After the September 11 attacks, various terrorist experts warned that sleeper cells hiding the United Sates or hyper-competent terrorists abroad were poised to strike. Those predictions, happily, proved wrong. Before we could celebrate our safety, however, a new terrorist menace emerged: homegrown violent extremists. Thanks to a raft of arrests of American born jihadist attackers, plus a couple real attacks of that kind, we seem to be experiencing a homegrown terrorism boom. Congress has held hearings. The Department of Homeland Security is encouraging local authorities to be on the lookout and named a new lead person on CVE (counter violent extremism) matters and a new Counterterrorism Advisory Board to coordinate his activities. Various policing initiatives aim to find homegrown terrorists, including those ubiquitous announcements where recorded officials remind us to be vigilant and report the unusual.
Internationally, the new fear is that the virtual decapitation of al Qaeda central in Pakistan has allowed the jihadist threat to the west to metastasize, as it mingles with various regional groups. The al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Somalia, Northern Africa and even Nigeria, are, according to this theory, coordinating with each other and threatening the west by training and radicalizing terrorist operatives, as the old al Qaeda once did in Afghanistan. So U.S. military actions, including drone strikes and training local forces, are needed to defeat these groups.
Friday morning, Cato is hosting a brief conference, consisting of two panels, that will critically examine these assumptions. Risa Brooks, John Mueller and Brian Jenkins (calling in from California) will look at the local terrorist threat in the United States. They will ask how this set of terrorists compares to past domestic terrorist threats, whether homegrown terrorist attacks are actually up—some say otherwise—and, if they are, whether that increase is largely a result of FBI sting operations where the bulk of motivation and expertise to conduct the attack comes from federal agents or informants. The world is, after all, full of impressible idiots capable of being talked into a variety of violent acts. It may be that any increase in the incidence of homegrown terrorist plots is a product of our increased efforts to find it. The panelist may also ask whether the exhortations to be vigilant against domestic terrorists are, thanks to false leads and distraction, more trouble than they are worth.
On the second panel, Glenn Carle, Mitchell Silber and Michael Kenney will look at what has become the global al Qaeda, asking whether it is withering due to weak popular support, whether there is any center directing the cells and affiliates, and how interested these various insurgent jihadist groups are in putting aside their local struggle and attacking western targets. The panel will also consider whether the absence of command and hierarchy in the al Qaeda movement breeds incompetence and makes unlikely the technologically sophisticated terrorism—like the biological or nuclear attacks—that we’ve been told to expect.