Last year was a busy one for terrorism. Law enforcement officials battled an unprecedented number of cases — from dozens of young men decamping from the U.S. to train for jihad to the case of a Denver shuttle bus driver and at least two of his friends who are charged with training with al-Qaida in a plot to blow up transportation targets in New York.
The question experts have been asking is why so much activity now? It seems counterintuitive, given what intelligence officials say has been happening to al-Qaida in the past year.
Intelligence officials tell NPR that in 2009, the Obama administration killed more senior al-Qaida leaders in drone attacks in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan than the Bush administration did in the three years prior. And officials say this has had a telling impact on how the group is communicating, raising money and planning operations — it's having trouble doing all three.
Despite that progress, officials think 2010 could see even more activity by terrorists focused on the U.S.
Intelligence officials say that's partly because al-Qaida is reaching out to affiliate groups, such as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the Pakistani Taliban, to launch terrorist attacks for them.
Franchises Represent 'The Most Significant Threat'
"Al-Qaida has had to adapt its strategy because of all the pressure being brought to bear on them in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas]," says Sam Rascoff, a terrorism expert at the New York University School of Law. "So they have turned to franchise organizations in North Africa and Yemen and indeed around the world, and they have come to the fore. They represent the most significant threat al-Qaida poses today, I think."
Al-Qaida has been in this position before. In 2002, the group was set on its heels after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and drove it from its safe haven there. As al-Qaida leaders searched for new places to hide, they called on affiliates to fill the void and attack U.S. targets. That's when extremists in Indonesia, for example, bombed hotels in Bali.
Core al-Qaida went through a rebuilding phase that lasted until 2004, when it found a home and common cause with tribal leaders in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan. No longer under pressure, al-Qaida's senior leadership turned its attention to planning more sophisticated attacks like those on London transportation targets in 2005. Experts say al-Qaida is currently going through another period of retrenchment, much like the one it was forced into in 2002.
Rascoff says the increased drone attacks have robbed al-Qaida of a comfortable sanctuary and that it has turned once again to the previously successful strategy of leaning on affiliates.
A Variation On A Deadly Strategy
In 2002, the number of al-Qaida franchises could be counted on less than one hand. Now they can be counted on two and have set up operations around the world — from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan to al-Shabab in Somalia. That's partly the reason for the increase in terrorism cases in the U.S., experts say. Al-Qaida's outsourcing has led to a lot more groups angling to launch an attack, seeking recruits and hoping to find weaknesses in America's defenses.
Rascoff says all the activity in 2009 is a clear indication that al-Qaida is pursuing a franchise strategy.
"The good news is that al-Qaida as a headquarters organization perceives itself as being limited in what it can do," he says. "The bad news is that as a franchise they can be quite devastating in what they can pull off."
The latest evidence: the attempted Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Flight 253, which was organized by an offshoot in Yemen known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. There are also increasing questions about which group was responsible for the deadly suicide bomb attack on the CIA at a forward operating base in Khost, Afghanistan. Three different groups have taken credit, and officials say it's possible they worked in concert — a variation on the franchise strategy al-Qaida has utilized in the past.
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, says al-Qaida has learned from its 2002 experience. Core al-Qaida is not just asking affiliates to pick up the slack; it is actually sending some of its most trusted and skilled operatives to help these groups train. The CIA attack in Khost could fit that mold.
"In essence, these operatives are being sent out as force multipliers, to plus up or strengthen or to enhance the capabilities of local and region allies," says Hoffman. He believes they are attempting to "overwhelm the U.S. and other enemies with a strategy that amounts to death by 1,000 cuts."
The problem is further complicated by the fact that al-Qaida's brand of extremism is starting to find more traction in the U.S. among people who came of age during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Homegrown Terrorism Threat
In the past, Americans tended to see homegrown terrorism as a European problem. The thinking was that immigrants assimilated in this country so easily that they were unlikely to be swayed by Islamist radicalism. U.S. officials say this isn't true anymore. Just last month, a handful of young men from the Washington, D.C., area traveled to Pakistan in hopes of training for jihad, officials say.
The FBI also has been tracking what it fears is America's first jihadi pipeline, out of Minneapolis. More than two dozen Somali-Americans have left the Twin Cities over the past two years to join al-Shabab, a terrorist group in Somalia. There has been no indication that the young men are training for anything other than the civil war raging in Somalia. But officials fear this could change and that the young men could be dispatched to launch an attack in the U.S.
For example, the orange alert that rattled law enforcement officials during President Obama's inauguration was linked to the Minneapolis Somali case. Officials had been told one of the young men had returned to the U.S. with suicide bomber training, and it was feared that he could strike during the inauguration. But it turned out to be a mistaken report.
Hoffman said the U.S. has been naive in thinking it is immune to al-Qaida's attempts to recruit new members, whether on the ground with traditional recruiters or through the Internet.
Recruitment of operatives in the U.S. "is the reflection of a conscious strategy on the part of al-Qaida," says Hoffman. They want to "use their propaganda, to use the Internet and other means of communication in order to gain a toehold in the United States."
Hoffman expects the situation will get worse before it gets better. Counterterrorism officials agree, saying they expect this year to be just as busy for them as last year.