The threat of terrorism in the U.S. today is “less severe” but “more complex and more diverse than at any time over the past nine years,” according to a new report by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Preparedness Group, the new incarnation of the 9/11 Commission. The lead anecdote in its report, “Assessing the Terrorist Threat,” released Friday morning, is that of Burhan Hassan, who illustrates a new problem in the battle against terrorism: the increasing role of U.S. residents or citizens in planning and assisting in terrorist operations.
Along with a handful of other local Somali males, 17-year-old Burhan, as Abdi Aynte reported here in in December 2008, boarded a plane from Minneapolis on election day that had the ultimate destination of Somalia, where he’d been recruited to join Al-Shabab (“The Youth”), “an al-Qaeda ally that deliberately emulates its mentor organization – down to its reliance on training camps, a safe haven, the use of the Internet for propaganda purposes, and suicide attacks,” BPC’s report states. Two of the youths that left that day later went on to kill others in suicide attacks. And, the report says, they are not alone: youth radicalized and recruited by the group elsewhere in the country have committed similar acts.
The report finds that al-Qaeda isn’t capable of a 9/11-scaled attack that would inflict mass casualties, but threats of attacks on American soil persist. Last year was a “watershed” for domestic terrorist plots or attacks, with a “record total of 11 jihadist attacks, jihadist-inspired plots, or efforts by Americans to travel overseas to obtain terrorist training.” At least 43 American citizens or residents with ties to Sunni militant groups or ideologies were charged or convicted of terror-related crimes last year – a record since 9/11, according to the BPC.
The real threat of terror by Islamist extremists isn’t from al-Qaeda-directed attacks, the report finds (at the time of the 9/11 attack, al-Qaeda had only 200 “sworn members”). Like-minded individuals or groups planning attacks independently is where the real threat lies.
One such group is al-Shabab, which swore allegiance to Osama Bin Laden in 2009 and “has managed to plant al-Qaeda-like ideas into the heads of even its American recruits.” From the report:
Shirwa Ahmed, an ethnic Somali, graduated from high school in Minneapolis in 2003, then worked pushing passengers in wheelchairs at the Minneapolis airport. During this period Ahmed was radicalized; the exact mechanisms of that radicalization are still murky, but in late 2007 he traveled to Somalia. About a year later, on October 29, 2008, Ahmed drove a truck loaded with explosives toward a government compound in Puntland, northern Somalia, blowing himself up and killing about 20 people, including United Nations peacekeeping troops and international humanitarian assistance workers. The FBI matched Ahmed’s finger, recovered at the scene, to fingerprints already on file for him.44 Ahmed was the first American terrorist suicide attacker anywhere. It’s possible that 18-year-old Omar Mohamud of Seattle was the second. On September 17, 2009, two stolen U.N. vehicles loaded with bombs blew up at the Mogadishu airport, killing more than a dozen peacekeepers of the African Union. The FBI suspects that Mohamud was one of the bombers.
The report also notes, however, that would-be jihadists don’t fit a single ethnic profile:
[O]f the 57 Americans whose ethnicities are known who have been charged or convicted of Islamist terrorism crimes in the United States or elsewhere since January 2009, 21 percent (12) are Caucasian-Americans, 18 percent (10) are Arab-Americans, 14 percent (8) are South Asian-Americans, 9 percent (5) are African-Americans, 4 percent (2) are Hispanic-Americans and 2 percent (1) are Caribbean-American. The single largest bloc are Somali-Americans at 31 percent, a number that reflects the recent crackdown by federal authorities on support networks for Americans traveling to Somalia to fight with Shabab.