U.S. Overlooks Threats From Al-Qaida Affiliates

By Stew Magnuson

U.S. government counterterrorism organizations are overly focused on al-Qaida and failing to catch plots carried out by smaller, affiliated groups, a leading counterterrorism expert said July 22.
Mary Habeck, associate professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University, said the government’s focus remains on the core of the organization that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, and it lets other nations deal with local, smaller Islamic terrorist groups.

“The threat that we pay the most attention to is from the core that carried out 9/11, but the core is not the only problem,” she said at a Heritage Foundation panel discussion in Washington, D.C.

The United States has seen at least 60 terrorist plots aimed at the homeland since 9/11, said Jessica Zuckerman, policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. The United States must “seek to understand the true scope of the international terror threat,” she said.

Most of the attacks were unsuccessful. However, the U.S. counterterrorism enterprise cannot take credit for the failures, said Habeck. They have failed because of problems within the terrorist organizations, or in some cases, the bomb didn’t work as planned, she said.

Al-Qaida has used smaller affiliates to gain footholds in places where they were not found before. The strength and reach of the radical Islamic organization is growing, she added.

The Boston Marathon bombing is an example of an individual terrorist attack that was part of a larger network, said Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Heritage Foundation. Chechnya, the former home of the Tsarnaev brothers, is in the Russia’s North Caucuses region. That attack could have been predicted, he added.

“If we had the relationship with Russia that we have with the United Kingdom or Germany, maybe we would have gotten more information — that we are sure the Russian’s had — that the older Tsarnaev brother was running with bad guys, including leaders of some [radical] Islamic groups,” he said.

Many did not expect that those who fight the Russians would also want to engage in terrorist attacks against the United States. But it should have been apparent when the “only state that recognized Chechnya [as its own entity] was the Republic of Afghanistan under the Taliban,” Cohen said.

It is vital that the U.S. government stay in touch with its global partners, which could provide resources or tips regarding terrorist movements. But it must be careful when communicating with regions where the relationship is not as strong, he said.

“We have to deal at arms length and we must go into these situations with eyes wide open and deep knowledge of whom we are dealing with,” Cohen added.

The number one intelligence and security partner of the United States is the United Kingdom, said Luke Coffey, Margaret Thatcher fellow at the Heritage Foundation. It was also hit hard by the attack on 9/11. Sixty-seven British citizens lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks, Coffey said.

 “The enemy doesn’t tell a difference. We are all in this together, the 21st century globalization and the interdependent global economy that we have to live and operate in, means that we are all interconnected,” he said.

Terrorist attacks are rarely isolated events. Only focusing on the larger terrorist groups opens up space for the smaller groups to move in, Habeck said.

“If you look around the world there are dozens of groups that we believe have local focuses, and yet they have said they have a global focus and that they want to carry out attacks on the United States,” she said.  

The United States and its international partners must be on the same page if they are going to strengthen the web of national security against terrorism, she added.

Topics: Homeland Security, DHS Policy

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