A new terrorism threat assessment released Monday by the Bipartisan Policy Center warns that individuals who have self-radicalized over the Internet pose the most imminent threat to US homeland security, even as Al Qaeda has managed to spread its jihadist ideology across a larger geographical area than ever before.
The report, Jihadist Terrorism: A Threat Assessment, provides a comprehensive review of Al Qaeda and its affiliates and provides legislative and executive recommendations on how best to improve the US counterterrorism and homeland security strategy. The report was authored by several members of BPC’s Homeland Security Project, which is led by former 9/11 Commission Co-chairs Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton.
"Today the United States faces a different terrorist threat than it did on 9/11 or even three years," the report concluded. "Many counterterrorism officials believe the chances of a large-scale, catastrophic terrorist attack by Al Qaeda or an Al Qaeda-affiliated or -inspired organization occurring in the United States are small," the report states. But while the core of Al Qaeda may be in decline, “Al Qaeda-ism, the movement’s ideology, continues to resonate and attract new adherents."
A total of 221 individuals have been indicted or convicted of homegrown terrorism since 9/11, according to Peter Bergen, one of the authors of the report and the director of the National Security Program at the New America Foundation.
"The good news is the number of jihadist cases has been falling. We’re seeing very few or no groups involved in domestic plots and attacks," said Bergen, speaking at a press event held at BPC headquarters in Washington, DC. "Now we’re seeing individuals and at most pairs," who have proven themselves incapable of conducting mass casualty attacks on the scale of 9/11, he said.
"Al Qaeda central is basically on life support," said Bergen. "The bench [of replacement leaders] in Pakistan is more than decimated it’s basically empty."
However, Al Qaeda and its affiliated groups today have taken root in more places than on September 11, 2001. They maintain a presence in 16 different theatres of operation — compared with half as many as recently as five years ago, according to Bruce Hoffman, a co-author of the report and Director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University.
"The biggest change is that the core may be in decline. It’s not what it once was," said Hoffman. "But the growth of Al Qaeda and the expansion of the movement is a grave concern. That is fundamentally worrisome. The Al Qaeda brand seems stronger than it’s ever been," he said.
"A dozen years ago the enemy was clear and plainly in sight. It was a large terrorist organization, situated mostly in one geographic location, and led by an identifiable leader," the report states. "Today, the borders between domestic and international terrorism have blurred, and the United States’ adversaries are not only organizations, but also individuals. The United States therefore needs to develop defenses against a more amorphous, diffuse threat posed by radicalized individuals while continuing to destroy and disrupt Al Qaeda and its associated groups, and the ideology that fuels and sustains them."
The report makes several specific recommendations to enhance the US counterterrorism strategy, including creating the position of Assistant Secretary for Countering Violent Extremism at the Department of Homeland Security, and establishing an independent investigative body — similar to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) — to investigate terrorist attacks in the United States and document lessons learned.
The outcome of the civil war in Syria could be one of the "game changers" in al Qaeda’s global fortunes, the report warns. Jabhat Al Nusra, which means the “Victory Front,” is the most effective militant group in Syria fighting to overthrow the regime of Bashar Al Assad and is essentially a splinter group of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
"It is in Syria then that Al Qaeda’s future — its relevance and perhaps even its longevity — turns," the report states. "Theenemy are the hated Shia apostate Alawite minority. Assad is the perfect Al Qaeda villain. He is an Alawite and therefore a heretic, he is a secularist and therefore an apostate, and he is conducting a war without quarter against much of his Sunni population," the report concludes.
"Al Qaeda has hitched its fortunes to Syria," said Hoffman, adding that the terrorist group has a long-term "historical, emotional and religious connection to today’s struggle" in Syria. Unlike Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), Al Nusra is engaging in social work in Syria to reverse the course of civilian backlash. "Al Qaeda has learned its lessons of failure in Iraq. That is dangerous," Hoffman said, particularly given the large, widely dispersed stockpiles of chemical weapons maintained by the Assad regime.
"Sooner or later they’re going to fall into rebel hands," Hoffman said, referring to Assad’s chemical weapons.
And that is particularly problematic, said Bergen, since Al Qaeda has demonstrated a willingness to use chemical weapons. He pointed to the use by AQI of chlorine gas in conjunction with crude improvised explosive devices. The attacks proved ineffective.
But "this is a group that has shown it is prepared to use chemical weapons. Does that mean they are behind the sarin gas attacks as the Assad regime claims? That seems to be preposterous," said Bergen, arguing that the scale of the attacks on the outskirts of Damascus that killed more than 1,400 people, including 426 children, are beyond the capabilities of any terrorist organization today.
"The problem there is you have defectors from the Syrian military and from the chemical corps," said Hoffman. "Unlike many terrorist groups … you could have people with considerable training in the use of chemical weapons and with the access," he said, and the weapons could be smuggled out of the country.
As the Obama administration contemplates military action in Syria to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons against civilians, the authors of the BPC report raise an important question about the dangers associated with lending military assistance to the wrong faction.
"A long-term safe haven for Jabhat Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, in the heart of the Arab world and next door to Israel, could create an organization with the intention and capability to attack the West,"the report stated. "It could also be the success Al Qaeda needs to revive itself."