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The Ever-Evolving Terrorism Threat to the US

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By Jeff Gardner
Faculty Member, Homeland Security at American Military University

The al-Qaida (AQ) terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland on September 11, 2001 was a pivotal and tragic event for this nation. As a direct result of those attacks, the U.S. government created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a Director of National Intelligence, a National Counter Terrorism Center, and the U.S Northern Command — just to name a few.

TerrorismFor more than a decade, the U.S. focused on fighting the away game by aggressively going after AQ overseas while strengthening our home game to prevent any more terrorists from entering the country. The Transportation Security Administration was created within DHS to increase airport security while Customs and Border Protection focused on keeping terrorists out and the FBI became very adept at managing watch lists and no-fly lists with their interagency partners.

Terrorism Threat: Shoe and Underwear Bombs

These efforts were not wasted as AQ and their dangerous affiliates like al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula continued to try to attack our homeland. Some attempts by AQ to penetrate our post 9/11 defenses include Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber, who tried to blow up flight 253 descending toward Chicago on Christmas Day in 2009.

However, adversaries adapt, and one of the greatest threats this nation currently faces is from within. The warped al-Qaida message of violence against innocents — or as Peter Bergen has stated “Binladenism” — has proliferated, as well as the highly influential videos by Anwar al Awlaki and Adam Gadahn, who’s fluent English and fiery speeches have spurred many to violence. Now anyone can become radicalized at home without ever visiting an extremist mosque or traveling to a terrorists training camp.

Although Bin Laden, Awlaki, and Gadahn are now all dead, that does not diminish the influence they continue to have in radicalizing many who are disenfranchised, angry or clinically gullible. This has led to a significant number of U.S. citizens being inspired to fight for this terrorist cause, such as the many Somali Americans from the Minneapolis area going to fight with the al-Shabab terrorist group in East Africa.

When we discuss homegrown extremism and homegrown terrorism, we are talking about individuals who Sam Mullins has defined as those who were born in or spent most of their lives here and who generally lack any direct foreign support or control, but were radicalized and trained and carried out (or attempted) attacks here at home. Just some of the recent examples of homegrown terrorism by American citizens include the Fort Hood shooting by Major Nidal Hassan in 2009, the New York City subway bombing plot in 2009 by Najibullah Zazi, the Times Square attempted bombing in 2010 by Connecticut financial analyst Faisal Shahzad, and the Tsarnaev brothers with the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

These homegrown attacks (and attempts) constitute the second phase of terrorism after 9/11. In fact, there have been no external attacks with terrorists from AQ or similar groups attempting to enter the U.S. since 2009.

Terrorism Threat since 9/11

This brings us to the third phase of terrorist threats since 9/11, which is the threat that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or ISIS poses to the homeland. ISIS has overshadowed al-Qaida as the premier terrorist group in the world. ISIS is drawing attention and recruits to their cause by a combination of success on the battlefield and a social media propaganda machine that is phenomenal.

Their apocalyptic messaging coupled with Hollywood quality horrific violence resonates with many. ISIS has inspired multiple terrorist attacks in France and Belgium. ISIS has also inspired attacks here in the U.S. including the San Bernardino shootings in 2015.

Homegrown extremism is now the principal terrorism threat this nation faces, as Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson stated in March 2015, “We are concerned about the independent actor, the so-called lone wolf who could strike at a moment’s notice.”

This does not mean that we should let our guard down or end our focus on overseas terrorist groups. Those traditional homeland security and homeland defense efforts need to be continued as a part of a comprehensive and multilayered security effort. However, the imperative now is to adapt our homeland security enterprise to address this third phase of terrorist threat.

About the Author

Jeffrey V. Gardner is an Assistant Professor of Homeland Security Studies at American Military University, and is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel. Jeff is a Homeland Security Ph.D. Candidate who possesses a Master of Science of Strategic Intelligence with a concentration in terrorism from National Intelligence University, as well as two other masters’ degrees.

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