The theory behind both counterterrorism tactics is that local police officers and first responders know their communities better than anyone in the nation's capitol and thus can spot and report suspicious activity that could portend terrorism, especially as the threat comes from within local communities. They aren't without their critics, however. Civil libertarians see fusion centers and suspicious activity reporting as the foundation for an ever-expanding surveillance state that will continually erode the notion of privacy. Both DHS and DOJ insist that their efforts respect civil liberties, although a string of incidents where law-abiding citizens have been monitored or painted as possible terrorists call such claims into question.
(For Security Management coverage of fusion centers and their discontents, click here.)
Napolitano's focus on ways to combat homegrown terrorism came during a hearing on the terrorist threat facing the United States nine years after 9-11. According to Napolitano and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III (.pdf) and National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter (.pdf), the terrorist threat to the United States has diversified with homegrown terrorists a growing danger while core al Qaeda and like-minded jihadist affiliates continue to plot against the nation.
At least 63 Americans have been convicted or charged with terrorism or related charges since 2009, noted Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) (.pdf). "Now to me that is an astoundingly high number of American citizens," he said.
Often times, the specter of homegrown terror mingles with the threat from overseas, Mueller said. He noted that failed homegrown terrorists Najibullah Zazi and Faisal Shahzad, who both planned to attack New York City, took directives from overseas groups—core al Qaeda in Zazi's case and Tehrik-e Taliban in Shahzad's case. And as radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki demonstrates, sometimes the call to terrorism comes from Americans living overseas. Based somewhere in Yemen, al-Awlaki has been tied to the Fort Hood massacre carried out by Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan and the botched terrorism attack of Christmas Day attempted by a young Nigerian jihadist. Counterterrorism and defense officials also allege al-Awlaki's ties to terrorism go beyond propaganda and that the cleric has taken up an operational role in planning attacks.
"Beyond the sheer number of disruptions and arrests that have come to light, homegrown extremists are increasingly more savvy, harder to detect, and able to connect with other extremists overseas," Mueller testified. They also plan and execute attacks faster, although the attacks are smaller in scale and use more diverse methods, such as small arms and IEDs, said Napolitano.
Asked by Ranking Member Susan Collins (R-ME) whether the recent spate of homegrown terrorism incidents is an aberration, Napolitano believes it is not.
"I think that caution would dictate that we assume it is not an aberration," she said.
♦ Photo by ProComKelly/Flickr