Ranking Terrorist Threats By Degree Of Separation With so many alleged plots this year, it's difficult to know how seriously to take any particular threat. So the intelligence community has come up with an informal system for ranking them.
NPR logo

Ranking Terrorist Threats By Degree Of Separation

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/114343626/114360974" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Ranking Terrorist Threats By Degree Of Separation

Ranking Terrorist Threats By Degree Of Separation

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/114343626/114360974" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

This past year has been one of the FBI's busiest for terrorism cases. In the first 10 months of 2009, there have been possible plots in Denver, Springfield, Illinois, Dallas, Boston, and, just this week, Chicago.

With so many terrorism arrests, it's difficult to tell how dangerous some of them really are. So the intelligence community has an informal way of ranking them.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston explains how it works.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: It seems like every time you turn on the news these days, there's a new report of a terrorism plot in this country.

Unidentified Man #1: A stunning story just coming to light now about an American al-Qaida captured in Pakistan.

Unidentified Woman #1: Accused ringleader of a North Carolina-based group suspected of plotting...

Unidentified Man #2: His name is Michael Finton.

Unidentified Man #3: Tarek Mehanna.

(Soundbite of news program, "World News with Charles Gibson")

Mr. CHARLES GIBSON (Host, "World News with Charles Gibson"): Najibullah Zazi...

TEMPLE-RASTON: You may recognize that last name. But just in case you didn't...

(Soundbite of news program, "World News with Charles Gibson")

Mr. GIBSON: Najibullah Zazi was indicted by a federal grand jury today charged with conspiracy to build and explode weapons of mass destruction.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Intelligence officials say the Zazi case is the most serious this country's faced since 9/11. That's because it looks like Zazi had a direct link to senior al-Qaida leaders. In addition to allegedly training in one of their camps, he apparently called someone in Pakistan for instructions just before he was arrested.

That's a big red flag because it suggests that al-Qaida was behind the plot in some way. And al-Qaida, as a general matter, tends to like their attacks to be big.

Professor BRUCE HOFFMAN (Security Studies Program, Georgetown University): In my view, these tend to be the most serious because, of course, the goal of them is to create a terrorist spectacular.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Hoffman advises the U.S. government on terrorism.

Prof. HOFFMAN: To stage an enormous attack that will, as 9/11 was, sort of changed the game or changed the calculation.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So that's the first category � a plot connected directly to al-Qaida. Analysts say plots backed by other terrorist groups that have links to al-Qaida is the second most serious level. These groups are essentially affiliates.

Ms. KAREN GREENBERG (Executive director, Center on Law and Security, New York University): I think how we understand al-Qaida and how we categorize different affiliations with al-Qaida is actually very important � and changing.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Karen Greenberg at the Law and Security Center at New York University. She says a growing number of terrorist groups are identifying with al-Qaida. These groups, in turn, then train their own recruits, sometimes even people from the United States.

The alleged terrorist plot in Chicago this week fits into that category.

Unidentified Woman #2: Two Chicago men are charged with plotting a terrorist attack overseas. They allegedly wanted to attack a Danish newspaper that published cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed back in 2005.

TEMPLE-RASTON: But here's what got the attention of U.S. intelligence, one of the Chicago men the FBI arrested allegedly trained with a Pakistani terrorist group. It's called Lashkar-e-Taiba, and it has ties to al-Qaida. That's the kind of affiliate group that Karen Greenberg is talking about.

Which brings us to the third category, angry young men who go on the Internet, radicalize themselves, and dream up plots. An example of that, a Jordanian teenager who allegedly tried to blowup a building in Dallas earlier this month. Then, there's the Boston man who allegedly planned to attack a U.S. shopping mall.

According to Vahid Brown from West Point's Combating Terrorism Center, these kinds of plots tend to be much less lethal.

Mr. VAHID BROWN (Research Fellow, West Point's Combating Terrorism Center): The self radicalizing or the sort of homegrowns, these have not proven to be people who are able to do much damage. And so I think it's appropriate to consider them as being much less dangerous than groups or cells that are closely connected to al-Qaida central.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Terrorism expert Sam Rascoff says that ranking plots based on how closely they're connected to al-Qaida or its affiliate groups is a good first step toward understanding them.

Mr. SAM RASCOFF (Terrorism expert): Part of what you do when you do counterterrorism is to think about not just this case, but the runoff cases that are currently going on or that may go on in the future.

TEMPLE-RASTON: But he thinks law enforcement has to go further. It needs to figure out why people in this country turn to violent jihad in the first place, and why the number of homegrown plots is growing at such an alarming rate.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.