Anwar al-Awlaki, Nidal Malik Hasan, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev
As runners raced down Boston streets April 15, two bombs housed in pressure cookers exploded. The blast killed three people and maimed hundreds more.
The bombing quickly brought domestic jihadist terrorism back into the public eye.
Counterterrorism analysts are now concerned that the United States may soon face an increase in deadly, smaller scale attacks.
The Boston bombing inspired al-Qaida to think differently about terrorist attacks, said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
“What’s concerning is that in the past they [al-Qaida] were very eager to have … big 9/11-style events, and they would take a long time to plan those big … impactful events,” said Rogers. “Well, unfortunately, they learned a lot from the Boston bombing and so now you see a change in attitude.”
In the future, al-Qaida will likely conduct more frequent, smaller attacks rather than large-scale ones on par with 9/11, he said at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance’s Intelligence Community Summit in Washington, D.C., in September. The terrorist group’s definition of what constitutes a successful attack is changing, he said.
“You don’t have to look for the big event, flying a plane through a building. They would like to do that, too, but we also now have to worry about those smaller, knock-off events,” said Rogers.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said al-Qaida realizes the United States’ intelligence community is sophisticated enough to detect major, well coordinated attacks, so it is settling for smaller ones using operatives who can be kept under the radar.
“You can’t misjudge how many people are helping al-Qaida and funding them, and you have some very smart people that are part of the organization,” he said.
Homegrown extremists are much harder to discover than a terrorist directly affiliated with a formal organization, said Nicholas Rasmussen, deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center at the opening of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell in September.
“As we look forward in the years ahead, the threat posed by homegrown violent extremists is the one that causes us to scratch our heads the most,” Rasmussen said. “These are people that live among us, who have gone to the same schools, who attend the same churches, who attend the same health clubs [and] institutions in our communities.”
Domestic terrorists do not set off red flags in the way an established and well-connected operative might, Rasmussen said.
“These individuals present the greatest challenge to us from the law enforcement and intelligence perspective because they do not exhibit many of the behaviors that have allowed us to successfully disrupt and … mitigate potential terrorists attacks that we’ve seen in the past,” Rasmussen said.
Better partnerships are needed among local, state and federal law enforcement, because “we’re not going to be able to defeat that kind of homegrown violent extremist threat by operating at the national level,” Rasmussen said.
Smaller attacks inspired by extremist idealogues on the Internet that do not have the explicit support of a particular terrorist group are likely to increase in frequency, the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said in a report titled, “Jihadist Terrorism: A Threat Assessment.”
Of the 21 homegrown extremists who plotted attacks against the United States between 2011 and 2013, none received training abroad, the report said. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Boston bombing suspect who died in a shootout with police in April, may have had contact with foreign militants, but it is unclear what role, if any, they played in the attack, the report found.
Instead of traveling abroad, U.S.-based extremists are becoming radicalized online. The Internet has made it easier for them to access like-minded communities without face-to-face meetings and to watch jihadist propaganda, the report said.
Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011, was one of al-Qaida’s top propagandists. To recruit operatives, he used the Internet and other forms of media, including a magazine called Inspire, to send out his message.
“One factor in the radicalization of homegrown extremists in the United States is Anwar al-Awlaki’s propaganda. Because of Awlaki’s fluency in English and his talent for mixing religious theory with contemporary issues, he produced propaganda that has resonated powerfully for some,” the report said.
Given a potential increase in smaller attacks, the government and police departments must be wary of over-responding, the report said. Police activity following the Boston bombing was a disproportionate response to the attack, the report said.
“The Boston Marathon bombings, for example, an undeniably tragic but comparatively modest terrorist incident, closed down not only the Boston suburb where the Tsarnaev brothers were believed to have fled, but the entire Boston metropolitan area and Logan International Airport. The lesson to future adversaries is that even a handful of deaths can elicit a large response,” the report said.
These smaller attacks can garner a big response, which is exactly what al-Qaida and other terrorist groups are looking for, said Stephen Flynn, co-director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security at Northeastern University.
“The shutting down of the metropolitan area during the manhunt certainly did provide a real potential benefit [for the terrorists] for a relatively small scale attack,” Flynn said.
The Boston police and others in charge should have considered that before the city was shutdown, he said.
Despite countless police officers searching the Boston area to find Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the second suspect, he was discovered by a man noticing something amiss in his backyard.
“That was the critical intelligence that we needed to intercept the terrorist. ... The irony here is that at the end of the day it was an everyday citizen that actually was the key to the success,” said Flynn.
While many future attacks could focus on directly injuring or killing people, some of them could target critical infrastructure, Flynn told National Defense.
“These are more sophisticated attacks. They require more planning and understanding of the systems and take some time to plan and be able to execute,” Flynn said.
A successful strike could yield significant consequences and result in mass destruction, he said.
Military bases are another potential target for terrorists.
The Bipartisan Policy Center found U.S. troops and military bases are particularly attractive targets. The report pointed to former Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan who shot and killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009, as one example.
Thirty-four percent of all extremists who have plotted or carried out attacks in the United States have targeted the military since 9/11, the report said.
Earlier this year in London, two Islamist extremists brutally murdered British soldier Lee Rigby with a meat cleaver.
The next week, a French soldier was stabbed in Paris by an extremist, the report said.
Soft targets, such as shopping malls or places where large groups of civilians gather, are also vulnerable to attack, Rasmussen said.
The September attack in Nairobi, Kenya, is particularly troublesome, Rasmussen said. The strike at Westgate Mall resulted in a multi-day hostage situation where terrorists killed dozens of shoppers. Al-Shabab, a Somalia-based affiliate of al-Qaida, has taken credit for the incident.
“The attack in Nairobi told us something that I think we should all keep in mind as we think about our efforts against these terrorist groups,” Rasmussen said. “Even as we achieve success, even as we degrade and push back these terrorist groups and eliminate their capability to attack us, even when we achieve that success … the threat still continues.”
Even though the core of al-Qaida has been dismantled by targeted drone strikes, a few individuals with limited resources can cause enormous amounts of damage if they hit a particularly vulnerable target, he said.
One of the biggest obstacles to stopping such attacks is that the threat is always evolving, said Roger Cressey, the former National Security Council deputy for counterterrorism.
“When it comes to counterterrorism, we have to learn from the past, but we should not assume that future threats are going to act in the way that they did in the past,” said Cressey. “The threat is not linear and the sources of that threat are not static, they are constantly changing. We can’t be reactive. We have to become proactive.”
The mindset of Americans also needs to change, he said. Many people believe that a terrorist attack couldn’t directly affect them, but events such as the Boston bombing suggest otherwise.
Edward Davis, commissioner of the Boston Police Department and a key figure during the bombing investigation, said the event proves an attack can happen anywhere.
“That experience was very personal to me, and an incident that has struck us here at home right in Boston,” said Davis. “People who think that this is not true, or that the threat has passed, or that this will never happen here should rethink their position.”
The threat of another attack is real and the United States must prepare for it, Davis said.
“There is no magic bullet to deal with terrorism. I sincerely believe the answer to this lies in community policing and a tighter and closer relationship with communities,” said Davis. Photo Credits: Muhammad Ud-Deen, Defense Dept., FBI, Bob Leonard
Chart Source: Bipartisan Policy Center / New America Foundation