Lone wolves, homegrown extremists, and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula threaten homeland security, according to homeland security and counterterrorism officials.
The United States continues to face persistent terrorist threats from within and outside its borders, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told members of the House Homeland Security Committee Wednesday morning.
“Today’s threats are not limited to any one individual, group or ideology and are not defined or contained by international borders,” she testified. “Terrorist tactics can be as simple as a homemade bomb and as sophisticated as a biological threat or a coordinated cyber attack.”
Aviation security, cybersecurity, and countering violent extremism (CVE), according to Napolitano, were the three most pressing issues facing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) going forward.
Also testifying before the committee was Matthew Olson, director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). During his testimony, Olson listed the major international terrorist threats facing the United States.
Chief among them was al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Since 2009, AQAP has attempted to attack U.S. territory three times, making it “the affiliate most likely to attempt and carry out transnational attacks, including against the United States,” said Olson.
Despite the killing of AQAP propagandists Anwar al Awlaki and Samir Khan, both American citizens who called for attacks against the United States, Olson said their propaganda survives online and could inspire, along with the examples of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan and Mohammed Merah, lone wolves or small groups of homegrown terrorists to attack the U.S.
Olson also drew attention to al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which conducted a string of attacks on Monday that killed more than 100 people and wounded approximately 300. Over the weekend, AQI chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released an audio recording threatening attacks against U.S. territory.
"Soon you will witness them in the heart of your homeland, as our war with you has just begun, and so await them," al-Baghdadi said .
According to the NCTC director, other potential terrorist threats facing the U.S. include Somalia’s al Shabaab, Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and various South Asian groups, including Lashkar-e Tayyiba and Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, which claimed responsibility for May 2010’s failed Times Square bombing attempt.
Olson testified that core al Qaeda has been degraded and is currently at its weakest point in a decade. Consisting of a short bench, core al Qaeda has pivoted from advocating spectacular attacks like 9-11 to calling for lone wolf attacks like Fort Hood.
Both Napolitano and Olson reminded lawmakers that the suicide bombing in Bulgaria and the massacre in Aurora, Colorado, last week demonstrate that incidents of mass violence require continued vigilance and preparation. (Olson noted that the suspected shooter in the Aurora theater shooting, James Holmes, has no known connections to international terrorism. Other experts believe it’s too early to tell whether Holmes qualifies as a domestic terrorist.)
The threat of lone wolves like Holmes and Hasan continues to vex homeland security and intelligence officials. Because lone wolves lash out violently without support from terrorist organizations, Olson said, they generally do not leave suspicious travel or communication patterns that blip on the intelligence community’s radar, although Napolitano noted they could set off tripwires when making suspicious firearms or explosive materials purchases.
In an effort combat lone wolf or homegrown terrorism, the DHS is currently developing and testing a CVE curriculum that will train local, state, and federal law enforcement officers to identify the behaviors reasonably associated with terrorist activity.
In her prepared remarks submitted for the record , Napolitano wrote that the training distinguishes “between those behaviors that are potentially related to crime and those that are constitutionally protected or part of a religious or cultural practice.”
According to Napolitano, well-trained officers using community policing models are the best way to detect violent lone wolf and homegrown extremist plots.
♦ Photo by U.S. Army/Flickr