As the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the threat of terrorism is still as real as ever, but it may wear a different face than the one America initially became familiar with after the 2001 attacks.
“The affiliates and the homegrown [organizations] seem to be alive and well, while the al-Qaeda core is sucking wind,” said Tom Sanderson, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and co-author of the recently released report “The Future of al-Qaeda.”
“They are hurt and under pressure. We’re killing a lot of the senior leadership,” he said.
Brian Forst, American University professor and author of the book “Terrorism, Crime and Public Policy,” agrees.
“Jihadi terrorism is still a threat, [but it’s] more grassroots now than from top down,” said Forst. “We need to focus more on home-grown terrorism, lone wolves and small teams, right-wing extremists.”
On the ropes
Matthew Irvine, a researcher at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based nonpartisan organization focused on developing national defense policies, believes the death of bin Laden has, in some ways, made the U.S. safer.
“Eliminating the leader of a terrorist organization is always going to, at least in the short term, hurt its operational capabilities,” said Irvine. “Although bin Laden was only one member of al-Qaeda, he was the strategic leader of the organization.”
He considers al-Qaeda to be “on the ropes,” but Irvine said the organization, and others like it, are still strong terrorism threats.
“The threat you’ll find now are the organizations inspired by al-Qaeda, whether it’s the affiliates in Yemen or Somalia or North Africa or even potentially people in Europe or the United States,” he said.
Sanderson also believes that there is a greater threat from homegrown terrorist groups now than at any other time over the last 10 years.
“They’re acting essentially at the request of al-Qaeda,” he said of members of these groups. “They may feel marginalized, disrespected, and disenfranchised. They see themselves as foot soldiers in this confrontation with the West and they’re called to attack by the al-Qaeda message and ideology.”
Militant organizations such as Lashkar-e Tayyiba and Jemaah Islamiyah have been responsible for several prominent acts of international terrorism in recent years, including the 2008 Mumbai attacks and two attacks in Bali carried out in 2002 and 2005.
In an effort to combat the threat of domestic terrorism, the Obama administration released a plan to fight violent extremism at the local level last month. Sen. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, ranking member, released a joint statement stating that the administration is not doing enough to counter homegrown terrorism.
Lieberman and Collins expressed concern about the increase in homegrown terrorism plots, citing a Congressional Research Service report that claims there have been 52 homegrown terrorism attacks or plots since 9/11, over half of which occurred in the last two years.
House and Senate committees have held over a dozen hearings regarding homegrown terrorism in the last five years, including the controversial House hearings on Muslim radicalization earlier this year. The House Committee on Homeland Security recently held a hearing titled, “The Attacks of Sept. 11th: Where are We Today.”
Alejandro Beutel, government and policy analyst for the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC) and author of MPAC’S “Post 9/11 Terrorism Database,” believes the government is taking the right steps to fight homegrown terrorism but can do more.
“The important thing is to build bridges not walls between communities and law enforcement agencies,” said Beutel. “What’s been recognized now by the administration and law enforcement is that it is increasingly important to talk to community leaders and work with them.”
Although the threat of terrorism is still very real, Irvine believes America’s understanding of Islam is changing.
“I think too often for Americans their introduction to Islam has been through the lens of reporting on terrorism,” said Irvine. “However, I think most Americans have learned and realized al-Qaeda is not mainstream at all, and is in fact a radical fringe of Islam and even a radical fringe of conservative Islamic ideology.”
Beutel believes as understanding of Islam in America grows, it will be easier to fight this type of terrorism.
“Two out every five plots since 9/11 have been thwarted with the assistance of Muslim communities. We are the ones on the front lines and we are the ones that are trying to combat al-Qaeda’s ideology,” said Beutel. “You have to treat us as partners, not as suspects.”