Conventional wisdom holds that the threat to America posed by al Qaeda and its affiliates is greatly diminished compared to 9/11. Today, it is claimed, al Qaeda is less well organized, with many of its top leaders eliminated, and is so broken into geographically disparate franchises that it is unable to recruit, train, and deploy a specialized cell to carry out a comparable catastrophic attack against America. The fact that no al Qaeda terrorist attacks have been carried out in America over the last two years, while some 20 individuals have plotted to carry out attacks but were arrested and convicted during the pre-incident phases, is seen as evidence that this terrorist threat is decreasing domestically.
Therefore, according to this thesis, security authorities should prepare for more numerous and frequently occurring but low casualty attacks mounted by less well-trained and capable homegrown operatives, particularly by what are termed “lone wolves.” When a more complete compilation of all the components involved in terrorism are taken into account, however, the magnitude of the threat becomes much clearer and includes a higher likelihood of attempts to carry out catastrophic attacks as well as evidence that al Qaeda continues to recruit and prepare terrorist operatives in the United States.
Downplaying the terrorist threat posed by al Qaeda and its affiliates also has significant political implications due in part to the more than $70 billion that is spent annually on America’s domestic counterterrorism programs (with larger amounts expended for overseas operations), all of which need to be continuously justified as cost effective by Administration planners and Congressional appropriators. Such purported decline in al Qaeda attacks domestically, however, is now being seized upon by those who favor reduced government funding for counterterrorism programs, including weakening the USA PATRIOT Act, to support their position that a reduced threat requires reduced funding and resources.
When the trajectory of attacks by al Qaeda and its associates over the years are carefully studied, however, certain patterns recur. Specifically, every time the threat is underplayed, it is invariably followed by a major attack. In the months leading up to the November 2012 elections, the media was filled with pronouncements that al Qaeda’s threat had greatly diminished as a result of the elimination of its leadership and the reduced operational role over attacks by what is termed “al Qaeda Central” in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
While accurate on one level, this did not stop al Qaeda and its affiliates from continuing to launch major terrorist attacks, including that by its Libyan affiliate against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, which led to severe political repercussions for the Administration for its unpreparedness to anticipate such an attack. This was followed by the launching of the devastating cross-border attack against the natural gas facility in eastern Algeria in mid-January by another al Qaeda affiliate in Mali. Thirty-six foreign workers were murdered in that attack, which, again, was unanticipated.
Moreover, the fact that a catastrophic attack against America comparable to 9/11 has not occurred over the past 11 years should not suggest that a future one is not being planned. In summer 2006, al Qaeda-linked operatives in London plotted to detonate liquid explosives on board 10 transatlantic airliners flying from the UK to America and Canada.
In September 2009, Najibullah Zazi and his associates were arrested for plotting to conduct a suicide bombing attack against the New York City subway system. On Christmas Day, 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to detonate plastic explosives while on board an airliner heading to Detroit. Anwar al Awlaki, a former American extremist cleric, reportedly masterminded Abdulmutallab’s operation. Awlaki was killed in a drone attack in Yemen on September 30, 2011.
The killings of al Awlaki and Samir Khan, another American extremist who had made his way to Yemen in 2009, could well trigger a catastrophic attack by al Qaeda to avenge their deaths. The recent capture of Osama Bin Laden’s son-in-law, Sulaiman abu Ghaith, and the decision to try him in New York City, is also likely to trigger a major revenge attack against America.
Finally, organizing catastrophic terrorist attacks requires extensive planning, funding and preparation. A terrorist group that feels itself strong will take its time to carefully plan a few but devastating attacks, while a group that regards itself as weak may feel compelled to carry out frequent, but low-casualty attacks to demonstrate its continued relevancy.
Some incident databases, such as a recent compilation of data about American al Qaeda terrorists by the UK-based Henry Jackson Society, only account for completed attacks and convictions of those arrested. If such counting is expanded to include other factors, however, then the overall threat becomes much more severe.
Other factors, therefore, should include the potential consequences of the thwarted attacks had they not been prevented, the number of radicalized Americans who travel overseas to join al Qaeda-affiliated insurgencies, and the extent of radicalized activity by al Qaeda’s American sympathizers in jihadi website forums and chatrooms.
A more complete accounting of the threat will now reveal that the supportive extremist infrastructure for al Qaeda in America is actually not diminishing and that the purported “lone wolf” actors have actual ties to al Qaeda operatives overseas.
We should not, therefore, also be misled into complacency if catastrophic attacks by al Qaeda do not occur for lengthy periods. Nor so by the comforting but false sense of security that comes with believing that “lone wolf” attacks in the United States are not a product of al Qaeda recruitment and support. It is also possible, nevertheless, that al Qaeda’s terrorist planners are considering both types of attacks, infrequent catastrophic and frequent low casualty.
This may explain why al Qaeda’s propaganda organs are calling on its radicalized followers in the West to take matters into their own hands and embark on any sort of attacks that may be feasible at the moment, but with further surprise attacks of a catastrophic nature still ahead.
Joshua Sinai, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a Washington, DC-based consultant on national security studies, focusing primarily on terrorism, counterterrorism, and homeland security. For more information on the JINSA Fellowship program, click here.