HAYDEN AND SIMCOX: The terror that grows at home

The war against the West has breached America’s borders

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Details continue to emerge in the investigation of the deadly Boston Marathon blasts, which left three dead and more than 260 wounded. What is immediately clear is the need for security officials to undertake a careful review of the terrorist threat that exists on U.S. soil.

Much has changed since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, formed America’s modern terrorism experience. Those attacks were inspired by a foreign terrorist (Saudi Arabian) and conducted by foreign individuals (mainly Saudis) who planned the attack overseas (in Afghanistan). Terrorism came to be seen as an external threat that breached America’s borders.

The Boston bombings show that this is an increasingly outdated frame of reference. Unlike 9/11, the Boston terrorists were living next door and attacked from within. Tamerlan Tsarnaev came to the United States as a teenager and held a green card. His brother Dzhokhar arrived as a child and subsequently became a U.S. citizen.

Just months before the Boston attacks, the Henry Jackson Society released “Al Qaeda in the United States: A Complete Analysis of Terrorism Offenses,” the most comprehensive study ever conducted of al Qaeda terrorism in America. Of all who committed al Qaeda-related offenses in the United States between 1997 and 2011, the majority (54 percent) were American citizens. That the bulk of these offenses were carried out post-September 11 suggests that rather than repelling Americans from terrorism, that fateful day and its aftermath actually drew some toward it.

It is interesting to note how closely the Tsarnaev brothers, accused of the Boston bombing, fit the terrorism profile outlined in the report. They lived in the Northeast, as did 30 percent of all offenders profiled. Both attended college, as had 52 percent of those in the report. Most terrorists in the United States had not been alienated by the system; instead, they had often thrived in it. Whether the Tsarnaev brothers were connected to foreign terrorist organizations or received training is unclear, but they would not necessarily have needed it. The research found that more than half (53 percent) of all individuals who committed acts of terrorism in the United States had not undergone any formal training.

While presenting the report’s findings in Washington in late February, we were asked what form the next chapter of terrorism in this country could be expected to take. We pointed to the dangers of self-radicalized individuals who could easily access al Qaeda propaganda and terrorist know-how online, including through sites such as YouTube.

The homemade pressure-cooker bombs used in Boston broadly follow instructions provided by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire magazine. Inspire, an English-language publication easily downloadable over the Internet, shows how to carry out simple but deadly terrorist acts, and its first edition in 2010 demonstrated how to construct a pressure-cooker bomb “in the kitchen of your mom.” It is quite conceivable that the Tsarnaevs used this article as their guide.

Boston itself has a history of connection to jihad dating back 20 years, as noted in another recent Henry Jackson study. At least 15 Massachusetts residents were found to have al Qaeda ties, which included conducting in-state terrorism fundraising. The Boston area also served as temporary base from which 11 of the Sept. 11 hijackers launched their attacks on the World Trade Center.

A possible Chechen angle to the Boston Marathon bombings would be a new development in U.S. terrorism, although it is important to note that Muslim grievances in Chechnya have been a motivating factor for a number of individuals who joined al Qaeda. Several of the Sept. 11 “muscle hijackers,” who stormed the cockpits of the hijacked planes in Boston and New York, were thought to be planning to undertake jihad in Chechnya. Those men were reportedly diverted from that path after hearing sermons from Osama bin Laden himself in Afghanistan, volunteering for suicide missions, and being handpicked to carry out the Sept. 11 attacks.

Counterterrorism activity in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen have degraded al Qaeda’s capabilities to carry out large, coordinated mass-casualty operations on the U.S. homeland. However, as evidenced by the Boston bombings, radicalized individuals continue to seek opportunities to attack. Though less elaborate and carrying lower casualty rates, the new smaller-scale attacks are also harder to detect in advance and consequently harder to thwart.

Countering dangers means relying on hard intelligence and being able to see the true nature of the threat clearly. The assessment has to be accurate, burdened by neither prejudice nor political correctness.

While the urgency of addressing evolving terrorism has always been self-evident, it has been brought into even greater focus by the tragic events in Boston. To ensure a free and safe America for generations to come, the United States must actively take steps to acknowledge, disrupt and surmount the growing threat from within its own borders.

Gen. Michael V. Hayden is former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. Robin Simcox is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank.

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