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SILBER: The mutating al Qaeda threat

Terrorists are adapting and expanding

- The Washington Times - Friday, December 30, 2011

Ten years ago last month, the now-infamous "shoe bomber," Richard Reid, boarded an American Airlines flight bound for Miami from Paris, intending to kill himself and all of the other passengers by detonating an explosive device he had concealed in his shoes. What was unknown at the time is that Reid was not supposed to act alone. Saajid Badat - like Reid a British citizen - was supposed to ignite his own pair of explosive shoes on a different trans-Atlantic flight, but he dropped out in the plot's final stages.

Two years ago, on Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a Northwest Airlines flight in Amsterdam bound for Detroit, intending to kill himself and all 289 passengers onboard by igniting an explosive device - this time hidden in his underwear - as the plane approached Detroit. As with Reid, other passengers subdued him before he could do so.

The similarities and differences between these two plots can inform our current understanding of the nature of the al Qaeda threat to the West.

Some of the similarities are obvious: high-profile targets, attempts made during the holiday season to maximize media attention, and diabolical creativity in terms of the hidden personal improvised explosive devices (in shoes and underwear) intended to cause maximum death and destruction on flights coming to the United States.

A less obvious but vital similarity is the bombers' backgrounds. It was not by accident that both plots involved men who essentially radicalized to violence in the West (in London). In fact, a careful dissection of 16 of the most important "al Qaeda" plots launched against the West since 1993 reveals a consistent trend embedded in the al Qaeda threat to the West. Namely, al Qaeda has repeatedly and opportunistically used men who radicalized to violence in Western cities such as Hamburg, Germany, Montreal, London and New York, who showed up on al Qaeda's doorstep on their own initiative and then were trained, turned around and launched back at the West by al Qaeda.

Although the tendency has been to see al Qaeda as "the other," the truth of the matter is that whether it was the Madrid transit-system attacks of 2004, the bombings in London on July 7, 2005, or the New York City subway plot of September 2009, the bombers lived in the great cities of the West, were radicalized in the West and turned to violence in the West. Based on terrorism-related arrests in the United States and the United Kingdom over the past year, this trend of bottom-up radicalization in the West is not likely to end anytime soon.

Just as important is the lesson that can be drawn from the key difference between the shoe-bomber and underwear-bomber plots - the first directed by al Qaeda Core and the latter by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP): Since 2001, the broad threat from al Qaeda has metastasized away from its core leadership, mutated and spread, potentially making it even more dangerous than before.

There has been growth on the periphery of other important nodes in al Qaeda's worldwide association of diffuse but ideologically aligned groups. The core has networked laterally with them, forming a loose coalition that includes AQAP, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan,Lashkar-e-Taiba, al Shabab and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, among others.

Each group serves as a power center or hub that has an informal and loose relationship to AQ Core. If the core fades in the wake of bin Laden's death or from attrition because of drone strikes, other nodes in the network will seek to raise their profile and may even surpass the core's ability to project a threat outward against the West. This process may have startedalready. Indeed, these affiliates and allies already have begun to attract would-be warriors radicalized in the West who previously might have attempted to join al Qaeda Core but instead chose peripheral nodes. These groups then deployed the attackers back home to conduct plots against the West - such as the underwear-bomber plotand the Times Square plot.

What the past 10 years have shown us is that the organization that struck the United States in New York, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania in 2001 is adaptive. Its members and adherents are not just sitting there waiting to be killed. They have found a way to survive and spread into new safe havens, such as Yemen, Somalia and North Africa. The ongoing, overseas al Qaeda-linked threat has morphed but not dissipated. Combating and deterring it will require continued vigilance, commitment of resources and staying power.

Mitchell D. Silber is the author of "The al Qaeda Factor: Plots Against the West" (University of Pennsylvania, 2011) and director of intelligence analysis for the New York Police Department.

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