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America's New Terrorist Networks

A Commentary by Tony Blankley

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

While public attention was diverted by whether or not Florida pastor Terry Jones and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf had reached a compromise, a report critical to our national security went virtually unnoticed.

Jones, under some pressure from most of the civilized world, offered to withdraw his threat to immolate a stack of Qurans, in exchange, he said, for Rauf's relocation of Park51, the planned mosque complex he proposes to tower over the World Trade Center site. Understandably, the press preferred to cover the spectacle between Jones and Rauf, especially as it played out on live television like a bizarre parody of "Let's Make a Deal."

Culture wars, after all, make more scintillating copy than the earnest prose of yet another advisory report. But were it not for the distraction caused by the Jones-Rauf media circus, we might instead have focused our attention on "Assessing the Terrorist Threat," a timely evaluation conducted for the ninth anniversary of 9/11. This sobering report, issued under the auspices of the Bipartisan Policy Center by former 9/11 Commission leaders Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, has enormous implications for America's counterterrorist policies.

First, the Good News: They report that the War on Terrorism has degraded al-Qaida's capabilities to such an extent that the authors -- whose assessment derives in part from close contact with U.S. intelligence officials -- think another 9/11 spectacular terrorist attack in the U.S. is unlikely. Even more unlikely, they believe, is a mass casualty attack using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

If the authors are right, you can toss out any gas masks and duct tape in your home emergency survival kit. I personally believe they are too confident that the danger from mass attack is passing. A small band of well-prepared terrorists can unleash unspeakable killing forces. Every day, such resources become more available around the world. I still believe mass disaster is more likely than not in the coming decade.

But there is also new Bad News: What the media calls "home-grown terrorism" (more to follow about precisely where this terrorism is incubated later, but a hint for now is that it isn't the U.S.) is the "new normal" for terrorism attacks. In the past year, al-Qaida-affiliated groups have tried to blow up a U.S. airliner, replicate the London and Madrid commuter bombings in the New York subway system, detonate a vehicle bomb in Times Square and carry out numerous other attacks inside our borders.

"Last year was a watershed in terrorist attacks and plots in the United States, with a record total of 11 jihadist attacks, jihadist-inspired plots, or efforts by Americans to travel overseas to obtain terrorist training," the report says. "They included two actual attacks (at Fort Hood, Texas, which claimed the lives of 13 people, and the shooting of two U.S. military recruiters in Little Rock, Arkansas), five serious but disrupted plots, and four incidents involving groups of Americans conspiring to travel abroad to receive terrorist training. ... This level of threat is likely to persist for years to come."

And it gets worse: Al-Qaida-related groups have created a recruitment pipeline inside America, according to the report. Three American citizens -- Adnan el Shukrijumah, Omar Hammami and Anwar al-Aulaqi -- are top commanders of al-Qaida affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia and Yemen. From foreign havens, this trio oversees active recruitment drives among radicalized Muslims of various ethnic backgrounds in immigrant communities across our country. Their intimate knowledge of American society is applied to clandestine operations within our borders, terrorist training, selecting targets and planning attacks. According to the report, no single U.S. agency -- not the NDI, FBI, CIA or DHS -- is accountable for coordinating our response to this emerging threat.

In plotting the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden exploited the lack of coordination between counterterrorism officials. Similar vulnerabilities exist today with regard to the terrorist plots being incubated offshore, but using U.S. citizens, permanent residents and those with legal visas as their deadly operatives.

It is vital for us to crack these networks, not just to defend against future attacks, but to take the offensive. With a clear understanding of the terrorist recruiting infrastructure inside the U.S., we will be able to insert double agents -- "pipeliners" -- into the foreign-based al-Qaida affiliates.

It would help if U.S. authorities could gain the cooperation and active assistance of freedom-loving, patriotic Muslims. That is why the Jones-Rauf media diversion, with its cultural divisiveness, is so corrosive. But with or without such incidents, the pull and reach of radical Islam is powerful -- which is why nations from Britain to Holland to the U.S. are constantly surprised when seemingly middle-class, law-abiding Muslims suddenly turn up violent in our midst.

That is why six years ago when I was writing my first book on the topic ("The West's Last Chance"), I warned that we in the U.S. just as in Europe would be vulnerable to home grown middle-class Muslims who would come under the sway of Internet mad mullahs and start blowing things up.

I am gratified that the study group has finally come to the same conclusion. But it is a sad commentary on the power of political correctness and a dreadful lack of imagination on the part of our policy leaders that it took the experts 10 years to reach the same obvious conclusion that a reasonably alert generalist could spot back before the London bombings.

A final implication of the Kean-Hamilton report concerns the ACLU's lawsuit to limit the CIA's use of drones to assassinate American terrorists like al-Aulaqi. If the ACLU prevails, we will have committed unilateral disarmament.

Tony Blankley is executive vice president of Edelman public relations in Washington.

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