When terrorists are homegrown and hard to detect

The day before Thanksgiving, President Barack Obama reassured Americans there was “no specific and credible intelligence indicating a plot on the homeland.” Seven days later came an explosion of gunfire and the deadliest terrorist attack in America since Sept. 11, 2001.

What may be most disturbing is not that Mr. Obama was wrong, but that apparently he was right. By all accounts so far, the government had no concrete intelligence warning of the assault on Wednesday that killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California.

Swift, ruthless and deadly, the attack appeared to reflect an evolution of the terrorist threat that Mr. Obama and federal officials have long dreaded: homegrown, self-radicalised individuals operating undetected before striking one of many soft targets that can never be fully protected in a country as sprawling as the United States.

“We have moved to an entirely new phase in the global terrorist threat and in our homeland security efforts,” Jeh Johnson, the secretary of homeland security, said in an interview on Saturday. Terrorists have “in effect outsourced attempts to attack our homeland. We’ve seen this not just here but in other places. This requires a whole new approach, in my view.”

Mr. Obama was to address the nation Sunday night about the steps the administration is taking. Mr. Johnson said the government should continue to augment airline security by placing more agents in overseas departure airports and further toughen standards for the visa waiver program that allows visitors from certain friendly nations easy entry into the country. He and other officials said the government needed to reach out even more to Muslim communities to help identify threats that might otherwise escape notice.

The San Bernardino attack has already inflamed the political debate less than two months before the first voting in the 2016 presidential primaries, and it may reshape Mr. Obama’s last year in office.

However, many cautioned against overreaction, warning that the focus on Muslims could lead to the kind of anger and alienation that creates more potential for terrorist recruitment.

The death toll from jihadi terrorism on U.S. soil since the Sept. 11 attacks — 45 people — is about the same as the 48 killed in terrorist attacks motivated by white supremacist and other right-wing extremist ideologies, according to New America, a research organisation in Washington. And both tolls are tiny compared with the tally of conventional murders, more than 200,000 over the same period.

In the case of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the couple identified as the attackers in San Bernardino, all the usual defences that Presidents and counterterrorism officials have built up since Sept. 11 — airport screenings, expansive surveillance, drone strikes — proved no match for a husband and wife assembling weapons of war.

Unlike the perpetrators of the attacks in Paris last month, this couple seemed to have been inspired by the Islamic State but were not acting directly on its orders. If investigators confirm that the attack was inspired by the Islamic State, it will demonstrate the power of the militant group’s message. Through social media, the group can reach past the government’s defences to the nation’s heart in encouraging supporters to take up arms in cities, suburbs or small towns. — New York Times News Service

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Printable version | May 26, 2022 9:54:41 pm |