Editors Note: Jane Harman is director, president and chief executive officer of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She was a nine-term congresswoman from California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee from 2002 to 2006, and a principal coauthor of the Intelligence Reform Law of 2004 and the FISA Amendments of 2008.
By Jane Harman, Special to CNN
The October 5 takedown of Nazih Abdul Hamed al Ruqai – an alleged perpetrator of the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, a long-standing occupant of the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list, and alleged one-time member of Osama bin Laden’s security team – surprised many.
It was a brilliantly successful operation conducted by our military under strict legal guidelines for capture, interrogations, arrest and now transfer to New York for trial. This process may be the new gold standard for CT operations going forward.
U.S. officials hope he will provide useful information about his al Qaeda colleagues and plots being planned against Western and American targets so we may be able to thwart future attacks.
But while this capture was picture-perfect, al Ruqai was only one of many terrorists currently on the loose.
As 9/11 becomes a more distant memory, it is tempting to assume that the threat from al Qaeda and its affiliates has dissipated. It has certainly changed; but the fact that it has become more diffuse, more varied and more geographically specific shouldn't make us think the threat has gone away. It may have shifted, but it is still lethal and widespread.
Who’s out there still trying to do us harm? Here are seven of the deadliest terror groups on the planet:
1. Al Qaeda Central, based in Pakistan, is shielded by armed extremist groups there, including the Taliban and Lashkar e Taiba. While most of the organization’s members have been killed, its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is actively encouraging attacks on the West rather than organizing them directly. He is being advised by American citizen Adam Gadahn, who has unique insight into what messages appeal to the youth of America. Adnan el Shukrijumah, a Saudi who grew up in the United States, is also on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list, and remains at large. He is allegedly responsible for al Qaeda North America operations. Shukrijumah allegedly helped orchestrate an attempted attack on New York’s JFK airport in 2007 and the New York Subway plot in 2009.
It is unclear whether AQ Central will take the opportunity to rebuild and expand its organization after 2014 when NATO forces leave Afghanistan, but we must prepare for the possibility that America might once again face a significant threat from the lawless areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
2. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, is most likely to succeed in attacking the West. AQAP was responsible for the 2009 Christmas Day attempted “Underwear” bomb plot against a U.S. airline, the 2010 attempted printer cartridge bomb plot, and the second attempt at an “Underwear” bomb plot in 2012.
It is digitally savvy, and produces “Inspire” magazine – an online recruitment periodical that provides instructions for improving tradecraft, constructing basic bombs and propaganda about terrorism. Originally advised by American citizen Anwar al Awlaki, Nasir al Wuhayshi now leads the group. He is also considered a “general manager” for AQ Central under Zawahiri. Communications between these two men revealed a plot by AQAP to target U.S. embassies – that resulted in a State Department order for massive closures across the Middle East in August.
AQAP is also home to Ibrahim al Asiri, the notorious bombmaker, who is still at work in his lab creating bombs that are harder for security services to track and identify. To help fund its operations, AQAP is kidnapping European aid workers for ransom.
3. The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, in Iraq, is led by Ibrahim Ali al Badri. ISIS is the successor group to al Qaeda in Iraq, which was created in 2003 after the U.S. invasion. Abu Musab al Zarqawi led the organization until his death in 2006, which conducted suicide bombings against U.S. forces and large Shia populations as well as brutal beheadings. AQI planned the 2005 bombing of American hotels in Amman, Jordan. Last year, ISIS carried out more than 30 bombings in Iraq; this year it conducted a large Abu Ghraib jail break. ISIS funds al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham operations in Syria.
4. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. AQIM has attacked convoys of foreign nationals working in the energy sector, detonated a car bomb outside the Algiers U.N. office and attacked the Israeli embassy in Mauritania with small arms. AQIM also claimed credit for killing American Christopher Leggett, a missionary. Abu Wadoud is AQIM’s leader, and has allied the group with Ansar al Dine in Mali and Algeria and Boko Haram in Nigeria, which has provided militants for training in AQIM camps. Ominously, after the attack on Westgate mall in Kenya, AQ Central considers Africa an area for expansion.
5. Ansar al Sharia is a militia composed of Salafi groups across North Africa. The Libya arm was formed during the civil war, and is now known for the attack on 9/11/12 that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi. Few feel it can reach beyond Libya, but it is still an agile force that can attack at a moment’s notice.
6. Al Shabaab, of Somalia, recently carried out the attacks at Westgate mall in retribution for Kenya’s role in driving Shabaab out of Somalia. At least one of the attackers – Khattab al-Kene – is an American citizen. Leader Ahmed Godane has called for more attacks – and we should listen. Godane helped carry out the 2010 World Cup bombing in Kampala, Uganda, and had his two predecessors in the organization killed. Al Shabaab recruits new fighters and raises funds largely from Somali immigrants in Europe and the United States, who could enter the country with a “clean” passport and no record making it hard to identify these individuals before an attack. The FBI reports that approximately 30 Americans have joined al Shabaab; three have carried out suicide bombings in Somalia.
7. Boko Haram, of Nigeria, means “Western Education is Sinful.” The group has attacked high schools and colleges in Nigeria, killing a large number of students and teachers. The latest attack on an agricultural college in northeastern Nigeria killed 78 students. Though Boko Haram seems most interested in attacking their own citizens, there is concern that the group could begin to attack foreigners in Nigeria. The State Department is offering a $7 million reward for the capture of the leader Abubakar Shekau.
The threats out there are very real. As this survey shows, they are also spread across a wide area and many countries. They work on many levels: direct physical threats to Americans, but also threats to many of our friends and allies and their neighbors, including political, propaganda and psychological threats.
As the problem becomes more diverse, so our response needs to be more flexible and sophisticated. Talking about a "war on terror" is counterproductive because it is misunderstood as a war on Muslims; and because "war" doesn't sum up the effort that is called for. Of course, a kinetic dimension is critical. But precisely because the threat is diverse and political, our response must be, too.
As conflicts rage in Syria and Egypt, and failing governments plague North Africa, many are being trained and radicalized. The challenge is to shore up governments, provide tools for police training, schools and economic development, and counter extreme messages, before the bad guys can mobilize further.