Nine years after the September 11 attacks, the United States faces a growing threat from home-grown insurgents and an “Americanisation” of al-Qaeda leadership, according to a report released on Friday.
Former heads of the 9/11 Commission that studied the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington presented the 43-page study, describing it as a wake-up call about the radicalization of Muslims in the United States and the changing strategy of al-Qaeda and its allies.
“The threat that the US is facing is different than it was nine years ago,” said the report, released by the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Centre.
“The US is arguably now little different from Europe in terms of having a domestic terrorist problem involving immigrant and indigenous Muslims as well as converts to Islam.”
The report comes at a sensitive time for the United States.
President Barack Obama made a plea for religious tolerance on Friday as passions simmered over a Florida Christian preacher’s threat to burn copies of the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book, and plans to build an Islamic cultural centre and mosque near the Ground Zero site in New York City.
US officials warn such cases could lead to a recruiting bonanza for al-Qaeda.
The report said al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen had minimally established an “embryonic” recruitment infrastructure in the United States.
It pointed to convictions last year of at least 43 American citizens or residents aligned with militant ideology, and high-profile cases of recruits who went abroad for training.
“In the past year alone the United States has seen affluent suburban Americans and the progeny of hard-working immigrants gravitate to terrorism,” the report said. “There seems no longer any clear profile of a terrorist.”
Americans were also increasingly forming part of the leadership of al-Qaeda and its allies. It cited the cases of:
- US-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is now one of the top figures in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He is linked to the failed attempt to blow up a passenger plane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 as well as a deadly shooting spree at Fort Hood military base in Texas a month earlier.
- Adnan al-Shukrijumah, a Saudi-born operative who grew up in Brooklyn and Florida, who is considered to be a senior leader of al-Qaeda’s external operations.
- Chicagoan David Headley, who played a role in scoping out targets for the 2008 Mumbai attacks on behalf of Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba.
“There is little precedent for the high-level operational roles that Americans are currently playing in al-Qaeda and affiliated groups,” the report said.
Smaller scale attacks
Much of the report highlights fears that US intelligence officials have been flagging for years, including the rising prominence of al-Awlaki and other American recruits.
The Obama administration has authorised operations to kill or capture Awlaki and a secret CIA memo, leaked to the media last month, spoke extensively about how US citizens were of great value to terrorist groups.
American intelligence officials also have agreed with another key point in the report that sees an increased risk of small-scale attacks on hard-to-protect US targets.
In the wake of the September 11 attacks, which killed nearly 3 000 people, the report said the intelligence community had wrongly believed that al Qaeda was intent on “matching or besting the loss of life and destruction” it had caused.
It is now clear that militants see operational value in conducting more frequent and less sophisticated attacks, which are harder to detect and require less high level coordination.
“American officials and the wider public should realise that, by the law of averages, al-Qaeda or an affiliate will succeed in getting some kind of attack through in the next years,” said the report.
Even the Pakistani-born American Faisal Shahzad’s failed attempt to set off a car bomb in Times Square in May was extremely effective from a propaganda standpoint, given the enormous amount of media coverage it received.
“The best response [to an attack] would be to demonstrate that we as a society are resilient and are not being intimidated by such actions,” the report said. – Reuters