Evaluating the threat from Al Qaeda
Dan Byman, a counterterrorism specialist at Georgetown, has a counterintuitive Slate essay on why the U.S. homeland is safer than commonly thought — despite the recent terrorist advisory for certain East Coast locales: The greatest blow to al-Qaida has come from the removal of its haven in Afghanistan and the disruption of the permissive environment ...
Dan Byman, a counterterrorism specialist at Georgetown, has a counterintuitive Slate essay on why the U.S. homeland is safer than commonly thought -- despite the recent terrorist advisory for certain East Coast locales:
Dan Byman, a counterterrorism specialist at Georgetown, has a counterintuitive Slate essay on why the U.S. homeland is safer than commonly thought — despite the recent terrorist advisory for certain East Coast locales:
The greatest blow to al-Qaida has come from the removal of its haven in Afghanistan and the disruption of the permissive environment it enjoyed in numerous countries in Europe and Asia. The leaders of the organization are under intense pressure, with killings and arrests commonplace. As a result, attacks that require meticulous planning and widespread coordination are far more difficult to carry out. Al-Qaida has changed in response to these pressures. As former CIA Director George Tenet testified earlier this year, “Successive blows to al-Qaida’s central leadership have transformed the organization into a loose collection of regional networks that operate more autonomously.” Before Sept. 11, al-Qaida worked closely with various local jihadist movements, drawing on their personnel and logistics centers for its own efforts and working to knit the disparate movements together. Since 9/11, local group leaders have played a far more important role, taking the initiative in choosing targets and conducting operations, looking to al-Qaida more for inspiration than for direction. This shift from a centralized structure to a more localized one has made the U.S. homeland safer. The United States, in contrast to many nations in Europe and Asia, does not have a strong, well-organized, radical Islamist presence on its shores. Although there are certainly jihadist sympathizers who might conduct attacks on their own or be used by foreign jihadists as local facilitators, the vast sea of disaffected young Muslim men that is present in Europe and elsewhere has no U.S. parallel. Similarly, the logistics network of forgers, scouts, recruiters, money men, and others is far less developed. Safer does not mean safe, and the risk of less sophisticated attacks remains particularly high. Attacks on U.S. allies where jihadist networks are better organized and more resilient are a grave concern, and Americans traveling abroad are particularly vulnerable. Nor is the homeland necessarily secure, as al-Qaida has adjusted to U.S. vigilance. FBI Director Robert Mueller has warned that the organization is seeking recruits who will easily blend in to the United States. Tenet also darkly noted that for groups sympathetic to al-Qaida’s ideology, attacks on the U.S. homeland remain the “brass ring.”
There’s another reason to believe that an Al Qaeda attack might stoppable. Although the U.S. might still not be prepared to protect critical infrastructure, this Washington Post story suggests that Al Qaeda isn’t targeting it either. For all the talk about Al Qaeda’s flexibility, they appear to be relatively orthodox in targeting symbols. The key paragraph:
The information that emerged appears to confirm that al Qaeda continues to plan operations and conduct surveillance against targets inside the United States. It buttresses the warnings of law enforcement and intelligence officials that al Qaeda has operatives in the United States and that U.S. financial institutions — particularly ones in New York and Washington — remain favorite targets of the terror network.
More on this point from Knut Royce of Newsday. None of this means that the Al Qaeda threat has been eliminated — but it’s still worth noting. UPDATE: Douglas Jehl and David Johnston report in the New York Times that, “Much of the information that led the authorities to raise the terror alert at several large financial institutions in the New York City and Washington areas was three or four years old.” However, both the Times account and this Chicago Tribune story make it clear that while most of the information was old, it was only in the past few weeks that it was obtained by U.S. intelligence. The Tribune report also states, “The senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that while much of the surveillance predated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some information about one of the targeted buildings was from 2004.” Tom Maguire (who’s been on a roll as of late) has some relevant thoughts.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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