By Thomas Joscelyn | September 23, 2010
In testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee yesterday, Michael Leiter provided an overview of how his National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) sees the terrorist threat. Leiter highlighted three types of threats: al Qaeda in northern Pakistan, al Qaeda affiliates around the world, and “homegrown” extremists who are inspired by al Qaeda’s “narrative” but do not necessarily receive guidance or assistance from senior al Qaeda leaders.
Leiter said the “range” of terrorist plots over the past year “suggests the threat against the West has become more complex and underscores the challenges of identifying and countering a more diverse array of Homeland plotting.”
Al Qaeda central
Leiter claimed that al Qaeda in Pakistan is “weaker today than at any time since the late 2001 onset of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.” Still, al Qaeda “remains intent” on “attacking the West and continues to prize attacks against the US Homeland and our European allies above all else.”
Al Qaeda launched a plot against the New York City subways last year. In Europe, there have been five “disrupted plots during the past four years,” Leiter told Senators in his written testimony. These include “a plan to attack airliners transiting between the UK and US, a credible plot in Germany, disrupted cells in the UK and Norway, and the disrupted plot to attack a newspaper in Denmark.”
Leiter also cited al Qaeda’s “propaganda efforts” as a substantial threat since “they are intended to inspire additional attacks by motivating sympathizers worldwide to undertake efforts similar to Nidal Hassan’s attack on Fort Hood last fall.”
Al Qaeda’s affiliates
Leiter cited al Qaeda’s “personnel losses” as one reason the core of al Qaeda has been weakened in recent years. Indeed, al Qaeda has lost key leaders due to America’s ongoing drone attacks in northern Pakistan. However, Leiter’s testimony also indicates why al Qaeda has been able to remain a serious threat despite these losses.
If al Qaeda is defined as only Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and their immediate followers in northern Pakistan, then the threat they pose would still be worrisome but not nearly a global menace.
Unfortunately, al Qaeda’s power reaches beyond this narrow band of individuals. Leiter’s testimony confirms, once again, that al Qaeda is the tip of the jihadist spear – the vanguard of a global jihadist movement that shares a common ideology, goals, and resources.
Inside Afghanistan and Pakistan, al Qaeda’s senior leadership forged close relations with the heads of various jihadist organizations, thereby providing al Qaeda with strategic depth. For example, while Leiter cited the disrupted plot against a newspaper in Denmark as a success against al Qaeda, which is undoubtedly true, he noted that the plot was organized by Mohammed Ilyas Kashmiri, a commander in Harakat-ul Jihad Islami (HUJI).
HUJI was originally forged by jihadists committed to fighting the Soviets in the 1980s in Afghanistan. They received support from the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment, as did most if not all Pakistan-based jihadist organizations. In the 1990s, HUJI expanded its sphere of activity to India and Bangladesh, reportedly with assistance from Osama bin Laden.
Today, senior HUJI leaders such as Kashmiri actually work with and for bin Laden’s al Qaeda in the global jihadist struggle against America and her allies in Central and South Asia and beyond. In fact, Kashmiri is now a senior al Qaeda commander responsible for external operations – that is, operations against the West.
The same phenomenon can be seen in the disrupted plot against airliners traveling from the UK to the US in 2006, which was also cited by Leiter. Al Qaeda intended to destroy multiple airliners using liquid explosives assembled on board the planes once they were airborne. The plot was modeled after a plan named “Bojinka,” which was conceived by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his nephew Ramzi Yousef in the mid-1990s.
The plan was revived by al Qaeda after KSM’s arrest in 2003. The point man for the operation was Rashid Rauf, a senior member of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM). JEM was originally formed with assistance from the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment in the 1990s to fight Indian forces inside Kashmir. Like HUJI, JEM leaders serve al Qaeda’s global jihad. Thus, Rauf became one of the key figures in al Qaeda’s external operations wing.
The dossiers of terrorists like Rauf and Kashmiri illustrate that the lines between al Qaeda and other, like-minded jihadist organizations are becoming increasingly blurred.
Leiter cited other relationships in this vein. He called the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP), which was responsible for the failed Times Square plot in May, al Qaeda’s “closest ally.” Leiter added, “TTP leaders maintain close ties to senior [al Qaeda] leaders, providing critical support to [al Qaeda] in the FATA and sharing some of the same global violent extremist goals.”
Counterterrorism authorities are “looking closely” at the TTP, as well as the Haqqani Network, “for any indicators of attack planning in the West,” Leiter said. Like the TTP, the Haqqani Network has “close ties” to al Qaeda.
Leiter noted that Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), another creation of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in the 1990s, “poses a threat to a range of interests in South Asia.” Moreover, LeT’s “involvement in attacks in Afghanistan against US and Coalition forces and provision of support to the Taliban and [al Qaeda] extremists there pose a threat to US and Coalition interests.”
