Just days before the 14th anniversary of the tragic September 11, 2001 jihad attacks, the House Committee on Homeland Security re-examined important lessons learned in the post 9/11 world, as well as the country’s current readiness to confront the viral spread of terror at a hearing on the matter this week.
The committee’s field hearing, “Beyond Bin Laden’s Caves and Couriers to A New Generation of Terrorists: Confronting the Challenges in a Post 9/11 World,” was held at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City.
“We have made progress since 9/11, which was the largest terrorist attack in world history,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) chairman of the committee. “Our first responders are better equipped. Our intelligence professionals are connecting the dots. And our border authorities are keeping terrorists from stepping foot on our soil.”
But, McCaul pointed out, “our enemies have come a long way, too. Gone are the days of Bin Laden, when extremists relied on couriers and caves to hatch their plots. Today’s terrorists are openly recruiting online, across borders, and at broadband speed.”
Witnesses at the hearing included former Mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani; New York City Police Department Commissioner William Bratton; New York City Fire Department (FDNY) commissioner Daniel Nigro; President of the September 11th Families’ Association Lee Ielpi; and President of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, Gregory Thomas.
Bratton noted that although a decade after the World Trade Center buildings were destroyed by Al Qaeda, and New York experienced its safest summer in 25 years with murders and shootings at “modern lows,” the US still continues to grapple with the terrorist threat. In particular, “lone wolves” who operate independently of a group present a virulent threat to the safety of the American homeland.
Over the past year, the dangerous rhetoric put forth by the Islamic State (ISIS) through media services and social media platforms has threatened attacks on the homeland by lone wolf actors it is working to radicalize and recruit.
“One central theme from all Inspire magazines (published by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) which are directed to Al Qaeda sympathizers in the West, has been for calls to do lone wolf attacks,” Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), told Homeland Security Today.
“In fact,” Stalinsky said,” this can be traced to the June 3, 2011 seminal Al Sahab video staring Adam Gadahn, ‘Do Not Rely on Others, Take [the Task] Upon Yourself.’ The video was devoted to the topic of Al Jihad Al Fardi (‘individual jihad’), namely jihad operations performed by a single individual or by a small group.”
“From that point on,” Stalinsky said, “Al Qaeda called on Muslim communities in the West to attack from home.”
New York City is ripe with targets for lone wolf jihadis. Indeed, there have been more than 20 terrorist plots since 9/11, Bratton stressed, noting that targets included the New York Stock Exchange, Citigroup headquarters, the Brooklyn Bridge, John F. Kennedy Airport, Times Square, Ground Zero, the subway system, major synagogues and even NYPD funerals.
“This threat is decentralized and much harder to detect than threats orchestrated by Al Qaeda,” Bratton said. “ISIS’s alarmingly effective messaging — as refined as anything found on Madison Avenue or in Hollywood — reaches marginalized, solitary actors. These are terrorists who largely operate outside the kind of command-and-control systems, or cells that we have learned to penetrate and dismantle.”
ISIS’s call to lone jihadism has achieved notable resonance across Western Europe and in the United States. In fact, McCaul said last year was the “deadliest year on record for global terrorism.”
For example, Homeland Security Today reported earlier this year that the ninth issue of ISIS’ digital English-language magazine, Dabiq, heaped praise on Nadir Soofi and Elton Simpson – the two radicalized Muslims and Phoenix, Arizona roommates killed in a May 3 firefight in Garland, Texas when they attempted to storm into the Curtis Culwell Civic Center in Garland, Texas to kill as many attendees of the Stop Islamization of America and the American Freedom Defense Initiative where a contest for the best cartoon of Prophet Muhammad was being held.
In addition, Homeland Security Today reported the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a joint bulletin in early December 2014 warning ISIS was publicly encouraging attacks on US military personnel.
Moreover, a pro-ISIS social media group called upon ISIS supporters in the US to use the protests in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere throughout the United States as a cover to carry out lone wolf attacks.
Just days ago, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula released the latest issue of its English-language magazine Inspire, which focuses on urging lone wolf jihad attacks. Articles include the cover story, Assassination Operations. Other articles include a military analysis of the January 2015 attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo; instructions for making a home-made grenade; and Assassinations Field Tactics, which lists 10 well known Americans as targets of jihad.
Although lone actor terrorists represent a very small proportion (8 percent) of terrorists, they have been responsible for one-fourth of the terrorism incidents in the United States, according to a report provided to Homeland Security Today from the University of Maryland-based, DHS funded National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.
Moving forward, McCaul says the lesson is clear: “In the long term we must counter the ideology at the core of Islamist terror, because when left unchecked, it can spread to all corners of the globe in the same way communism and fascism led to decades of destruction.”
The nation must also prevent attacks before they occur. One way to achieve this goal is to eliminate terrorist sanctuaries overseas, and not allow power vacuums to develop in new places, such as Libya or old safe havens such as Afghanistan, McCaul said. These places can become breeding grounds for terrorist activity, and given them a relatively safe place to plot attacks against the US and other Western nations.
Here at home, information sharing is a critical element to mitigating the threat of lone wolf jihadism. Properly resourced intelligence fusion centers, for example, can play a vital role in both combatting terrorism and fighting crime.
“With some of our cities recently experiencing upticks in crime, and with the general call for government to accomplish more with less, an expansion of these centers can serve to provide effective sources of timely intelligence related to violent gangs, drug trafficking, weapons smuggling, and other crimes that can have a nexus to violence,” Thomas said.
Similarly, Bratton stated New York City has achieved great successin curbing terrorism by emphasizing collaboration. For example, through a program called Operation Sentry, the department successfully shares information with more than 150 law enforcement agencies throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
NYPD also collaborates with the private sector. Currently, there are nearly 13,000 members of the region’s private security industry who participate in a program called “NYPD Shield,” whereby the department regularly hosts conferences, sector specific briefings and training seminars to collaborate and share NYPD strategic assessments on terror trends.
NYPD has also held active shooter exercises, participated with other New York City and government agencies in counterterrorism exercises, and taken part in dozens of major exercises to plan for and safeguard against chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attacks.
To illustrate the importance of collaboration, Bratton cited the case of Faisal Shahzad, who attempted to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in 2010. Shahzad commented to the officers who removed him from a plane at John F. Kennedy International Airport just minutes before he might have escaped: “I was expecting you — are you NYPD or FBI?” The answer was neither— they were Customs and Border Protection officers.
“In the task of keeping us safe, everyone has a role to play,” Bratton said.
As the nation continues to find new and innovative ways to keep pace with the evolving terrorist threat, McCaul emphasized the nation must remember that, “On that day we saw the face of evil, as terrorists sought to attack our economic, military and political centers of power. But we also saw the true heart of America, as ordinary men and women showed uncommon courage.”
“We are a country that did not invite aggression from dark corners of the globe, but when it came to our shores, confidence and hope — not fear — rose from the ashes.”