Mitchell D. Silber is the author of 'The Al Qaeda Factor: Plots Against the West'. He is also the Director of Intelligence Analysis for the NYPD. His thoughts do not necessarily represent the opinions of the New York City Police Department.
Just over two years since al Qaeda Core launched the most serious plot on American soil since 9/11 (the Najibullah Zazi NYC Subway Plot of September 2009), al Qaeda’s leader and founder Usama bin Laden, al Qaeda’s most recent “Number 3” Attiyah Abd al Rahman, and the al Qaeda instigators of the Zazi Plot – Saleh al Somali and Rashid Rauf – are all dead - a result of a combination of efforts by U.S. Special Forces and drone strikes. In addition, this fall, Anwar al Awlaqi, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s dual-hatted English language propagandist and chief of external operations, was also killed in a drone strike. The natural question to ask, as the calendar approaches 2012, is: wither the al Qaeda threat?
The recent past may provide some useful insights. One of the most important findings of a forensic study of the sixteen most serious al Qaeda plots against the West since 1993 is that al Qaeda plots against the West are almost always underpinned and manned by Westerners - who travel overseas to al Qaeda or an al Qaeda ally/affiliate and then are turned around opportunistically and sent back to target the West. Whether it was the 1999 LAX Millennium Bomber (Montreal), 9/11 Pilots (Hamburg), Shoe Bombers (London), July 7 and 21 2005 London transit system bombers (Leeds and London), 2009 NYC Subway Bombers (New York) or 2009 Underwear Bomber (London), the key operatives from the plot originated in one of the great cities of the West.
The effort by radicalized Americans to travel abroad and join up with al Qaeda affiliated terrorist groups has continued unabated since 2001. To name just a few, this group includes Bryant Neal Vinas and Adam Gadahn (al Qaeda Core), Samir Khan (AQAP), Omar Hammami, Zachary Chesser and nearly two dozen men from Minneapolis (al Shabaab), David Headley (Lashkar-e-Taiba), Abdul Hameed Shehadeh (unnamed jihadist groups in Pakistan) and Betim Kaziu (jihadist groups in either Iraq or the Balkans), to name just a few.
This begs the question, what hot spots might men who radicalized to violence in London, the Washington DC suburbs, New York City or Toronto travel to in order to carry out their jihadist ambitions in 2012 and beyond?
Af/Pak: Al Qaeda Core remnants and Pakistani jihadist groups
Although key members of al Qaeda Core’s leadership have been removed from the battlefield, Ayman al Zawahiri and Adnan el Shukrijumah, a key orchestrator of the 2009 NYC Subway Plot, remain alive in the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Any Westerners who might find their way upstream and receive training would surely provide a tempting means by which al Qaeda Core could attack the U.S. However, a potentially greater threat than a unilateral al Qaeda attack would be one originating from the blending of Pakistani jihadist groups who have safe havens to operate from, robust operational capabilities, and are willing to subcontract for al Qaeda Core. A prime example of this is the case of David Headley. In his plot targeting Copenhagen, Denmark in 2008, Headley did reconnaissance for Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) on the Jyllands Posten newspaper’s headquarters. LeT lost its interest in targeting Jyllands Posten directly and dropped out of the plot after carrying out the Mumbai attacks of November 2008. Headley and his chief operational officer Ilyas Kashmiri then shopped the plot and the reconnaissance work to al Qaeda Core, who was interested in leveraging it. The result was a series of warnings throughout the fall of 2010 in Western Europe regarding a “Mumbai-style al Qaeda plot”.
There is an entire alphabet soup of Pakistani jihadist groups with whom al Qaeda Core could partner to target the U.S. including the Haqqani network, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Harkat ul Mujahedeen (HuM), Teherek-e-Taliban (TTP), and LeT, to name a few. And, as Pakistani-U.S. relations continue to deteriorate, there is an increased likelihood of a Pakistani jihadist group seeking to target U.S. interests, potentially even as a form of asymmetrical warfare.
Somalia and Yemen: An Alliance of AQ Franchises
Another blended threat incorporates two al Qaeda affiliates—al Shabaab in Somalia with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). For more than twenty years, Somalis seeking relative refuge from the strife and famine in their broken country have crossed the Arabian Sea to Yemen. However, this human traffic has also enabled coordination between the two terrorist groups, as the arrest of Ahmed Warsame in 2011 has proven. The Southern District of New York described Warsame in its indictment as a conduit between al Shabaab and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who provided AQAP with material support “in the form of money, training, communications equipment, facilities, and personnel while he was in Yemen in 2010 and 2011.” This comingling of al Qaeda affiliates and allies is especially worrisome considering that more than fifty Americans, Canadians and British citizens have traveled to Somalia to join al Shabaab and could serve as some of the “personnel” provided to AQAP for training and/or redeployment.
SubSaharan Africa: Another Transnational AQ Alliance
Although it is further off the radar of most Western terrorism analysts, there is a new frontier where an al Qaeda-type threat is metastasizing: Nigeria. The group, Boko Haram, has seen a significant increase in capabilities due to coordination with other al Qaeda affiliates and allies, in particular al Shabaab and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Until this summer, Boko Haram had focused primarily on domestic issues; now it has the potential to project power abroad against U.S. targets. Boko Haram’s August 2011 vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attack on the U.N. headquarters in Abuja marked a striking departure for the group from indigenous to international targets. Expressing his concern over Boko Haram’s nascent collaboration with Al Shabaab and AQIM, U.S. Army General Carter Ham, Commander of AFRICOM, told reporters in Washington this past September, "If left unaddressed, you could have a network that ranges from East Africa through the center. Those three organizations have very explicitly and publicly voiced intent to target Westerners and the U.S. specifically. To me, that is very, very worrying."
The Homeland: New York, Baltimore, Seattle, Dallas etc...
The last twelve months have seen a significant increase in the number of Americans who radicalized to violence and decided that rather than travelling abroad to carry out their jihadist ambitions, they could conduct attacks at home. Whether it was Mohammed Osman Mohammed targeting the Portland Christmas tree lighting ceremony, Antonio Martinez targeting a Baltimore area military recruiting facility, Ahmed Ferhani and Mohamed Mamdouh targeting a Manhattan synogogue or Jose Pimintel building a bomb in an apartment in Washington Heights in Manhattan, "do it yourself" (DIY) terrorism, inspired by al Qaeda seems on the ascent in the homeland. In fact, Inspire Magazine has advised "would be warriors" from the West to avoid international travel and carry out attacks at home. Micro-conspiracies like these are extremely difficult to detect and disrupt before it is too late. Unfortunately, they have increasingly become an extension of the al Qaeda threat.
The al Qaeda threat of 2012 and beyond is a disaggregated one that is made up of horizontal networks, nodes and hubs of al Qaeda affiliates and allies. As al Qaeda Core’s power continues to diminish, other nodes in the network will rise in power and stature to launch plots against the West just as AQAP and TTP in 2009 did in 2009 and 2010. Although the path to al Qaeda Core may not be as attractive as it once was to men from Montreal, London, New York or Hamburg, in 2012 and beyond, new frontiers have opened for those “would be warriors” radicalized in the West who seek to carry out their jihadist ambitions overseas. Counterterrorism officials, policymakers and intelligence and police agencies dare not let their guard down in 2012.