After the developments in terrorism that unfolded throughout 2009 and 2010, only an inveterate optimist perhaps could look forward to a less dangerous or challenging 2011.

The past two years saw the Christmas Day and printer cartridge bomb plots, thus evidencing terrorists’ continued preoccupation with targeting commercial aviation. It also saw the emergence of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), author of both those attempted attacks, as the first credible competitor to its parent al Qaeda Central as the pre-eminent threat to American interests. Meanwhile, last May another al Qaeda affiliate, the TTP, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or the Pakistani Taliban, attempted to carry out a car bomb attack in New York City’s fabled Times Square——the second attempted terrorist strike in New York City within nine months.  And, finally, more than two dozen American citizens or residents of the United States during 2010, were convicted or charged with terrorist crimes either in the U.S. or elsewhere——thus indicating that al Qaeda has achieved the unthinkable: being able to radicalize and recruit American citizens and residents.

As I noted in a report I co-authored on behalf of the National Security Preparedness Group titled “Assessing The Terrorist Threat,” last September, events during 2010 proved to be a continuation of several disquieting trends detected in 2009. There were a record total of 11 jihadist attacks, jihadist-inspired plots, or efforts by Americans to travel overseas to obtain terrorist training that year. Still more worrisome at least 43 American citizens or residents aligned with Sunni militant groups or their ideology were charged or convicted of terrorism crimes in the U.S. or elsewhere, the highest number in any year since 9/11.[1] Even if the 2010 total may not have reached the heights of the previous year, the recent cluster of arrests in Portland, Oregon; Washington, D.C.; and, Baltimore, among other locales, of Americans charged with planning to kill their fellow Americans in terrorist attacks clearly illustrate the continued salience of these homegrown threats. Indeed, during 2010 there was also continued evidence of Americans attempting to depart the U.S. to receive terrorist training abroad.

Looking ahead to 2011, there are three dominant trends to watch and a raft of potential individual incidents any one of which could prove to be highly consequential.

Three Emergent Dark Trends

Three emergent trends from last year will likely influence, if not encourage and facilitate terrorism in 2011. The first is our seeming inability to effectively deter al Qaeda and its allies and affiliates. Vice President Joe Biden may claim that we are “in much better shape than we were a year ago, and two and three,” and that al Qaeda Central in Pakistan is incontrovertibility weaker as a result of sustained Predator and Reaper aerial drone attacks,[2] but the facts suggest otherwise. In addition to the rise of homegrown terrorism in the U.S. noted above, we also see our enemies continuing to attempt to strike at presumed hard, and even appreciably hardened, targets despite the heightened security efforts and formidable countermeasures in place. In this respect, al Qaeda allies like AQAP apparently are taking up the slack created by a weakened al Qaeda Central. Accordingly, one has to ask whether we really are in better shape now than at any time in the past two or three years——much less the past nine years?

For example, twice last year there were in flight bomb attempts made by AQAP against U.S. commercial air carriers——one passenger and one cargo. As I wrote in an inSITE Magazine column early last year about the Christmas Day 2009 plot to detonate an explosive device aboard North West Airlines flight 253 in the skies over Detroit,

  it was the thwarted airline plot and series of errors in judgment, analysis and dissemination that preceded it which laid bare our continued vulnerability to terrorist attack——despite the most extensive re-structuring of the U.S. government since the beginning of the cold war sixty years ago, the most far-reaching reform and reorganization of the intelligence community over the same period, and the $30 billion that the U.S. has spent on aviation security since 2004. The Northwest Airlines incident also underscored the single most important challenge the U.S. faces in effectively countering terrorism: how do we keep pace with an adversary whose operations and means of attack are constantly changing and evolving precisely in order to overcome or obviate the countermeasures we have placed its path?  

