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Threats to the American Homeland: An Assessment

Testimony Presented Before the House Committee on Homeland Security
May 25, 2011 |

Chairman King, Ranking Member Thompson, distinguished Members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity today to testify today about threats to the American homeland after the death of Osama bin Laden.

The death of bin Laden is devastating to “core” al-Qaeda, but arguably just as important to undermining the terrorist organization is the large amount of information that was recovered at the compound where he was killed in northern Pakistan on May 2, 2011. That information is already being exploited for leads. Between the “Arab Spring” and the death of bin Laden, both al-Qaeda’s ideology and organization are under assault. That said, jihadist terrorism isn't going away. Regional affiliates such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remain threatening and there is a continued low-level threat posed by “homegrown” jihadist militants inspired by bin Laden’s ideas.

Such militants might successfully carry out bombings against symbolic targets that would kill dozens, such as against subways in Manhattan, as was the plan in September 2009 of Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan-American al-Qaeda recruit, or they might blow up an American passenger jet, as was the intention three months later of the Nigerian Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab, who had been recruited by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Had that bombing attempt succeeded, it would have killed hundreds. This level of threat is likely to persist for years to come. However, al-Qaeda no longer poses a national security threat to the American homeland of the type that could result in a mass-casualty attack anywhere close to the scale of 9/11.

Indeed, a survey of the 180 individuals indicted or convicted in Islamist terrorism cases in the United States since the 9/11 attacks by the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and the New America Foundation found that none of the cases involved the use of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons, while only four of the homegrown plots since 9/11 progressed to an actual attack in the United States, attacks that resulted in a total of seventeen deaths. The most notable was the 2009 shootings at Ft. Hood, Texas by Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed thirteen. By way of comparison, according to the FBI, between 2001 and 2009, 73 people were killed in hate crimes in the United States.

The number of jihadist terrorism cases involving U.S. citizens or residents has markedly spiked in the past two years. In 2009 and 2010 there were 76, almost half of the total since 9/11, but in the first half of 2011 the number of such cases has subsided rather dramatically. This year there have been a total of just six jihadist terrorism cases by the date of this hearing.

American officials and the wider public should realize that by the law of averages al-Qaeda or an affiliate will succeed in getting some kind of attack through in the next years, and the best response to that would be to demonstrate that we as a society are resilient and are not be intimidated by such actions because our overreactions can play into the hands of the jihadist groups. When al-Qaeda or affiliated groups can provoke overwrought media coverage based on attacks that don’t even succeed -- such as the near-miss on Christmas Day 2009 when Abdulmutallab tried to blow up Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit -- we are doing their work for them. The person who best understood the benefits of American overreaction was bin Laden himself, who in 2004 said on a tape that aired on Al Jazeera: “All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses.”[i] Let us not give bin Laden any more such victories now that he is dead.

This testimony focuses on the threat from al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and those motivated by its ideas, while recognizing that these are not the only sources of terrorism directed against the United States.

The testimony will attempt to answer four questions:

·               What effect will the killing of bin Laden have on U.S. security interests, and on core al-Qaeda’s goals and capabilities?

·               What threats emanate from Pakistan-based militant groups other than al-Qaeda?

·               What threats emanate from al-Qaeda’s regional affiliates?

·               What threats emanate from domestic militants motivated by jihadist terrorist ideas?

For the rest of this House testimony, click here.

Peter Bergen is the Director of the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation, a senior fellow at New York University's Center on Law and Security, and the author of The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al Qaeda. He is a national security analyst for CNN.


American officials and the wider public should realize that by the law of averages al-Qaeda or an affiliate will succeed in getting some kind of attack through in the next years, and the best response to that would be to demonstrate that we as a society are resilient and are not be intimidated by such actions because our overreactions can play into the hands of the jihadist groups.