Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Risk Right Here

There was some interesting testimony at last week's hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Generally, there was a lot of old info, but some new info as well.

Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte discussed the likeliest threat:

Use of a conventional explosive continues to be the most probable al-Qa'ida attack scenario. … Nevertheless, we receive reports indicating that al-Qa'ida and other groups are attempting to acquire chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons or materials.
Lieutenant General Michael Maples, who's the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, provided more insight into probable WMD threats, as well as some of the more likely avenues of terrorist recruiting:
CBRN-related information is widely available, and if terrorists were to use unconventional materials in an attack, we believe they likely would use low-level biochemical agents such as ricin, botulinum toxin or toxic industrial chemicals such as cyanide. … We also judge that al Qaida and other terrorist groups have the capability and intent to develop and employ a radiological dispersal device.

Extremism throughout the West will continue to be spread primarily through radical clerics, the Internet, and in prisons.
Charlie Allen, the Chief Intelligence Officer at DHS, chimed in with some information on potential U.S. targets and additional info on terrorist recruiting:
We determine that transportation (particularly commercial aviation and mass transit) and commercial facilities remain the sectors most threatened by al-Qa'ida and its affiliates.

Our research indicates a variety of radicalizing influences, to include the role of charismatic extremist leaders, the spread of extremist propaganda through the Internet, the use of mass communication and multimedia, and more traditional person-to-person encounters, are among the key drivers that shape radicalization dynamics within the Homeland.
I thought the most interesting testimony was given by Phillip Mudd, who was appearing on behalf of Willie T. Hulon, the Executive Assistant Director of the FBI's National Security Branch (NSB). Mudd talked about the connections between terrorists and more ordinary criminal activities, the risk of homegrown terrorism, and the threat posed by Hezbollah:
Last year, we disrupted a homegrown Sunni Islamic extremist group in California known as the JIS, a.k.a. 'Assembly of Authentic Islam,' operating primarily in state prisons, without apparent connections or direction from outside the United States and no identifiable foreign nexus. Members of the JIS committed armed robberies in Los Angeles with the goal of financing terrorist attacks

The radicalization of US Muslim converts is of particular concern. … converts appear to be more vulnerable and likely to be placed in situations that put them in a position to be influenced by Islamic extremists.

The Internet has facilitated the radicalization process, particularly in the United States, by providing access to a broad and constant stream of extremist Islamic propaganda, as well as experienced and possibly well connected operators via web forums and chat rooms.

US Hizballah associates and sympathizers primarily engage in a wide range of fundraising avenues in order to provide support to Hizballah to include criminal activities such as money laundering, credit card, immigration, food stamp, and bank fraud, as well as narcotics trafficking.
The UPI also reported on the hearing, adding some additional perspective from the participants on the use of the Internet to spread extremist ideologies. Mudd said:
The commonality we have (with Europe) is people who are using the Internet or talking among friends who are part of what I would characterize as a Pepsi jihad ... It's become popular among youth, and we have this phenomenon in the United States.

So that you have a kid in Georgia, a kid in California, a kid in Kansas, he may see the same images from Iraq, from Palestine, from Afghanistan, from Pakistan, that someone in Indonesia or Saudi Arabia sees, and he may be infected the same way with an ideology that says the use of violence against innocents is okay.
But, the UPI reported, others point out that there is a generally small risk of a group of young people becoming radicalized over the Internet and then launching a catastrophic attack, without any further connections or training:
"It's ridiculous to think that the U.S. or any other military would do its training over the Internet," said analyst and author Peter Bergen, arguing al-Qaida was just as professional in its approach. "Radicalization is one thing, having operational cells with the capacity to launch attacks is something else entirely.

"That basically means people who have been through one of the (terrorist training) camps."

Bergen said that the homegrown plots uncovered in the United States so far appeared to lack that thread back to al-Qaida central, which was one reason why he said they had been "pretty pathetic ... not much of a threat."

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