Report: U.S. Must Deal With Domestic Radicals

There has been a big change in terrorism attacks in this country — U.S. citizens and residents are playing more of a role. A report being released Friday by a bipartisan group is expected to show the terrorism threat to the U.S. is much more complex and diverse than in the past.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Tomorrow marks the ninth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. In the years since, the terrorism threat against this country has fundamentally changed. The biggest change is the number of American citizens and residents who've decided to launch attacks against this country. That's the main finding in a report released this morning.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has read it, and is here with details. Dina, you've been reporting on terrorism trends over the past couple of years. What's do you see in this report that seems new?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, this report is from the Bipartisan Policy Center's national security group. Now, this is the group that was essentially created to see how the recommendations from the 9-11 Commission are being implemented. And the leaders of the 9-11 Commission, Tom Kane and Lee Hamilton, also head up this group.

And what struck me about the report is that it says that the biggest threat against this country isn't a dirty bomb or a mass casualty attack; it's this homegrown terrorism. And that's both good news and bad news. Good news because fears of a chemical attack or a dirty bomb are probably overblown; bad news because homegrown terrorism is much harder to fight, because the people who might be plotting to attack us are actually among us and they're harder to spot.

WERTHEIMER: Does that mean - just to look beyond this country - that al-Qaeda is not a threat anymore?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, not exactly. I mean, what they're saying is that in a very real sense, the threat has diversified. Al-Qaeda is having trouble launching big attacks, so in the mean time it's counting on smaller ones from inside the U.S.

And the trouble is, it isn't just some poor kid from South Asia who's volunteering to attack us; it could be an MBA from Connecticut. In fact, the Times Square bomber was exactly that. He was an American with an MBA, of Pakistani descent, who decided to strike the U.S. So, what happens is, is this a really different kind of concern.

You know, we've been reporting for some time that al-Qaeda's been struggling. The drone attacks in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan have gutted their midlevel operatives. Osama bin Laden and his number two, Ayman Zawahiri, have gone to ground. One of the really interesting tidbits in this report, was a terrorism official saying that U.S. intelligence is hearing militants are actually grousing about that. They're talking about how their bosses, bin Laden and Zawahiri, just caring about saving their own skins and not giving a damn about the organization.

You know, the report also talks about something that's less obvious, which is that Muslim scholars and other groups are specifically saying that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda have spilled too much blood and it should stop. That's all good news. The way terrorist groups die is they lose public support.

WERTHEIMER: But what about affiliate groups we keep hearing about, like al-Qaeda's arm in Yemen or the Taliban?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Right. Very good question. They're still a huge problem too. You may remember a couple of months ago CIA director Leon Panetta said that there were only about 50 or 100 al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan now. And while that sounds like a really small number, the report puts that into perspective.

You know, in the run-up to the 9-11 attacks, al-Qaeda was this really small, elite organization. There were only about 200 sworn members at the time.

The report says that al-Qaeda members should be seen, instead of just regular soldiers, as force multipliers. They're operating like U.S. Special Forces do, as trainers. You know, we've heard that the U.S. is stepping up its operation in Yemen. That means they've doubled their trainers from 25 to 50. When you look at it in that way, 50 to 100 al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan can be a real threat.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're very welcome.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston joined us from New York.

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