United States are of the same opinion: We are seeing an increase in the number of people who are acting on their own,” he said.
“When there are a certain number of people involved, there is a possibility of intercepting communications; the chances of errors are far greater. But when there’s one person who’s not talking to anybody, [counterterrorism agencies] have to be really lucky.”
(Editor’s note: Italics added for emphasis)
In addition, Fadden pointed out that the “lone wolf” approach not only attracts the ideologically-driven, but those with “serious personal problems” as well- making them more unpredictable.
It might not be a bad idea ratcheting up one’s vigilance in the coming days.
Levine, Mike. “Feds urge vigilance 1 year after bin Laden’s death.” FOX News. 26 Apr. 2012. (http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2012/04/25/feds-urge-vigilance-1-year-after-bin-laden-death/). 26 Apr. 2012.
Chase, Steven. “Al-Qaeda switching tactics, CSIS warns.” The Globe and Mail. 23 Apr. 2012. (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/al-qaeda-switching-tactics-csis-warns/article2411810/?utm_medium=Feeds%3A%20RSS%2FAtom&utm_source=Politics&utm_content=2411810). 26 Apr. 2012.
Back on September 1, while concerns about Al-Qaeda carrying out an attack on the United States to coincide with the tenth anniversary of 9/11 grew, Scott Stewart of STRATFOR (Strategic Forecasting, Inc., a global intelligence company which Barron’s once called the “Shadow CIA”) argued the terrorist organization is incapable of carrying out another strike on the same level of September 11, 2001. I thought Stewart’s Security Weekly piece was thought-provoking. Reprinted with STRATFOR’s permission…
Why al Qaeda Is Unlikely To Execute Another 9/11
By Scott Stewart
It is Sept. 1, and that means we are once again approaching the anniversary of al Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against the United States. In the 10 years that have passed since the attacks, a lot has happened and much has changed in the world, but many people can still vividly recall the sense of fear, uncertainty and helplessness they felt on that September morning. Millions of people watched United Airlines flight 175 smash into the south tower of the World Trade Center on live television. A short while later they heard that another plane had struck the Pentagon. Then they watched in horror as the World Trade Center’s twin towers buckled and collapsed to the ground.
It was, by any measure, a stunning, cataclysmic scene, a kind of terrorist theater that transformed millions of television viewers into vicarious victims. Excerpts of the just-released memoir of then-Vice President Dick Cheney demonstrate that it was not just ordinary people who were affected by the attacks; America’s leaders where shocked and shaken, too. And judging from the statements of foreign citizens and leaders in the wake of 9/11, those who proclaimed, “We are all Americans,” it was also apparent that the toll on vicarious victims did not stop at the U.S. border.
One result of this vicarious victimization and the fear and helplessness it produced was that many people became fixated on the next attack and began anxiously “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” This spawned an entire industry of fear as dire warnings were propagated by the Internet of the impending “American Hiroshima” that was certain to result when al Qaeda detonated all the nuclear devices it had hidden in major U.S. cities. Chain emails were widely circulated and recirculated quoting a dubious Israeli “security expert” who promised simultaneous catastrophic terrorist attacks against a number of American cities — attacks that never materialized outside of Hollywood productions.
Fast-forward a decade and we are now commemorating 9/11’s 10th anniversary, which seems more significant somehow because it is a round number. Perhaps of more meaningful significance is that this anniversary closely follows the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on May 2. Indeed, the buzz regarding this coincidence has caused many of our clients and readers to ask for our assessment of the terrorist threat inside the United States on this 10th anniversary of 9/11.
While we believe that today holds some degree of symbolism for many, the threat of an attack on Sept. 11, 2011, is no higher than it was on Aug. 11 or than it will be on Sept. 12, and below we explain why.
The State of al Qaeda and the Jihad
All threats have two basic components: intent and capability. Al Qaeda’s leaders have threatened to conduct an attack more terrible than 9/11 for nearly a decade now, and the threats continue. Here’s what Ayman al-Zawahiri, now al Qaeda’s No. 1, said to his followers on Aug. 15, 2011, in a message released on the Internet via as-Sahab media:
“Seek to attack America that has killed the Imam of the Mujahideen and threw his corpse in the sea and then imprisoned his women and children. Seek to attack her so history can say that a criminal state had spread corruption on earth and Allah sent her his servants who made her a lesson for others and left her as a memory.”
The stated intent of al Qaeda and the rest of the jihadist movement is and has been to strike the United States as hard and as often as possible. It logically follows, then, that al Qaeda would strike the United States on Sept. 11 — or any other day — if possible. With intent thus established, now we need to focus on capability.
One of the primary considerations regarding al Qaeda’s capability to strike the United States is the state of the jihadist movement itself. The efforts of the U.S. government and its allies against the core al Qaeda group, which is based in Pakistan, have left it badly damaged and have greatly curtailed its operational ability, especially its ability to conduct transnational attacks. In January we forecast that we believed the al Qaeda core was going to be marginalized on the physical battlefield in 2011 and that it would also struggle to remain relevant on the ideological battlefield. Indeed, it has been our assessment for several years now that al Qaeda does not pose a strategic threat to the United States.
