Terrorism experts say the fight against al-Qaida and other terrorist groups requires a smart strategy against adversaries that have adapted to changing conditions. A panel at the Milken Institute's global conference looked at successes and challenges in the effort to stay ahead of terrorist organizations.
Reports on the security failures that led to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, cite a lack of coordination among U.S. intelligence agencies as a critical factor that allowed the plot to succeed. Some critics point to a more recent terrorist attempt as evidence of continued miscommunication among intelligence agencies. The alleged Christmas Day plot of 2009 was foiled by an alert airline passenger after Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded an airliner bound for Detroit with explosives in his underwear. The incident followed a warning by Abdulmutallab's father to U.S. officials in Nigeria of his son's ties to extremist organizations in Yemen.
But retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark, the former head of NATO forces in Europe, says information-sharing has improved greatly since al-Qaida's 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers, a complex that housed American military personnel in Saudi Arabia, and the September, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington using commercial airplanes.
"We've come a long way, and we've built an infrastructure of intelligence cooperation, intelligence sharing," said Clark. "We've strengthened our own domestic agencies, things like airport security, even though you don't like it. Our friends who come from abroad, they hate it."
But Clark says airline security methods have been largely effective, and intelligence agencies have averted further attacks, although he says security experts believe that hostile groups keep probing and testing airport defenses.
Security analyst Michael Intriligator of the Milken Institute and the University of California, Los Angeles, says al-Qaida has adapted since it was forced from its base in Afghanistan by the U.S.-led invasion. He says the group is now apparently based in the Waziristan tribal area of neighboring Pakistan, but has expanded its reach by attracting affiliated groups over a wide area.
"They have essentially franchised their operation, so they are over a huge territory of the world," said Intriligator. "They're not just in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They're in Morocco and Britain and France, Indonesia, the Philippines. They're in many countries around the world."
Counter-terrorism expert Erroll Southers of the University of Southern California notes that terrorist groups have increased their reach in part by using technology.
"They have mastered the Internet. They have mastered the ability to recruit. They don't need a training camp. They don't need a center. Their center is wherever a laptop opens up," said Southers.
He adds that al-Qaida and its affiliates have achieved their long-time goal of recruiting Americans, including Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric who was born in the United States and is now thought to be in Yemen. Authorities believe al-Awlaki had ties to two of the September 11th terrorists and to Nidal Malik Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood last year. Southers notes that one al-Qaida member comes from California and others have American ties.
"Adam Gadahn out of Orange County in this state. Anwar Alwaki, by the way, born in New Mexico with a degree from San Diego State [University]," explained Southers. "He spent quite a bit of time in San Diego, quite a bit of time on the East Coast. Omar Hammami, who is now with al-Shabab out of Somalia, born in Alabama, went to football games on Friday nights, ate at the Waffle House. Now he's the Internet master for al-Shabab."
These analysts say that U.S. authorities have had notable successes, including ongoing intelligence efforts that have thwarted further attacks. They also say authorities have gained the cooperation of American Muslim leaders, who have dissuaded many younger American Muslims from becoming radicalized by charismatic preachers.
They say security needs to be tightened throughout the U.S. infrastructure, including at the massive Los Angeles seaport complex, which they say remains vulnerable. Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the California-based Rand Corporation, a research center, adds that airline security needs to be refined and focused on likely risks, which he says can be identified by security information and intelligence data. He says the current system in place at U.S. airports, which subjects most passengers to identical methods of screening, is inefficient.
He says the fight against terrorism is a long-term effort, a concept not conveyed by the term "global war on terror," which was used by the Bush administration.
"We're inclined to think of warfare as a finite undertaking with a clear beginning and a clear end," said Jenkins. "And we're pretty impatient about where that end should be. This is a contest that will change form as our opponents morph, but is probably going to be measured in decades. So this will be a very long war. It will not end formally. It will end gradually as al-Qaida's ideology increasingly becomes irrelevant to much of the other developments in the world."
He says the threat of terrorism is real, but the risk can be managed. He adds that the odds of a person becoming a victim of terrorism are extremely low, something like one in a million, but he says terrorists succeed by exaggerating the threat and spreading fear.