Is Terrorism Returning to the United States?

The attempted attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 (December 25, 2009) by a would-be suicide bomber is a rude reminder of the trend that has been emerging for some time, and is evidence of renewed efforts on the part of al-Qaeda and its affiliates to attack the United States on its own soil and US allies around the globe.

The current attempt is reminiscent of al-Qaeda’s two previous attempts through its offshore attacks program to blow up passenger planes belonging to American airlines. At the end of 2001, not long after 9/11, al-Qaeda sent out two operatives with shoes hollowed out and filled with explosives. One, Richard Colwin Reed (“the shoe bomber”) tried to blow up an American Airlines flight en route to Miami from Paris (December 2001), while the other, Sajid Badat, had second thoughts and was arrested in England (November 2003).

The last effort in the skies of Detroit adds a name to the list of Americans and immigrants, mostly of Muslim descent or converts to Islam, who were arrested in the last year and a half in and out of the United States and reveals the workings of individuals or small cells intent on terrorism. The people involved in these incidents all adopted the militant worldview of global jihad, and at some point volunteered to undergo training with elements belonging to or identified with al-Qaeda, usually in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region. Some of these operatives intended to carry out attacks in the United States while others left the US to carry out attacks in different locations around the world.

The most recent affair before the Detroit incident came to light in December 2009 with the arrest in Chicago of Daoud Sayad Gilani, the American-born son of a Pakistani father and American mother, who as a teen moved with his mother to the United States. Gilani was involved in intelligence gathering on behalf of the Pakistani organization Lashkar-e-Taiba for the purpose of carrying out the attack on the central hotels in Mumbai, an attack responsible for the deaths of more than one hundred and sixty people, including eight Israelis and Jews, and the wounding of hundreds. In addition, Gilani and his American-Pakistani partner, under the direction of the organization closely allied with al-Qaeda, were preparing to undertake an attack of revenge in Denmark against the editors of the Danish newspaper that published what they deemed were offensive cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Gilani, previously involved in criminal activities, was jailed for trying to import heroin from Pakistan. He was released by the Drug Enforcement Administration and sent to Pakistan as an undercover agent to spy on local drug rings. It was apparently during this period that he became close to radical Islamists and with their help underwent training and was then recruited for acts of terrorism.

In another affair uncovered in September 2009 with the arrest of Afghan-born Najibullah Zazi (24), who went into exile with his family and had lived in New York since the age of 14, it was revealed that while traveling to Pakistan to marry his cousin he became involved with radicals who convinced him to join the ranks of global jihad. He volunteered to undergo training at an al-Qaeda camp in the Peshawar region of Afghanistan, and in 2009 returned to the United States where, under the directions of his handlers, he moved to Denver, Colorado. There he amassed triacetone triperoxide (TATP) for improvised explosives, apparently to detonate in an attack in New York. He was arrested on suspicion of having gathered intelligence on several potential targets such as sports arenas and large transportation hubs in the city.

In October 2008 reports were published about the arrest in Pakistan of Bryant Neal Vinas (24), an American Christian convert to Islam. Vinas completed training at an al-Qaeda camp in Waziristan, and thereafter participated in a series of attacks carried out by al-Qaeda against American bases in Afghanistan. He volunteered to carry out a suicide attack in Afghanistan on behalf of the organization but his offer was rejected, apparently because of his value as someone who could be called on to carry out a similar attack on American or other Western soil. When he returned from Afghanistan, where he had also been looking for a suitable bride, Vinas was arrested by Pakistani authorities and turned over to the Americans. The indictment handed down against him by the United States included the intention of a terrorist cell he was associated of carrying out an attack in Belgium. However, most of the details of the incident have so far remained sealed.

Yet another incident exposed in recent months, this time involving an American Muslim of Palestinian descent, was publicized in November 2009 after the killing spree carried out by Nidal Malik Hasan, an American army psychiatrist who murdered twelve soldiers and one civilian physician’s assistant and injured some 30 soldiers and passers-by in a shooting attack at Fort Hood, Texas. On the basis of all the information made public, the attack was carried out as revenge for the killing of innocent Muslims around the world by America. Subsequently his close ties to Anwar al-Awlaki came to light. The latter is a radical Muslim cleric of Yemeni descent who lived in the United States for several years but recently returned to Yemen, where it was reported that Yemeni security forces had tried to kill him.

There are more examples of similar terrorist intentions, such as the cell established by Daniel Patrick Boyd, an American from Virginia who converted to Islam at an early age and volunteered to serve alongside Afghani mujahideen against Soviet forces. After returning from Afghanistan, Boyd lived a conventional life in the United States. A few years ago, after a process of self-radicalization, Boyd again involved himself in violence, preparing to launch attacks on American soil. To this end, Boyd and the cell members he recruited started hoarding weapons. In 2006 and 2007, Boyd attempted (once with his son and once with his son and two others) to enter Israel in order to reach Gaza to participate in the struggle against Israel. Boyd and his cell members in North Carolina were arrested in 2009 and charged with planning an attack on the Marine Corps base in Quantico.

To these incidents one may also add the involvement of some 20 American activists of Somali descent who from an early age grew up and went to school in United States, yet volunteered to fight in Somalia and carry out suicide attacks on behalf of the Somali al-Shabab organization. Two of them realized their intentions in practice, thus becoming the first American suicide bombers abroad. One may assume with a high degree of probability that had their handlers chosen to send them out on such missions in the United States instead of Somalia, the request would have met with a favorable response.

In addition to evidence of ongoing terrorist activity, these incidents also testify to increased and more efficient security efforts on the part of American enforcement agencies to foil terrorism on its soil. They also shed light on President Obama’s decision to reinforce significantly American troops in the Afghani-Pakistani region to fight al-Qaeda and its affiliates. The president is determined to strengthen security cooperation with America’s allies in fighting terrorism such as Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the North African nations, and others. This struggle is a central defensive shield for American citizens to defend against the terrorist threat emanating from within the United States, as well as a shield to defend America’s allies in the face of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups determined to continue carrying out acts of murderous international terrorism.

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by Yoram Schweitzer
(INSS Insight No. 153, December 30, 2009)



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