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Response to 'credible threat' shows how much has changed since 9/11

Al Qaeda may have been degraded since 2001. But the threat since 9/11 has become more complicated, decentralized and elusive with franchises, affiliates, and homegrown terrorists.

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From September 11, 2001 to May 2009, US authorities reportedly uncovered 21 plots, and in the past two years they have made arrests in connection with at least 33 more.

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In a report for the Bipartisan Policy Center last September, national security experts Peter Bergen and Bruce Hoffman called 2009 a “watershed year in terrorist attacks and plots in the United States” with a total of 11 jihadist attacks, plots, or efforts by Americans to travel overseas to receive terrorist training. That year, at least 43 Americans or residents aligned with Sunni militant groups were charged or convicted of terrorism crimes.

What’s more, Bergen and Hoffman reported, would-be jihadists were not necessarily poor, uneducated, or without opportunity, as many had assumed after 9/11. Nor did they fit any particular ethnic profile. Of the 57 individuals charged or convicted between January 2009 and when their report was made in September 2010, more were Caucasian-Americans, than were Arab-Americans. (The largest portion – 31 percent – were Somali-Americans.)

At a recent Monitor-sponsored press breakfast, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said, “Categorically the country is safer now that it was prior to 9/11.”

“We have many layers of security in place that didn’t exist before, beginning with intelligence gathering and information sharing,” she said.

But like virtually every expert on national security and domestic terrorism, Ms. Napolitano says the toughest problem remains the single individual or small group who may not have the ability to carry out mass attacks but who could slip through intelligence nets and do considerable damage.

"It is much more difficult to defeat a lone actor for all the reasons you would suspect,” she told Atlantic national correspondent and Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg this week (before the latest credible threat). “They usually use simpler tradecraft, they're not conspiring with people, there's nothing to intercept, a lot of times they act on almost a sporadic basis, so it's very hard to predict,”

"The growth of homegrown violent extremism within the United States, individuals and small cells, is something that I've seen expand in my tenure as secretary,” she said. “Protecting the American people from this is one of the most difficult problems we have."

Although attempts at domestic terrorism in the United States may have been on the rise in recent years, the ability to intercept would-be terrorists has increased as well – often through the use of informants.

Senior counterterrorism officials said Friday that authorities have a general sense of who is behind the most recent plot involving a car bomb and who may be tasked to carry it out, but they don't have exact identities yet, according to the AP. They said there is at least one US citizen among the three people.

IN PICTURES: American Jihadis

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