Since we published our 2011 forecast, bin Laden has been killed as well as senior al Qaeda leader Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who reportedly died in a strike by a U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle Aug. 22 in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region. We continue to believe that the al Qaeda core group is off balance and concerned for its security — especially in light of the intelligence gathered in the raid on bin Laden’s hideout. The core group simply does not enjoy the operational freedom it did prior to September 2001. We also believe the group no longer has the same operational capability in terms of international travel and the ability to transfer money that it had prior to 9/11.
Some people believe there is a greater chance of an attack on this year’s 9/11 anniversary because of the killing of bin Laden, while others note that al-Zawahiri may feel pressure to conduct an attack in order to prove his credibility as al Qaeda’s new leader.
Our belief, as noted above, is that al Qaeda has been doing its utmost to attack the United States and has not pulled any punches. Because of this, we do not believe it possesses the ability to increase this effort beyond where it was prior to bin Laden’s death. As to the pressure on al-Zawahiri, we noted in December 2007 that the al Qaeda core had been under considerable pressure to prove itself relevant for several years and that, despite this pressure, had yet to deliver. Because of this, we do not believe that the pressure to conduct a successful attack is any heavier on al-Zawahiri today than it was prior to bin Laden’s death.
Finally, we believe that if al Qaeda possessed the capability to conduct a spectacular attack it would launch the attack as soon as it was operationally ready, rather than wait for some specific date. The risk of discovery is simply too great.
There are also some who still believe that al Qaeda maintains a network of “sleeper operatives” inside the United States that can be called upon to conduct a spectacular terrorist attack. We do not believe this for two reasons. First, because the pressure on the core al Qaeda leadership to conduct an attack in the United States has been so high for several years there is no reason that it would not have activated any sleepers by now. It would certainly not be in the group’s best interest to keep any such operatives idle for a decade, especially since U.S. intelligence has made such headway in rolling up the organization. Al Qaeda has been faced with a use-it-or-lose-it scenario.
Second, while there is a long history of al Qaeda and other jihadist groups employing covert operatives and inspiring jihadist grassroots operatives or lone wolves like Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, there is no history of al Qaeda employing true sleeper operatives, that is, operatives who burrow undetected into a society and then remain dormant until called upon to act. Because of this, we remain extremely skeptical that al Qaeda has ever had a sleeper network in the United States. If it had, it would have used it by now.
Would the al Qaeda core leadership like to conduct a spectacular terrorist attack on the 9/11 anniversary? Absolutely. Does it have the capability? That is unlikely.
A Grassroots Focus
As we noted in our annual jihadist forecast, we believe the greatest threat to the United States and the rest of the West in 2011 emanates from grassroots jihadists and regional franchises. However, the civil war in Yemen and developments in Somalia have preoccupied the attention of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Shabaab — the two regional jihadist franchises that have shown the intent and capability to conduct transnational attacks — leaving them very little opportunity to do so. Therefore, we believe the greatest threat of an attack on the 9/11 anniversary will come from the grass roots.
The bad news is that grassroots operatives can be hard to identify, especially if they operate alone; the good news is that they tend to be far less capable than well-trained, more “professional” terrorist operatives. And this means they are more likely to make critical mistakes that will allow their attacks to be detected and thwarted.
As the past few years have demonstrated, there are almost certainly grassroots jihadists operating in small cells or as lone wolves who are presently planning attacks. In fact, we know that since at least 1990 there has not been a time when some group of grassroots jihadists somewhere in the United States has not been planning some kind of attack.
Is it possible, then, that such individuals could be inspired to try to conduct an attack on the 9/11 anniversary if they can coordinate their attack cycle in order to be ready on that date. However, given the increased law enforcement vigilance that will be in place at hard targets on that day and the capabilities of most grassroots operatives, we can anticipate that such an attempt would be conducted against a soft target rather than some more difficult target such as the 9/11 Memorial or the White House. We also believe that any such attack would likely continue the trend we have seen away from bombing attacks toward more simple (and effective) armed assaults.
It must be remembered that simple terrorist attacks are relatively easy to conduct, especially if the assailant is not concerned about escaping after the attack. As jihadist groups such as AQAP have noted in their online propaganda, a determined person can conduct attacks using a variety of simple weapons, from a pickup truck to a knife, axe or gun. Jihadist ideologues have repeatedly praised Nidal Hassan and have pointed out that jihadists operating with modest expectations and acting within the scope of their training and capability can do far more damage than operatives who try to conduct big, ambitious attacks that they lack the basic skills to complete.
And while the authorities in the United States and elsewhere have been quite successful in foiling attacks over the past couple of years, there are a large number of vulnerable targets in the open societies of the West, and Western governments simply do not have the resources to protect everything. Indeed, as long as the ideology of jihadism survives, its adherents will pose a threat.
All this means that some terrorist attacks will invariably succeed, but in the current context, it is our assessment that a simple attack in the United States or some other Western country is far more likely than a complex and spectacular 9/11-style operation. In their primary areas of operation, jihadists have the capability to do more than they do transnationally.
Indeed, despite the concept of a “war on terrorism,” the phenomenon of terrorism can never be completely eliminated, and terrorist attacks can and will be conducted by a wide variety of actors (recently illustrated by the July 22 attacks in Norway). However, as we’ve previously noted, if the public will recognize that terrorist attacks are part of the human condition like cancer or hurricanes, it can take steps to deny the practitioners of terrorism the ability to terrorize.
Why al Qaeda Is Unlikely To Execute Another 9/11 is republished with permission of STRATFOR.
Christopher E. Hill, Editor
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