Assessing the threat. While al Qaeda has been weakened, the report notes that events in the Middle East and North Africa are presenting terrorists with new opportunities. In Syria, for example, AQI is using the pseudonym of al-Nusrah Front and hopes to establish a long-term presence there. AQI says that it is fighting to establish an Islamic caliphate not just in Syria but in the entire area.
In West Africa, BH, a group with some ties to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), seems to be gaining global funding and training resources, which has led to an increase in the number and sophistication of attacks the group conducts. In Mali, a coup left AQIM and other terrorist groups in control of the northern half of the country. Undergoverned areas in Niger also provided safe havens for AQIM and other groups.
In the context of a broad look at terrorism and the nature of the risk to the United States going forward, what do these numbers tell us? How worried should the United States be? It helps to look at the long game, and not just at 2012 and early 2013 (the Boston Marathon bombing). In terms specifically of attacks on U.S. soil, says noted terrorism expert Brian Jenkins, from 9-11 to the end of 2012, 204 persons have been arrested for some involvement with jihadist terrorism in the United States—either providing material support or plotting to carry out attacks. While that is a disturbing number, Jenkins notes that it is infinitesimal as a percentage of the U.S. Muslim population, proving that despite “constant exhortations to young men” via the Internet, “al Qaeda’s ideology is not gaining any traction in communities here.”
Moreover, Jenkins notes, a closer look at actual and would-be terrorists within the United States, including the Boston bombers, reveals that they are not part of an ongoing and organized underground, as was the case with groups like the Weathermen in the 1960s. These terrorists may have been inspired by jihadi Web sites, but their real motivation appears to be mostly personal grievance, and they are one-offs, as opposed to truly being part of a sustained campaign.
Jenkins acknowledges, however, that the government can’t afford to ignore the potential of another 9-11, London, Madrid, or Mumbai. The likelihood of a U.S. version of the latter was a topic of a recent U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security subcommittee hearing. The hearing examined the likelihood that Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which orchestrated the Mumbai attacks, would strike on U.S. soil, perhaps through a surrogate group or group of homegrown Pakistani-Americans.