Although there have undoubtedly been more plots launched by home-grown cells in the West since 9/11 than by Al Qaeda, the evidence suggests that the most dangerous plots, such as the July 2005 London bombings and the 2006 airlines plot, have all been directed by Al Qaeda.Although Matt Levitt is right to point out that the genesis of the Madrid bombings remains somewhat murky, there is evidence that the attacks were more closely linked to Al Qaeda than was initially thought. The bombing operation itself was carried out by a Spanish based cell of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant group (GICM), an Al Qaeda affiliate, whose leadership built up close personal ties with Al Qaeda in the 1990s in Afghanistan. In the weeks after the Madrid attacks, Belgian police rounded up a GICM cell based in the Flemish town of Maaseik that provided key logistical support for the attacks. One of the leaders of that cell was Lahoussine el Haski, who Belgian authorities believe helped coordinate the launch of Al Qaeda’s terrorist campaign in Saudi Arabia in May 2003.
Plots sponsored by terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda, the Moroccan Combatant Group or other substantially sized terrorist groups tend to have more chance of success because cell members can draw on significant financial, technical, and logistical support.
At least up till now, autonomous “self generated” cells have proven to be more amateurish than Al Qaeda and easier for security services to round up.
Home-grown cells tend not to have the sort of terrorist tradecraft or bomb-making expertise that Al Qaeda operatives develop during training in terrorist camps. Nor the same heightened sense of mission and sense of Islamic obligation that Al Qaeda can inculcate in its recruits in the mountains of North-western Pakistan.
Terrorist training often makes a large difference because it’s much more difficult than is generally realized to make a bomb by downloading instructions from the Internet. To my knowledge there have not yet been any ‘successful’ bombings launched by jihadist-terrorists in the West, in which the plotters relied exclusively on the internet to learn how to make a bomb.
There is always the chance, though, that untrained home-grown cells could get lucky. In Europe, because it has a large Muslim community with significant numbers alienated from mainstream society, a rapid sequence of even small attacks could lead to an anti-Muslim backlash and a vicious cycle of recrimination that could have significant consequences for social cohesion and public safety. Marc Sageman’s warnings about the growth of home-grown terrorism are therefore being listened to carefully in Europe.
As far as the United States is concerned, Bruce Hoffman for my money, is absolutely correct to stress that Al Qaeda Central (i.e. Al Qaeda operatives trained in Pakistan) poses the real danger. A few small ‘home-grown’ attacks are not going to tear apart the social fabric in the United States.
I’m going to take a different view to Matt Levitt on the importance of Bin Laden. Since he founded Al Qaeda 20 years ago, Bin Laden has been its inspirational force and key unifying figure. The latter role has been especially important. Al Qaeda’s ability to launch operations of global scope depends on being able to unite different Jihadist factions and groups, but such factions have had a tendency to quarell with eachother – to disastrous effect – about even minor theological and ideological differences.
Bin Laden’s capacity to inspire operatives was demonstrated by the martyrdom tape recorded by the alleged mastermind of the 2006 airlines plot Abdullah Ahmed Ali:
‘Sheikh Osama warned you many times to leave our lands or you will be destroyed and now the time has come for you to be destroyed and you have nothing but to expect floods of martyr operations.’
At a time when Al Qaeda is coming under increasing criticism for its tactics from a range of other Jihadist actors, Bin Laden is arguably the one figure who has the charisma and appeal in Jihadist circles to push back. Ayman Zawahiri, for example, has nothing close to Bin Laden’s appeal. Without Bin Laden, Al Qaeda may still have its camps, but there will be a leadership vacuum at the top a time when the organization is entering troubled waters.
I agree with Matt Levitt and others that tackling the threat of Al Qaeda terrorism should remain a top-tier national security priority. In the coming decades more significant challenges will no doubt emerge, most important of which will be managing the rise of China. And in the nearer term the Iran nuclear standoff will continue to loom large.But Al Qaeda, impossible to deter like Iran, should still top the next President’s national security briefings. As others have pointed out, Al Qaeda has regenerated its ability to attack the United States from its training camps in Pakistan. There was no greater demonstration of this than a plot thwarted here in London in August 2006 to bring down up to seven commercial airliners en route to North America. The trial, which I’ve been attending, has revealed that the alleged plotters were trained in Pakistan in how to make explosive devices, and had assembled all the materials necessary to manufacture bombs that would have been undetectable by airport security.
British officials believe the plan may have been to explode the planes over American cities. Seven ‘Lockerbie’ type events over New York, Washington DC, San Francisco, Chicago and other densely populated North American metropolises would likely have produced a death toll larger than 9/11. If the plot had been successful, one can only imagine the impact it would have had on the global aviation industry, the U.S. economy, and the international financial system.
