Commentary Magazine


Al-Qaeda in the United States

Yesterday, Jonathan remembered the 20th anniversary of the first attack on the World Trade Center by pointing out that, while we’ve come a long way since 9/11, we are at risk of putting the dangers of al-Qaeda and radical Islam “in our collective rear-view mirrors.” It was also 20 years ago that Senator Daniel Moynihan warned of the dangers of “defining deviancy down.” Today, our strategy against al-Qaeda is to win by defining victory down, and focusing only on the damage we do to its so-called core. That wrongly elevates drone strikes from a tool into a strategy, ignores the recruiting appeal of the Islamist ideology that is at the heart of the danger posed by al-Qaeda, and neglects the fact that we are not very good at anticipating how al-Qaeda’s franchises and allies will grow, cooperate, and spread. Last year, very few analysts worried about Islamist militants in the Maghreb; today, they control half a country.

Perhaps most troubling is the fact that, as Jonathan points out, “here in the U.S., cases of home-grown Islamist terror continue to crop up.” My colleague Jessica Zuckerman has chronicled the 54 terrorist plots against domestic targets that have been thwarted since 9/11. The latest featured a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Pakistan, Raees Alam Qazi, and his older brother. It “adds to the large number of terrorist attacks that could be considered to be homegrown.” It is hard to believe that a country which has thwarted about a plot every other month for over a decade, watched the Muslim Brotherhood take over Egypt, and seen an anniversary attack on its consulate in Benghazi could become complacent. It is even harder to ignore the political savvy of the Obama administration and the appeal of its fantasy that the war is over.

Yesterday, Britain’s Henry Jackson Society entered the field with a massive publication that provides hard data on the scope of al-Qaeda’s threat to the U.S. In Al-Qaeda in the United States: A Complete Analysis of Terrorist Offenses, Robin Simcox and Emily Dyer do for the U.S. what Simcox and colleagues did in 2010 for Britain: provide a comprehensive overview of those who have carried out, or sought to carry out, terrorist attacks on the U.S. As General Michael Hayden says in his forward, it is “a remarkable work … not just for its diligence but also for its sense of a shared future between the people of the United States and Great Britain.” The analysis Simcox and Dyer provide confirms Jonathan’s fears: U.S. terrorists are young and male (which is no surprise), geographically diverse, well-educated, employed, and overwhelmingly U.S. residents. A quarter were converts to Islam, a share that rose to half of the U.S. born offenders.

It is hard, looking at this remarkable report, to find much evidence for the thesis that economic deprivation produces terrorists: 60 percent of the individuals that Simcox and Dyer profile had received a college education. Ideology matters more, though explaining why an individual gravitates to an ideology is the toughest question a biographer can ask of a subject. But what Simcox and Dyer make overwhelmingly clear is that the al-Qaeda threat–and their report is only the criminal tip of the ideological iceberg–is persistent, widespread, and highly-motivated. We have done an excellent job of playing the role of the hockey goaltender, and have blocked shot after shot. But there are many more shots to come, and sooner or later the Obama administration’s ostrich strategy is going to be exposed as a dangerous mistake.