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Since 9/11, evolving terrorist threat challenges homeland security

My article recently appeared in the Daily Caller: www.dailycaller.com

Since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has employed both conventional and unorthodox means to counter the threat of additional assaults on the American homeland. While these strategies have been largely successful in thwarting further attacks of the magnitude or scope of 9/11, the dangers of a strike nonetheless remain. As the threat from Islamist fundamentalist groups has evolved from one being predominately outward to one increasingly spawn within our own borders, so too has the nature of protecting the homeland from such threats.

When the United States ousted the Taliban regime from Afghanistan, it removed the safe haven from which al-Qaeda could operate with impunity. U.S. military efforts disrupted al-Qaeda’s ability to operationalize a sophisticated attack against the United States; however, the fragmenting of al-Qaeda has also engendered the formation of similarly motivated groups throughout the region. Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda on the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and al-Shabaab are all organizations whose avowed motives are both dangerous to Western interests and inspired by al-Qaeda’s twisted interpretation of Islam.

As the threat from Islamic fundamentalism has become more decentralized, it has increasingly found its newest foot soldiers to be located within Western society itself. Al-Qaeda may have realized tremendous hierarchical losses in the U.S.-led War on Terror, but it has been successful in fomenting anger, antipathy, and indoctrination among the disaffected youth of the Muslim enclaves found within the United States and Europe.

Recent arrests in the United States underscore the burgeoning threat of domestic radicalization. In September 2009, Najibullah Zazi was arrested while plotting to blow up portions of the New York City subway system. More recently, Zachary Chesser, a Virginian infamous for his threats to the creators of South Park, was arrested while attempting to travel to Africa to join al-Shabaab in jihad as a “foreign fighter.” His arrest accompanied the incarceration of fourteen individuals who are accused of providing material support to al-Shabaab.

The most striking commonality among the aforementioned incidents is the fact that their respective modes of indoctrination and radicalization germinated within the United States. Only following indoctrination did attempts to travel abroad and further their operational pursuits become realized. Zazi, for example, lived in New York and only sought to travel to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban in 2008, one year before his arrest. While the seeds of radicalization may have been sown long before their respective arrests, their manifest extremism was most fully formed when they were living within the protective dominions of Western society and culture.

The reality of the evolving threat of Islamic fundamentalism requires a clarity of perception within the broader intelligence community. The process of domestic radicalization is manifold, and it is incumbent upon those tasked with protecting the homeland to both understand the various stages of radicalization and simultaneously employ the most effective countermeasures against its realization.

Federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies need to continue the process of information sharing to ensure that locally-derived information is efficiently transformed into actionable intelligence by the agencies most capable of doing so. Further, information sharing needs to be articulated in directions both vertical and horizontal. Finally, law enforcement personnel most likely to encounter the next wave of domestic terrorists need to feel sufficiently empowered to interdict in such endeavors prior to their actualization. This can be achieved through the greater dissemination of intelligence and the application of more incident-specific training.

While these strategies only represent a few elements of the larger counterterrorism model, they are nonetheless emblematic of the evolving threat of terrorism itself. Where once it was felt that all counterterrorism measures should emanate from the top down, i.e., directed from the Federal level, the onset of domestic radicalization portends a reality whereby local intelligence and an understanding of cultural idiosyncrasies at the community level require a knowledge and expertise often best found within state and local agencies.

The fact that nine years have passed without a major attack against the American homeland attests to the effectiveness of our nation’s counterterrorism measures. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that such results can be expected to continue without a conscious evolution of tactics commensurate with the evolving threat of terrorism itself.

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