Saturday, August 7, 2010

Stopping Homegrown Terrorism - Pipe Dream or Pipe Bomb?

If the car bomb hadn't been a dud, there would have been many dead tourists and a crater in Times Square. But Faisal Shahzad was not good at the art of bomb making. If he had taken just a few more lessons on the Internet, things might have been different. The American citizen, originally from Pakistan, left his crude homemade bomb smoking in an SUV in Times Square in May. While counterterrorism authorities tried to claim some sort of victory for the failed bombing, even though quick response by New York city police would not have stopped a more skilled terrorist, the case highlighted how difficult it is to find terror suspects in the U.S. Authorities repeatedly pointed out that Shahzad had not come to the attention of any counterterrorism investigators prior to the Times Square attempt.

Since 2009, over thirty American citizens have been arrested on federal charges related to Islamist extremism. Fourteen people, including seven U.S. citizens, were charged this week with trying to join a Somali terrorist group allied with al-Qaeda, and were tied to two deadly bombings in Uganda. The Justice Department said in a statement that they were charged with trying to join or provide support to the group, known as al-Shabab. They were indicted in Minnesota, Alabama and California.

“Somebody's going to get through,” a counterterrorism expert told Newsweek in June. He chose to remain anonymous, but he is not alone in his fears. In New York City and throughout the country, there is an inevitable sense of impending danger among law enforcement officials. But, although Republicans accuse the Obama administration of being soft on terrorism, there has not been a major successful attack on American soil since 9/11.

Many top officials and politicians are saying that the U.S. will be attacked again, and it will be soon. “We must be honest with ourselves,” said John Brennan, the President's top counterterrorism advisor, on May 26. “No nation, no matter how powerful, can prevent every threat from coming to fruition.” He pointed out that the U.S. is more susceptible to attack because the terrorists can take advantage of our free and open society and rely on the so-called “lone wolves” and self-radicalized terrorists.

Attorney General Eric Holder is quick to dismiss this kind of speculation. After the indictments this week in Minnesota, Alabama and California, he said: “These arrests and charges should serve as an unmistakable warning to others who are considering joining or supporting terrorist groups like al-Shabab. If you choose this group, you can expect to find yourself in a United States jail cell or to be a casualty on a Somali battlefield.”

It will take more than tough words from the Attorney General to stop what many think is an inevitable attack on American soil. Although most American Muslims have no interest in extremist ideology and don't want to be stereotyped, the very act of treating them as potential enemies could make matters worse. Some impressionable Muslims decide to join terrorist organizations after reading or listening to English-speaking al-Qaeda propaganda on the Internet. And although conservatives continue to portray Obama as soft on terrorism, his administration continues to kill al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. Since Obama took office in 2009, the military and the CIA have launched over 100 drone attacks against al-Quaeda and the Taliban, more than twice as many as President Bush had ordered during his entire second term.

There is some evidence that these remote-control drone attacks risk what the intelligence community calls “blowback.” Terror suspects have repeatedly told investigators that they were at least partly motivated by the desire to seek revenge for drone strikes. Any military action in a foreign country has consequences. Because the Internet has made it possible for terrorists around the world to be recruited, Western Muslims seeking to bring jihad to America are more common than ever.

Attorney General Holder continued to speak of this week's indictment of the fourteen al-Shabab recruits. “We are seeing an increasing number of individuals – including U.S. citizens – who have become captivated by extremist ideology,” Holder said. “It's a disturbing trend that we have been investigating in recent years and will continue to investigate and root out. But we must also work to prevent this type of radicalization from ever taking hold.”

But is it possible to prevent this type of radicalization from ever taking hold? Most Americans think this is just a pipe dream. President Obama clearly has no inclination to stop killing terrorists with unmanned drones, even if it means killing a few civilians. We may have to deal with the “blowback” sooner rather than later.