Unfortunately as long as Al Qaeda is able to train recruits with relative impunity in north-western Pakistan, it will remain a strategic threat to the United States.
New airport security regulations have made launching an attack on airliners more difficult, but there are still a range of attack scenarios that could cause significant damage the United States. While it is extremely unlikely that Al Qaeda could get hold of a nuclear weapon, it may more realistically be able to deploy a radiological device (or ‘dirty bomb’) in a U.S. city. Although such a device (essentially conventional explosives packed with radioactive materials) would cause less fatalities than sometimes speculated – with the danger to public health limited to about a city block -it could create tremendous public fear.
The next U.S administration should not, therefore, downgrade tackling the Al Qaeda terrorist threat as a national security priority. But resources should certainly be better allocated. Money spent on improving intelligence and law enforcement capabilities delivers much greater security gains per dollar than money lavished on border security fences or expensive scanners to screen container shipments for radioactive devices. That is not to say that resources should not be allocated to such defenses but given the dozens of ways Al Qaeda could get round them, the United States should steer clear of a Maginot mentality. As the title of a new book by former NYPD Counter-terrorism Commissioner Michael Sheehan makes clear, the priority should always be to ‘Crush the Cell.’
Will Al Qaeda’s still be the top national security priority in a decade? Much will depend on whether the Pakistani government wakes up to the threat posed by Al Qaeda in the tribal areas of the country. But there are some grounds for believing that Al Qaeda will be a lesser force in ten years. As Peter Bergen and I reported recently in the New Republic, there is an emerging backlash against Al Qaeda in Muslim countries, a function of it killing so many Muslims in recent years and so nakedly targeting western civilians.
A pattern has emerged, most visibly in Iraq but also now in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, that when Al Qaeda’s brand of violence comes to people’s doorsteps, sympathy for the terrorists dramatically decreases. Furthermore, leading Jihadists, with clout amongst Al Qaeda’s target audience of radical-leaning youngsters, have started to publicly articulate the differences between ‘legitimate’ Jihad and Al Qaeda’s campaign of terrorism.
The fact that Al Qaeda may be starting to self-implode has, I think, some implications for the second discussion prompt on the degree to which the U.S. military should be employed in combating terrorism. While given the current local dynamics, there are strong arguments for boosting U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, and maintaining a residual number of troops in Iraq, there should be strong restraint in deploying the military in other arenas. The last thing the United States should grant Al Qaeda, when it is facing so much criticism from within the Jihadist movement, is another ’cause celebre.’ Without the recruiting boost provided by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Al Qaeda, an organization on the ropes in 2002, would have been significantly less of a threat than it is today.
I agree with the other panelists that no link can be demonstrated between poverty and terrorism. This is not to say that socio-economic conditions have no relevance whatsoever. The economic success of the American Muslim community (two thirds earn over $50,000) is one of the reasons why American Muslims have become so well integrated into American society. The fact that 22% of young British Muslims are unemployed does contribute towards feelings of alienation.
I’m currently in London looking into violent extremism in the UK. The dynamics over here have direct implications for the national security of the United States. In 2006 authorities thwarted an Al Qaeda plot by British-born Muslims to bring down up to seven airliners leaving Heathrow for North America. The threat has not gone away. Britain probably has more Al Qaeda supporters than any other western country, two thousand of which now pose a security threat according to MI5.
Many British Islamist terrorists have had relatively privileged upbringings. Here are just a few examples: Mohammed Siddique Khan, the ringleader of the July 7, 2005 London bombings earned a decent salary as a primary school teacher; Shehzad Tanweer, another 7/7 bomber use to cruise around in his father’s Mercedes; Omar Sheikh, the British militant who orchestrated the murder of Danny Pearl attended LSE; Omar Khan Sharif, the British militant who attacked a nightclub in Tel Aviv in 2003 attended elite British schools; Abdullah Ahmed Ali, the alleged ringleader of the ‘Airlines’ plot, came from a solidly middle class background. One of his brothers is an IT consultant, another a property developer and a third a probation officer (!) at Britain’s Home Office.
The evidence from the UK suggests that political grievances and radical-Islamist indoctrination, not socio-economic conditions, have been key to terrorist recruitment. Youngsters who are more affluent and educated are more likely to be motivated by political arguments. The British Muslims that have joined Al Qaeda have all become convinced that the United States and Britain are at war with Islam and that it is their religious duty to fight back. Here, Matt Levitt is right to point out the importance of ‘organized radicalization.’ In Britain a number of radical clerics, such as Abu Hamza al Masri and Omar Bakri Mohammed, operated relatively freely until recently, posing as knowledgeable Islamic scholars. The invasion of Iraq in 2003, whatever the rights and wrongs, helped make their arguments resonate more strongly.