The top U.S. counterterrorism official says homegrown Islamic militants put Europe, and particularly Britain, under a greater threat of terrorist attack than the United States. But he tells VOA Correspondent Gary Thomas that al-Qaida is still plotting against the United States.
In his first interview since assuming his post as chief of the National Counterterrorism Center, Michael Leiter says the threat to Europe eclipses the danger to the United States.
"I think it is very fair to say that the threat in Western Europe and the United Kingdom is different, and probably more serious today in Western Europe and U.K., than what we face in the United States. Certainly what we have seen in the United Kingdom is of a more significant scope and a significant depth than anything we have seen in the United States," said Leiter.
The suicide airliner attacks on New York's World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 riveted attention on the global terrorist threat and catapulted Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida into the spotlight. But no terrorist attacks have occurred on U.S. soil since that date.
In contrast, there have been several major terrorist attacks in Europe, most notably the Madrid train bombing in 2004 and the London transport system bombing the following year. In 2006, British and American counterterrorism officials thwarted a plot to blow up passenger airliners flying between Britain and the United States.
Former CIA terrorism analyst Marc Sageman says Europe is under threat from what he calls the leaderless jihad - angry young European Muslims, primarily of South Asian origin, who are sympathetic to al-Qaida but not necessarily part of it.
"The notion that the West is at war with Islam really has some traction with those young folks because they lump everything together. They lump what is happening to them personally with the image that they see in Iraq, for instance," said Sageman. "And they think that it is all part of a grand conspiracy against Islam."
Michael Scheuer, who once headed the CIA unit hunting Osama bin Laden, says al-Qaida is not the centralized organization it once was, and the homegrown sympathizers are far more difficult to detect than al-Qaida infiltrators.
"If it was a monolith, again, I think it would be less of a threat. But because it is decentralized, and because so many people are not in contact with the headquarters, with al-Qaida, on a regular basis, it is hard to detect them," said Scheuer.
But NCTC chief Michael Leiter emphasizes that what he calls the "al-Qaida core" still plots attacks from its new safe haven in Pakistan's tribal areas.
"There is indeed an al-Qaida hierarchal command, with its leadership located along the border area of Afghanistan and Pakistan," he said. "That group consists of its senior-most leaders, operational commanders, and includes training camps where individuals from Europe and elsewhere go to Pakistan and get that training from al-Qaida, and are subsequently deployed outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan for attacks against the West."
Michael Scheuer adds that al-Qaida's true strength lies in its use of the Internet to propagandize and train alienated young Muslims.
"It has never been primarily a fighting organization," said Scheuer. "Its main goal that it set for itself was to be a vanguard organization whose chief responsibility was to incite the Muslim world. And I think that we have seen a great deal of success from that activity, that incitement."
Michael Leiter adds that al-Qaida has also found strength in new franchises, particularly into North Africa, where it has attempted to take control of secular nationalist movements for its own ends.