President Obama’s new national security strategy will include a new focus on the threat posed by Americans who can be recruited and radicalized by al Qaeda through the Internet, the president’s senior counterterrorism adviser said Wednesday.
“The president’s national security strategy explicitly recognizes the threat to the United States posed by individuals radicalized here at home,” said John Brennan, the National Security Council’s counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, in a speech.
Mr. Brennan told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that “we have seen individuals, including U.S. citizens, armed with their U.S. passports, travel easily to extremist safe havens and return to America, their deadly plans disrupted by coordinated intelligence and law enforcement.”
Mr. Brennan spoke on the eve of the release by the Obama administration of a new National Security Strategy report.
The new strategy, according to Mr. Brennan, will continue the George W. Bush administration strategy of seeking to distinguish al Qaeda terrorism from the religion of Islam. Mr. Brennan specifically said the Obama administration would no longer use the terms “Islamist” and “jihadist” “because jihad is holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one’s community.”
At the same time, the new strategy states that the United States remains on a war footing against al Qaeda and seeks to destroy the group and its affiliates, Mr. Brennan said. He further noted that the group behind the Sept. 11 attacks is different from other Muslim terrorist groups that might have local grievances.
The emphasis on homegrown radicals reflects the recent trend of attacks and attempted attacks in the United States by U.S. citizens or residents who were inspired to wage terrorism as a result of information posted on the Internet.
The latest such attempt was purportedly made by Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistan-born naturalized American arrested in connection with an unsuccessful attempt to detonate a homemade car bomb in New York City’s Times Square.
Highlighting the new concerns about U.S. citizens becoming radicalized, Mr. Brennan declined to comment when asked if he thought al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden posed a greater danger to the United States than Anwar al-Awlaki.
Mr. al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born Yemeni cleric whose English and Arabic Internet sermons and e-mails have been credited with inspiring both Nigerian national Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, charged with attempting to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day, and U.S. Army psychologist Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan, charged with killing 13 people during a Fort Hood, Texas, shooting rampage in November.
“I think they both present a threat to American security in different ways,” Mr. Brennan said. “Osama bin Laden, who has built up al Qaeda over the past two decades, is the titular head of that organization, and he is representative of the violence and the murderous agenda that al Qaeda holds.”
He went on: “But individuals like Anwar [al-]Awlaki, who recently released a video, demonstrated that his rhetoric is anything but peaceful. It’s anything but Islamic. It is dedicated to murder and lashing out. So they both have the ability to inspire and to try to prey on those victims who believe that they are true Muslims.”
Mr. al-Awlaki and Internet recruitment also were the focus of a recent report by the Rand Corp. that stated there has been a significant increase in indictments of Americans who were recruited for jihadist violence.
Eighty-one of 125 people were indicted for jihad-related crimes between 2002 and 2008. Forty-two people were indicted for such crimes in 2009, and two more were indicted in 2010, the report says.
The study, authored by former U.S. special operations officer Brian Jenkins, concludes that one in 30,000 Muslim Americans is vulnerable to radicalization, a fact “suggesting an American Muslim population that remains hostile to jihadist ideology and its exhortations to violence.”
The new threat is different in some ways from the immediate threat after Sept. 11, 2001. Then, U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies were looking for highly trained sleeper cells and seeking to disrupt sophisticated attacks involving multiple targets and a network of operatives working together.
Today, the threat is posed mainly by individuals who are inspired to conduct attacks on civilians, however crudely, according to counterterrorism experts.
Suzanne Spaulding, a former staff director for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said: “Here is what public officials need to say: ‘We are working incredibly hard to prevent another terrorist attack, but there is no guarantee, and one of these attacks may succeed. The important thing to remember is that we are a resilient nation.’”
The Obama administration has been reluctant to provide details on the issue of monitoring al Qaeda-oriented websites in English, where new people are often recruited to become terrorists.
When asked if the Obama administration wants broader authority for such domestic surveillance, Mr. Brennan said: “What we’ve tried to do is to make sure that we balance appropriately the need for security, but also recognition of the civil liberties and privacy rights that make this country great.”
He added that “what we’ve tried to do is increase our intelligence-collection capabilities, particularly overseas, because both Shahzad and [attempted New York City bomber] Najibullah Zazi obtained training at those training camps in Pakistan. And so what we need to do is to try to modulate those intelligence-collection capabilities so that we might be able to pick that up.”
That issue of monitoring Internet recruitment was the topic of a hearing Wednesday of the House Homeland Security Committee. At the end of the hearing, Rep. Jane Harman, California Democrat, who chairs the subcommittee on intelligence, information sharing and terrorism risk assessment told The Washington Times that U.S. officials had some “authorities” to monitor Web radicalization.
She declined to provide details.
“There are authorities on the book that can be used — [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act], for example — and Title 3 can be used if there are reasons to suspect an individual, but do we just go to a website and track people? I’m not going to answer that question,” she said.
“We follow the laws of this country to look at people we have specific reason to believe are engaged in criminal activity.”