Leiter said that while the LeT has not launched an attack against the West, it “could pose a direct threat to the Homeland and Europe, especially should they collude with [al Qaeda] operatives.”
Yemen, Somalia, North and West Africa, and Iraq
Outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Leiter cited four areas where al Qaeda’s affiliates are a particular concern.
Leiter described Yemen as a “key battleground and potential regional base of operations from which [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP] can plan attacks, train recruits, and facilitate the movement of operatives.” As evidence of the threat posed by AQAP, Leiter cited an assassination attempt on a Saudi prince last August, as well as Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab’s attempted attack on Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009.
Al Qaeda cleric Anwar al Awlaki “played a significant role in” Abdulmutallab’s plotting, Leiter says. According to published reports, Abdulmutallab met with the al Qaeda cleric in Yemen months prior to boarding a Detroit-bound airliner.
Some commentators have tried to distance Shabaab in Somalia from al Qaeda. But Leiter said that East Africa “remains a key locale for al Qaeda associates.” In addition, some Shabaab “leaders share [al Qaeda’s] ideology and publicly have praised Usama bin Ladin and requested further guidance from the group, although Somali nationalist themes are also prevalent in their public statements.”
Leiter also noted that Shabaab “leaders have cooperated closely with a limited number of East Africa-based [al Qaeda] operatives and the Somalia-based training program established by al Shabaab and now deceased [al Qaeda] operative Saleh Nabhan, continues to attract hundreds of violent extremists from across the globe, to include dozens of recruits from the United States.”
“The potential for Somali trainees to return to the United States or elsewhere in the West to launch attacks remains a significant concern,” Leiter explained in his written testimony.
In North and West Africa, al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is a “persistent threat to US and other Western interests.” The “primary” threat, Leiter reported, comes from AQIM “conducting kidnap for ransom operations and small-arms attacks, though the group’s execution in July of a French hostage and first suicide bombing attack in Niger earlier this year punctuate AQIM’s lethality and attack range.”
Finally, counterterrorism operations have “continued to pressure” al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and “hinder its external ambitions.” But it remains a “key” al Qaeda affiliate, Leiter reported. “While AQI’s leaders continue to publicly threaten to attack the West, to include the Homeland, their ability to do so has been diminished, although not eliminated.”
Homegrown Sunni extremism
Homegrown Sunni extremist activity has spiked, according to Leiter, with “plots disrupted in New York, North Carolina, Arkansas, Alaska, Texas, and Illinois during the past year.” Although these plots were “unrelated operationally,” they are “indicative of a collective subculture and a common cause that rallies independent individuals to violence.”
A crucially important part of Leiter’s testimony is his public identification of a “US-specific narrative that motivates individuals to violence.” This narrative, according to Leiter, is “a blend of [al Qaeda] inspiration, perceived victimization, and glorification of past homegrown plotting.”
In his new autobiography, A Journey: My Political Life, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair discusses this “narrative” at length and points out that it is not only a problem in the West, but also throughout the Middle East. Blair writes:
Here is where the root of the problem lies. The extremists are small in number, but their narrative – which sees Islam as the victim of a scornful West externally, and an insufficiently religious leadership internally – has a far bigger hold. …Leiter explained that the NCTC is coordinating a number of initiatives within the US government to counter this narrative. For example, the NCTC “helps coordinate the Federal Government’s engagement with Somali American communities” in order to counter radicalization. It is not clear, however, if the NCTC has a comprehensive plan in place to counter the narrative, as Blair argues is necessary.
It is the narrative that has to be assailed. It has to be avowed, acknowledged; then taken on, inside and outside Islam. It should not be respected. It should be confronted, disagreed with, argued against on grounds of politics, security and religion.
Leiter cited two specific terrorist attacks in 2009 as examples of the threat posed by homegrown extremism: Major Nidal Malik Hassan’s shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas and Carlos Leon Bledsoe’s attack on an US military recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Leiter said these attacks “serve as stark examples of lone actors inspired by the global violent extremist movement who attacked without oversight or guidance from overseas-based [al Qaeda] elements.”
Leiter’s description does not match the facts of Hassan’s and Bledsoe’s attacks. Maj. Hassan contacted Anwar al Awlaki repeatedly by email to ask about the permissibility of certain acts (e.g. turning against the American Army) under Sharia law. Awlaki gave his blessing to Hassan. Awlaki would later claim in a propaganda video that he was proud to call Hassan one of his “students.” This certainly amounts to guidance.
In a letter to the judge in his case, Bledsoe (who changed his name to Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad) admitted he was guilty of the “Jihadi attack.” It is at least possible that Bledsoe did receive some “guidance” from overseas actors as he admittedly studied jihad in Yemen, and claimed that he was a member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. It is not clear how much of Bledsoe’s letter is true, as opposed to bluster. But it is at least plausible that he did consort with al Qaeda or other jihadist organizations in Yemen.
"Homegrown" extremism is undoubtedly a serious security threat. However, it is often poorly defined.