Soft targets are now a priority for terrorists determined to inflict damage in the United States, said one of the FBI’s top counter-terrorism officials.
Brenda Heck, deputy assistant director of the agency’s counterterrorism division, said an attack similar to the 2008 assault on hotels and other buildings in Mumbai, India, is possible here.
“It would be naive of us to think it could not happen here in the United States,” she said at the GovSec conference in Washington, D.C.
AQAP, the Yemen-based terrorist group, is expected to go after soft targets in the United States while al Qaida remains fixated in higher profile operations similar to the 9/11 attacks.
“This is a world where soft targets are the name of the game,” she said.
Self-radicalization through the Internet is another alarming trend. Potential terrorists do not have to go overseas to receive training anymore, she said. After the 2006 London subway bombings, terrorists at the time said they were going after the hearts and minds of nine- and 10-year-old children. Heck said she initially did not give these proclamations much thought, but they now seem to be coming to fruition.
“We are seeing 14 and 15 year olds on the Internet that are a problem,” she said.
Homegrown terrorism has steadily increased since 2003, she said. The case of Najibullah Zazi, the Denver resident who allegedly plotted to bomb the New York subway, is an example of how the FBI detected “anomalies” to identify a suspect before something happened, she said. She did not specify what in his patterns of behavior tipped the FBI off, but she said the investigation involved the FBI, intelligence community and foreign governments.
Zazi traveled to Pakistan, received training there, and met with senior al Qaida leaders, she said. But once a suspect arrives at the Islamabad airport, they are almost impossible to track afterwards, she noted.