Ceremony In New York

Audie Cornish talks to Philip Zelikow, the former executive director of the 9/11 Commission, NPR's Dina Temple Raston, Robert Siegel and John Ydstie.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host: Nine days after the attacks, then president, George W. Bush, addressed a joint session of Congress and launched the war on terror. Among its goals, to end state sponsorship of terrorism, destroy terrorist organizations and kill terrorists.

Dina Temple Raston is part of NPR's national security team covering counter-terrorism at home and abroad. She joins us now to talk about the war on terrorism today.

Hi there, Dina.

DINA TEMPLE RASTON: Hi there.

CORNISH: In recent days, authorities have actually raised security concerns about a possible terrorist attack planned around the state. What's the latest on that?

RASTON: Well, the threat hasn't really changed since we first learned about it on Wednesday. Essentially, there was some intelligence from a good source in Pakistan that indicated al-Qaida might have put a plan in motion to coincide with the 9/11 anniversary, but the information was incredibly vague. We understood that there were three operatives, maybe there was an American among them.

Maybe they were coming to the U.S. to launch an attack. Maybe they were already here. Maybe it would be car bombs, perhaps against transportation targets in New York City and Washington. And while, you know, intelligence officials tell us they thought this was a very good source of information, in other words, a source who had been helpful in the past, they can't find those other intelligence strings that corroborate all of this.

CORNISH: Right. The description has been credible but unconfirmed.

RASTON: Exactly. And so they're checking and rechecking and the latest information that we have is that nothing has popped up to change that status.

CORNISH: Let's talk more in general about what counter-terrorism officials point to as the greatest threat facing the U.S. today.

RASTON: Well, as you know, a lot's been made lately of administration officials who have said that al-Qaida is basically, has lost its punch and that's it's in the midst of a strategic defeat. The thing is, is that al-Qaida now has morphed. It has all these different affiliates now - other groups that believe in their same ideas but in fact aren't related to the core group. And those are the people that intelligence officials worry about.

In particular, there's an affiliate in Yemen that's known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and that group has American members and it's already tried to attack the United States twice. They were behind the attempting bombing of the U.S. airliner a couple of Christmases ago and that failed cargo bomb plot last Thanksgiving.

CORNISH: The FBI came under tremendous criticism for the intelligence, people say failures, of 9/11. What affect did that have on the agency?

RASTON: Well, it's hard to know, actually, where to start on how much the FBI has changed. I mean, it's essentially become a domestic intelligence service like the United Kingdom's MI5. I mean, it used to investigate cases specifically to bring criminal prosecution. Now, it sees its role as preventing terrorism before it can happen and so it's less about prosecution and building a case for court than stepping in before the crime as opposed to afterwards.

And now the bureau is under tremendous criticism for that. Are they going too far and actually entrapping people who might have in their head that they want to do some sort of terrorist act but never intend to attack or do anything about it? And I think, right now, they're kind of groping around for the right balance. But the FBI's completely changed its mission over the past 10 years, more than just about any other agency I can think of.

CORNISH: Dina, hearing you talk about that also makes me think of this idea of sort of lone operator, people who have the potential to act as terrorists who aren't working in a formal group. How has the Internet changed the way terrorists operate?

RASTON: Well, it's exactly that. It gives lone wolves a power that they never had before because they can find like-minded people that they might never find before. They can find information on how to do something. I mean, the very bright side of texting and SMS that we saw for the Arab Spring unfortunately also works to the advantage of the dark side as well.

CORNISH: That was NPR's counter-terrorism correspondent Dina Temple Raston. Thank you, Dina.

RASTON: You're very welcome.

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