“Fundamentally troubling” is how a report released on the eve of the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks describes the U.S. government’s approach to the evolving terrorism threat. The September 2010 terror threat assessment, written and released by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Preparedness Group, says that the U.S. has been slow to recognize and challenge the surge of homegrown terrorism and the inexpensive, but increasingly diverse array of attacks that has become the standard of al-Qaeda. It calls for countering recruitment by terrorist groups domestically and improving engagement with all levels of law enforcement and “ordinary Americans” to help prevent acts of terror.
The report is based on interviews with a wide range of senior U.S. counterterrorism officials at the federal and local levels, and policy, intelligence, and law enforcement communities. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Preparedness Group is a nonpartisan nonprofit examining the progress on the initial 9/11 Commission recommendations.
The report says, “A key shift in the past couple of years is the increasingly prominent role in planning and operations that U.S. citizens and residents have played in the leadership of al-Qaeda and aligned groups, and the higher numbers of Americans attaching themselves to these groups.”
According to the report, international terrorist groups may have identified a significant vulnerability in America’s national defense plans, because the U.S. currently has “no strategy to counter the type of threat posed by homegrown terrorists and other radicalized recruits." A senior intelligence analyst told the report’s authors, “There’s no lead agency or person. There are First Amendment issues we’re cognizant of. It’s not a crime to radicalize, only when it turns to violence. There are groups of people looking at different aspects of counter-radicalization. [But it] has to be integrated across agencies, across levels of government, public-private cooperation.”
Despite 63 cases of terrorism-related arrests and indictments of American citizens or residents in the U.S. and abroad since 2009 (see the report’s Appendix B), the report says “there remains no federal government agency or department specifically charged with identifying radicalization and interdicting the recruitment of U.S. citizens or residents for terrorism.”
This vacuum of leadership and policy regarding countering homegrown recruitment is often filled by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) working in the context of a criminal or terrorism case. The report questions if this should be the primary role of the FBI or if other national security agencies like the Department of Homeland Security or the National Counterterrorism Center should do so.
Many civil liberty advocates say the government, including the FBI, can and should play a role in community policing, but focus on criminal behavior. A December 2009 report from the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) said law enforcement should allow Muslim communities to deal with the ideological and social components of radicalization. It says, "Unlike intelligence-led policing, community policing's heavier reliance on community partnerships reduces negative impact on both community-police relations and democratic values.” This separation of responsibilities prevents law enforcement from creating an atmosphere in the communities that can lead to radicalization.
The terror threat assessment also highlighted the need for all Americans, and not just the government or law enforcement, to participate in detecting and preventing terror attacks. Rather than plan and carry out large scale attacks like the ones on 9/11, the report says that small, inexpensive attacks by “jihadists that do not fit any particular ethnic, economic, educational, or social profile” have become the norm. Even failed plots, such as the one at New York’s Times Square in May 2010 that the report says cost approximately $12,000 to organize, “can still pay vast dividends in terms of publicity and attention” for the terrorist group. To better prevent these attacks, the report says it is “reckless to leave the task of combating terrorism only to the professionals when the changing nature of the threat requires that ordinary Americans play a larger support role in detecting and preventing terrorist activities.”