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How Far Does Reach Of Terrorist Groups Extend?

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How Far Does Reach Of Terrorist Groups Extend?

National Security

How Far Does Reach Of Terrorist Groups Extend?

How Far Does Reach Of Terrorist Groups Extend?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Islamist terrorist groups want to strike inside the U.S. But do they have the ability to pull off such attacks nowadays? Terrorism expert Audrey Kurth Cronin talks to Robert Siegel about the outreach of the Taliban and al-Qaida in the wake of a failed car bombing in Times Square.


What should we make of the ineptitude of Faisal Shahzad as a car bomber? A one-off lucky break or is there a pattern strikingly different from that of the 9/11 hijackers? Like Christmas bombing suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab whose chief asset seemed to be a multiple-entry U.S. visa, Shahzad also had the right to move freely in this country. He possessed U.S. citizenship.

But what about his training and, for that matter, his dedication to the cause, or what group was he affiliated with?

Well, joining us is Audrey Kurth Cronin who studies rights and teaches about terrorism and who wrote the book "How Terrorism Ends."

Welcome to the program.

Ms. AUDREY KURTH CRONIN (Author, "How Terrorism Ends"): Thank you. Thank you.

SIEGEL: And what do you think we can infer, if anything, about the state of Islamist terror threats against the U.S. from the case of Faisal Shahzad, so far as we understand it?

Ms. CRONIN: Well, I think this case shows us both some good news and some bad news. The bad news, of course, is that the threat of internationally connected terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland is very real and seems to be greater than it was even a year or two ago. And this was potentially a very serious attack.

On the other hand, if you look at the details of this attack, there are some reasons to be somewhat more encouraged. It certainly is a kind of an amateur explosive device that he tried to put together. He left a tremendous amount of evidence, and that evidence led to an arrest within just over two days, which is really quite impressive.

He's also an individual who went off to Pakistan to apparently train for a short time, but his training wasn't very good. So we can take some cheer in the fact that this is not a professional who was launched from Pakistan in our direction.

SIEGEL: Are there places where young jihadists learn to make bombs in Pakistan or, for that matter, in Yemen? Are they capable of the same kind of organization and planning that al-Qaida demonstrated in Afghanistan pre-9/11?

Ms. CRONIN: Well, I think that their capabilities have been significantly degraded. That's been one of the success stories when it comes to how the so-called war on terrorism has unfolded. I do think the training is still possible, but they don't have the kind of sophisticated training that led to the 9/11 attacks.

SIEGEL: Is it fair to observe that vigilance over the kind of visas, let's say the 9/11 hijackers obtained, has made it that much harder to insinuate a whole cell of conspirators into this country?

Ms. CRONIN: Yes. This country has changed quite a bit since 9/11 as well. We have a no-fly list. We would never have caught Shahzad had it not been for the no-fly list. We have a much more sophisticated infrastructure for preventing people from coming and going across our borders.

There are a lot of reasons to have some optimism about meeting this kind of threat. And, in fact, I think it's one of the reasons why we're seeing more individuals rather than, you know, cells that come from other places. If you can find an individual who's already in place, then you've got a little bit more ability to work around the kinds of barriers that we set up.

SIEGEL: The nightmare scenario of a terror attack is not an SUV with a crude bomb that doesn't go off in Midtown Manhattan. It's a van with a radiation device in it that is somehow left in Manhattan. Is that more or less likely today than it was, say, 10 years ago?

Ms. CRONIN: Well, that's difficult to say because a radiological device is one of the more realistic kinds of tools that a group might use. It's a little bit easier to carry off. I think it's probably, on balance, less though because of two things: The measures that I've already described, but also the fact that we have a much more alert citizenry.

I mean, I don't think it should be overlooked that it was a...

SIEGEL: A street vendor. It's not the video cameras. It was the street vendors that saw what happened.

Ms. CRONIN: Exactly.


Ms. CRONIN: Exactly. And that's an important point, I think, to make, which is that as long as our citizens are sufficiently aware of the threat, but not so far oversensitized that they're in a panic, that's the kind of atmosphere that it's least possible that these kinds of attacks can take place.

SIEGEL: As you say, though, the bad news is that there are still attacks being launched against the U.S. and you would expect there to be more. The organizations that would be behind such attacks, even if they can only have a lone bomber involved here, what are they like? What are their vulnerabilities?

Ms. CRONIN: Well, one of the worrisome aspects of this failed attempt is that we're seeing a lot more cooperation among many of the groups within the Pakistan/Afghanistan frontier area. And it used to be that we were very hopeful that we could separate local nationalist aims from the al-Qaida agenda.

It looks now like we've got a kind of a soup of different groups that are more aligned against Westerners, against the United States and its allies. And that's one of the aspects of this attack that I would say is worrisome.

SIEGEL: Audrey Kurth Cronin, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. CRONIN: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: Audrey Cronin writes and teaches about terrorism. Her book is "How Terrorism Ends."

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