Connecting the terrorist dots

The nation’s emergency management system must be revitalized based on lessons learned from the failures during Hurricane Katrina. But the nation needs to look beyond that disaster to even more important challenges.

The greatest threat to the United States is not Mother Nature. Our greatest threat remains the radical fundamentalist Islamic fanatics who are committed to destroying our great country and establishing their self-defined moral and religious global utopia.

Today, more than four years without a terrorist attack inside the United States, it is easy to become complacent and feel secure. But we are not secure.

While significant improvements in preparedness have been put in place, much remains undone. Many seams exist that determined terrorists can exploit to attack us. And the enemy terrorist network, far from being defeated, is, arguably, stronger than ever.

Our invasion of Afghanistan may have destroyed al Qaeda as an operational terrorist organization. But the old al Qaeda has been replaced by something far more sinister. It is a global ideology stimulating development of a new generation of radical terrorists committed to violent jihad. These new terrorists, supported by sophisticated Internet communications, are developing autonomous cells that are very difficult to detect. As a result, the number of terrorist attacks worldwide is actually growing.

Then why haven’t we been attacked again here at home? Many believe the remnants of al Qaeda’s leadership, while no longer the central headquarters for terrorist operations, is exerting influence on their followers not to attack the United States again until they can deliver a body blow more severe than September 11.

While we are focused on defeating the insurgent terrorists in Iraq, these ideological terrorists could be in the United Kingdom, the Philippines or Belgium, scheming about how to attack us to achieve the greatest number of casualties or inflict the most economic damage.

Unfortunately, we really don’t know how, when or where they may attack.

But we should understand that their planning is underway. They will try to strike us again in a catastrophic manner. Of that we can be certain.

But are we prepared to stop these radicals before they attack America again? The recent controversy over domestic wiretaps is overshadowing the main issue. We are placing far too much reliance on the federal government stopping the next terrorist attack. Our federal screens will never be perfect enough to keep terrorist cells out of the United States. Indeed, the FBI cannot say for sure whether cells are already here or not.

Prudent planning requires us to assume terrorist organizations know how to insert operational cells into the United States. We must also assume that, once they are here, they will try to blend in until they launch their strike. The challenge is: They could be anywhere. Cells planning to explode a radiological bomb on Wall Street, for instance, could be putting the device together in a garage in Scranton, Pa., or Camden, N.J.

Since the September 11 attacks, we have made some terrific progress. But our counter-terrorism programs are still federal-focused. We have yet to develop an effective information-sharing regime with state and local governments. The bottom line: We have no national terrorism prevention strategy and doctrine.

We must train the Scranton and Camden police to recognize the indicators that terrorists are in their midst. And we must develop state and local analyses capabilities so officials at those levels can connect the dots.

Despite the billions being spent for homeland security, there is no national program to fuse information collected at the state and local levels with federal intelligence. Some states have developed information fusion centers on their own. But there are no national standards to guide how they could be organized or what they should do. And there is no process to tie them together.

Until the federal government gets serious about bringing in state and local governments as full partners to stop the next terrorist attack, we will never be safe.

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