Security Experts: Administration Overstates Domestic al-Qaeda Threat

December 14, 2009 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the war in Afghanistan on Dec. 2. (Oscar Matatquin/ZUMA Press) Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the war in Afghanistan on Dec. 2. (Oscar Matatquin/ZUMA Press)

It sounded like a throwaway line in President Obama’s West Point address about the Afghanistan war. “It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak,” the president said, tying his troop increase in Afghanistan to direct threats to U.S. national security. “In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror.”

That was all Obama said about the relationship between al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in the Pakistani tribal areas and potential domestic terror attacks. But at a Congressional hearing shortly afterward, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton cited those same recent arrests in the United States to argue for the wisdom of the administration’s strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The extremist “syndicate” headed by al-Qaeda and located in the Waziristan region of Pakistan has an “unmatched” capability to export terrorist activities to “Yemen, Somalia, or, indeed, Denver.” That was a reference to Najibullah Zazi, a 24-year old Afghan-American whom authorities charged in September for conspiring with members of al-Qaeda to pull off a terrorist attack.

[Security1]Zazi’s case is part of a recent and rapid upswing of announced arrests of American Muslims suspected of involvement with extremism, including in Chicago and Minneapolis, where young Muslims have been accused of aiding anti-Indian terror groups and al-Qaeda-linked Somali militants. Dramatically, last week, Pakistani authorities arrested five young Virginians whom they claim were seeking to liaise with al-Qaeda in the tribal areas. Those arrests prompted stories this weekend in The Washington Post and The New York Times asking whether American Muslims’ resistance to extremism has frayed in recent years.

But current and former counterterrorism officials and al-Qaeda experts warn that while the Pakistani tribal areas represent the center of international Islamic terrorist extremism, its connections to recent domestic terror threats are more ambiguous than the administration has recently portrayed. And they add that the recent arrests indicate a silver lining: intelligence and law enforcement are increasingly equipped to intercept domestic terror threats, particularly if they have some tie to al-Qaeda in Pakistan, raising questions about how potent a threat al-Qaeda remains.

Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership, according to senior U.S. intelligence officials who have testified before Congress this year, is under significant threat in the Pakistani tribal areas. Pakistan’s Army has reinvaded those areas and forcibly confronted its allies in the Pakistani Taliban, constricting al-Qaeda’s freedom of action. The CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command have harassed al-Qaeda and its allies for the past two years, primarily through missiles fired from unmanned aerial vehicles. Most recently, a strike Tuesday may have killed al-Qaeda’s chief liaison to its affiliate in Yemen.

If so, the targeting will have highlighted a revealing fact about al-Qaeda eight years after 9/11: boxed into the tribal areas, the organization seeks less to pull off major terrorist attacks than to inspire and in some cases fund them. It has inspired a multiplicity of extremist websites, allowing people worldwide — including in the U.S. — access to its propaganda. And it also seeks to establish a presence in Muslim countries like Yemen and Somalia, often by offering financial or training support to existing extremist groups outside Pakistan. While those two approaches offer al-Qaeda a continued lease on life, analysts say they also dilute al-Qaeda’s brand and raise questions about the actual degree of danger it still poses.

“The tendency to lump all threats in to one big bin” ultimately “hurts the policy and strategy decision process,” said one U.S. counterterrorism official who requested anonymity because he was not cleared to talk to the media. Instead, “We need to better understand the motivation, goals, and links — where they exist– of the disparate groups from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to [the Somali group] al-Shabab and criminal networks in [the Horn of Africa] to Pakistani opposition/terrorist groups and to the various Taliban in Afghanistan.”

Indeed, Marc Sageman, a former CIA official and terrorism researcher affiliated with several universities and think tanks, testified in October to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the number of successful al-Qaeda attacks in the past 15 years was significantly smaller than the number of successful attacks carried out by al-Qaeda-affiliated or al-Qaeda-inspired organizations. Furthermore, only 22 percent of attacks by terrorist groups with worldviews similar to al-Qaeda’s over the past five years actually tied back to al-Qaeda itself, according to Sageman’s research. In an interview with TWI, Sageman said that Clinton’s testimony “an oversimplification to the point that the truth is unrecognizable.”

The Obama administration is mischaracterizing the terrorist threat to get the public to back escalating the Afghanistan war, Sageman said. “Secretary Clinton’s distortions are typical of a politician,” he said, “who distorts reality to muster support for a policy.”

But al-Qaeda’s message is finding at least some appeal, however marginal, among American Muslims in their teens and 20s, more than it did to their older brothers, cousins or fathers. “Those people were 10 years old when 9/11 happened” and have since “felt like they grew up under a cloud of suspicion because of their religion.” said a former counterterrorism official who declined to speak for the record. Those individuals — whom the ex-official clarified were “a few bad apples” among millions of law-abiding American Muslims — “saw issues like torture, Guantanamo, and Iraq and decided to react because they lacked an understanding of history, and view things instead from a conspiratorial view and are open to being radicalized.” By contrast, the older generation — the families of the five Virginians — were encouraged to go to the FBI with their worries about their children’s travel to Pakistan after the prompting of a major American Muslim lobby group, the Council on American Islamic Relations.

Like in the United Kingdom, the ex-official said, where in 2005 homegrown radicals like Mohammed Sidique Khan perpetrated the July 7 London bombings with direct aid from al-Qaeda, the recent American Muslim arrests show some youths “felt discriminated against and tried to find their roots somewhere else, and they went back to the Pashtun tribes.”

But their ability to pull off terrorist attacks after making contact with al-Qaeda may not be as great as the administration as the Obama administration portrayed. Of all the recent arrests, only one, a Chicagoan named David Coleman Headley, had any involvement in a successful attack, the mass killings in Mumbai last November, an attack not believed to be connected to al-Qaeda. Neither did the only successful case of post-9/11 violence by a radicalized American Muslim: the shootings at Ft. Hood last month by Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan. In the other cases, from Zazi to the Virginians arrested in Pakistan, intelligence and law enforcement were able to monitor and then arrest suspicious individuals before any attacks occurred.

“Zazi is interesting in this respect,” said Leah Farrall, a former senior al-Qaeda analyst with the Australian Federal Police. Farrall said she would watch Zazi’s forthcoming trial for clues to how al-Qaeda actually reaches out to Muslims in America. “Did he meet an Afghan gatekeeper or an al-Qaeda linked gate keeper? Whatever the case, he either met them in the U.S. or online. These things are crucial to understanding the threat posed.”

All that points to a poor prognosis for al-Qaeda, even if younger American Muslims are somewhat more prone to radicalization, according to the former counterterrorism official.

“Al-Qaeda’s are capabilities basically almost nothing these days,” the ex-official said. “Sure, they’ve got a couple good operatives, and maybe will try to pull something big to make themselves relevant again … If we make them appear relevant — they’re at war with the greatest country on earth — then guess what? They’re gonna be big.” Instead, the ex-official continued, “if we treat them as insignificant, small, pathetic men with nothing to do with Islam, they’ll lose their relevance.”