This question was especially pertinent during 2010 with respect to the discovery in October of two bombs inside air cargo packages on flights that originated in Yemen. The explosive devices, concealed within printer ink cartridges and timed to detonate while flying over the U.S., appeared to represent a concerted effort by AQAP’s bomb makers to remove the human element——and the attendant potentiality of human error——from the terrorist attack equation.[3] What is especially alarming about the two plots, moreover, is that they were not directed against softer, more accessible targets like subway and commuter trains, hotels and tourist destinations that the conventional wisdom once held a diminished and de-graded al Qaeda only capable of: but against arguably the most internationally-hardened target set since 9/11——commercial aviation.

Similarly, twice in the past year and half terrorists have attempted to stage bomb attacks in New York City. The first plot, which was unmasked in September 2009, involved an Afghan-born, U.S. resident named Najibullah Zazi. Zazi was convicted last year of planning to stage simultaneous suicide attacks against the New York City subway. The second was the attempt by a naturalized U.S. citizen, Faisal Shahzad, to detonate a car bomb in Times Square on Saturday evening May 1, 2010.

By any stretch of the imagination, New York City must surely be considered a hard target by terrorists. The New York City Police Department is world-renowned for its pioneering anti- and counter-terrorism programs. It is also one of the largest municipal police forces in the world with nearly 40,000 sworn officers with dedicated Intelligence and Counterterrorism Divisions, and proactive counterterrorism efforts such as its special weapons and tactics Hercules teams and innovative programs like Operation Nexus, which knits together cooperation between business and law enforcement throughout the New York metropolitan area. Yet, neither al Qaeda Central, who trained and dispatched Zazi on his mission, nor the TTP, who was responsible for Shahzad’s training and deployment, were apparently deterred.

Indeed, the failure of the heightened security and additional countermeasures to deter either al Qaeda or the TTP, especially given the pressure both have been subjected to as a result of the drone strikes, raises fundamentally disquieting questions about our ability to prevent al Qaeda and its allies from attacking what it considers the most desirable, high value targets——no matter how well protected they are. It also casts doubt on our ability to effectively disrupt its operations through a campaign reliant primarily upon aerial attack by unmanned drones. In sum, these developments call into question some of our most fundamental assumptions about al Qaeda’s capabilities and intentions, given that the movement seems undeterred from the same grand homicidal ambitions it demonstrated on September 11, 2001.

Second has been the growth in the number of al Qaeda affiliates and associates over the past two years, which is mirrored by the movement’s continued expansion into failed or failing states. In 2008, for instance, there were perhaps only seven al Qaeda networks worldwide: in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, North Africa, South-East Asia, Europe, and of course Al Qaeda Central, the core senior leadership cell based along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Today, there are eleven such networks——with new additions in Yemen, East Africa, the Sudan, and even the U.S., where an embryonic radicalization and recruitment infrastructure has been established——representing an overall 50 percent expansion. This accomplishment is nothing short of astonishing given the immense pressure that al Qaeda has been under throughout the war on terrorism the past nine years and even more so during the past two years given the stepped up drone attacks in Pakistan. Accordingly, while everywhere else government and corporate budgets and profits were shrinking and most countries were experiencing grave retrenchments; al Qaeda was both increasing its franchises (e.g., allies and associates) worldwide as well as geographically expanding its reach.

altFinally, al Qaeda and its Pakistani, Somali, and Yemeni allies arguably have been able to establish at least an embryonic terrorist recruitment, radicalization and operational infrastructure in the U.S. By working through its local allies as well as on its own, al Qaeda has been able to co-opt American citizens and enlist them as soldiers waging war on the global al Qaeda battlefield. These accomplishments include the radicalization and recruitment by al Shabaab (“The Youth”), the Somali ally of al Qaeda’s, of nearly thirty young Somali-Americans from Minnesota over the past several years who were dispatched for training in their mother country as well as the five young Muslim Americans from Alexandria, Virginia, who last year sought to fight alongside the Taliban and al-Qaeda before being arrested in Pakistan.

