Homegrown terrorism a growing concern for US intelligence

Homegrown terrorism is a growing threat, US intelligence chief Dennis Blair said this week. But the number of American Muslims engaged in extremist activity remain small and still largely focused overseas.

Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, this week, before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on the annual threats assessment of the US intelligence community.

The nation’s top intelligence official warned this week of the threat posed by “homegrown terrorism,” though he said there was no evidence yet of an organized terrorist network operating in the US.

A small number of American Muslims are engaged in extremist activities at home and abroad, said Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair Tuesday at a Senate hearing. Their focus remains largely overseas, he said, but the threat to the homeland from Americans with links to radicals abroad remains troubling.

“We are concerned that the influence of inspirational figures such as Anwar al-Awlaqi will increasingly motivate individuals toward violent extremism,” Mr. Blair said. Mr. al-Awlaqi is the radical Yemeni cleric linked to Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged Fort Hood shooter, as well possibly to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab the Nigerian who attempted to blow up an American airliner in Detroit on Christmas Day.

Blair also separately warned that Al Qaeda or its affiliates overseas was planning a big attack against the US in the next six months.

Blair’s concerns about homegrown terrorism points up the difficulty US intelligence and law enforcement agencies have in spotting terrorists who are American citizens - the so-called “terrorist next door” phenomenon.

“The motivations for such individuals are complex and driven by a combination of personal circumstances and external factors,” Blair said.

These include feelings of alienation, concerns over American foreign policy, and ties to extremist Islamic groups and “negatively inspirational ideologues.”

Of particular concern are US citizens who travel abroad for training and return to attack the homeland, according to an unclassified version of the Annual Threat Assessment presented by Blair at the hearing.

Sporadic terror plots to persist

The assessment said violence from homegrown jihadists will persist “but will be sporadic.”

“A handful of individuals and small, discrete cells will seek to mount attacks each year, with only a small portion of that activity materializing into violence against the homeland,” according to Blair’s testimony.

So far, there is no evidence of a US-based group sophisticated enough to support organized attacks against the US.

Still, there have been several domestic terror plots in the past few years, points out Rick Nelson, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a
think tank in Washington, in an analysis. In the past year, these include:

* Last September, Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan living legally in the US, was arrested on charges of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction. Authorities claimed he traveled to Pakistan to receive training.

* Eight people were charged in November for allegedly recruiting more than 20 Somali-Americans to join Al Shabab, a local group in Somalia linked to Al Qaeda.

* In December, the FBI charged US citizen David Coleman Headley with conspiring with operatives of Pakistani terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, in the attacks in Mumbai in 2008.

* Also in December, five Northern Virginia men were arrested in Pakistan and were alleged to have traveled there to train with Taliban militants.

Why they radicalize

Poverty and social marginalization are some reasons why some individuals self-radicalize, Mr. Nelson writes in an analysis for CSIS. However, some of the alleged terrorists are from well-off families, including the five from Northern Virginia.

Many individuals may also self-radicalize or radicalize with the help of an inspirational figure in the context of the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which appear to some as a war on Islam.

“The US needs to counteract this narrative,” Nelson said. US policymakers must build stronger partnerships with states threatened by extremist violence.

“Cooperation, rather than large-scale intervention, ultimately offers a surer path to mitigating terrorism,” he writes.


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