Additional incidents involved the aforementioned Najibullah Zazi and Faisal Shahzad as well as a Pakistan-born U.S. citizen named David Headley (having legally changed his name from Daood Sayed Gilani) whose reconnaissance efforts on behalf of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a long-standing al Qaeda ally, were pivotal to the success of the November 2008 suicide assault in Mumbai, India; and both Bryant Neal Vinas and Abu Yahya Mujahdeen al-Adam, two American citizens arrested in Pakistan for their links to al Qaeda. While it is easy to dismiss the threat posed by “wannabe” terrorists who are often effortlessly entrapped and snared by the authorities here in the U.S., or to discount as aberrations the homicides inflicted by lone individuals such as Major Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood, Texas in November 2009; the cases of Zazi, Shazad, Headley, and Vinas all evidence the activities of trained terrorist operatives, operating at the behest of existing, identifiable terrorist organization, who are part of an identifiable command-and-control structure and are following orders from terrorist leaders abroad.

The case of the Somali-Americans in particular has turned out to be a Pandora’s Box. By not taking the threat of radicalization and recruitment actually occurring in the U.S. both sooner and more seriously, we failed to comprehend that this was not an isolated phenomenon, specific to Minnesota and this particular immigrant community, but that it indicated the possibility that an embryonic terrorist radicalization and recruitment infrastructure was in the process of being established in the U.S. Shahzad was the latest and, as he himself threatened at his sentencing hearing, will likely not be the last, person to jump out of this box.

Five Grim Potentialities to Worry about

In addition to the above disquieting patterns, there are at least five grim potentialities that we need also to worry about in 2011.

First, and foremost, is that another major Pakistani jihadi attack in India, along the lines of the 2008 Mumbai incident, would prompt a major Indian military reaction. This, in turn, might trigger a broader regional conflict and de-stabilize the entire region——with attendant profound repercussions on U.S. interests and military operations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Second is a Mumbai-like attack that occurs in Europe, that is beyond the capabilities of local authorities to quickly contain and control that results in massive casualties. Such simultaneous, dynamic coordinated operations along the lines of a Mumbai-like attack would have a devastating impact on any targeted country. Unfortunately, their effects are asymmetrical to the relative ease of planning and deployment. A modicum of training in the use of automatic weapons and hand grenades and basic command—and-control could make such a nightmare scenario a reality once again.

Third, the implication of senior figures in Hezbollah in the still unsolved 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, could de-stabilize Lebanon, wreck the current governing structure, prompt renewed Syrian intervention and perhaps re-ignites a war between Hezbollah and Israel.

Fourth, assassination has in the past been a favored al Qaeda tactic. The killing of Afghan leader Ahmad Shah Massoud just two days before 9/11 was all but overshadowed by the events in New York City, Washington, DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, but was evidence of al Qaeda’s capabilities and skills in this respect. The assassination of a key world leader figure today by al Qaeda or some other terrorist group could have far-reaching consequences on domestic and regional stability and an equally profound impact on international politics.

altFinally, the U.S. arguably needs to better assess and anticipate the likely consequences of the targeted killing of the AQAP terrorist leader and propagandist par excellence, Anwar al-Awlaqi. Our enemies will certainly venerate him as a martyr. But it may be more problematical than that. As a U.S. citizen (al-Awlaqi was born in New Mexico) and a Muslim, his death could become a rallying cry for his co-religionists both in the U.S. and elsewhere who might be persuaded by depictions of his killing as providing further evidence of an American war on Islam. This is not to argue against the targeting of al-Awlaqi, only to suggest that the potential repercussions should be thoroughly understood and taken into account ahead of time.

Conclusion: Be Worried

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the advent of the war on terrorism, one thing is clear: This struggle is far from over and the challenges and threats are as dynamic as they remain threatening. As Thomas Jefferson famously advised his fellow Americans over two hundred years ago: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

[1] Peter Bergen and Bruce Hoffman, Assessing The Terrorist Threat, National Security Preparedness Group (Washington, DC: Bipartisan Policy Center, September 10, 2010), pp. 4-5.

[2] Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper, “Biden Says Al Qaeda In Pakistan Is Weaker,” New York Times, 20 December 2010.

[3] See Dina Temple-Raston, “'Human Factor' Proves Key Obstacle To Terrorism,” National Public Radio Morning Edition, December 21, 2010 accessed at