For U.S. Analysts, Rethinking The Terror Threat In recent years, U.S. officials were working from the premise that independent groups like al-Qaida were most likely to carry out terrorist attacks. But now it appears that the focus is less on al-Qaida and more on the prospect of state-sponsored terrorism.
NPR logo

For U.S. Analysts, Rethinking The Terror Threat

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
For U.S. Analysts, Rethinking The Terror Threat

For U.S. Analysts, Rethinking The Terror Threat

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Not long ago, U.S. counter-terrorism efforts were focused almost entirely on al-Qaida. Well, these days it's become much more complicated. U.S. officials say a growing number of intelligence analysts are being reassigned from al-Qaida watch and are now spending more time tracking links between suspected terrorists and the countries who support them. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has the report.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: There's one country getting the most attention right now: Iran. One reason: last fall the Justice Department accused Iranian officials of plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. U.S. officials said that the scheme could be traced to the top ranks of the Iranian government.

PHIL MUDD: I think it's a red flag for very simple reasons.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Phil Mudd was a senior official at both the CIA and the FBI.

MUDD: As a career intelligence analyst, I always look at problems from two perspectives - that is, capability and intent.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In the months since the assassination plot, there have been more red flags. In February, two cars exploded near Israeli diplomats in India and in Georgia. A day after that, there was an explosion in Bangkok. Thai police captured two men carrying Iranian passports who appeared to be making bombs there. Iran says it wasn't involved.

MUDD: When I saw what happened in terms what appear to be Iranian-sponsored strikes against Israeli targets in the past few months, to me the light that went on in my head was the intent light.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Mudd, now a senior advisor at the consulting group Oxford Analytica, says Teheran appears to be back on the offensive.

MUDD: There's no way you conduct that number of attacks without having senior leadership saying this is what we want to do. So, that's a problem.

TEMPLE-RASTON: This is a problem with some history. Iran assassinated political opponents in Europe in the 1980s. The Justice Department has long suspected that Iran was behind the 1996 truck bombing of a U.S. military dormitory in Saudi Arabia. The U.S. government handed down indictments in the Khobar Towers case in June 2001. Then, just months later, the 9/11 attacks happened, and priorities changed overnight. Al-Qaida became the focus. Now, U.S. officials say, the pendulum is starting to swing back again - to state-sponsored terrorism.

Juan Zarate was a deputy national security advisor in the Bush administration.

JUAN ZARATE: There's no question that in the current environment with a diminished al-Qaida core, that state sponsorship and in particular Iranian state sponsorship grows in relevance and importance and will be a major focus for counterterrorism officials in the next couple of years.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And that shift, he says, is going to require a different set of skills.

ZARATE: So the challenge of going after state-sponsored terrorist organizations, especially those that are well-funded and well-organized and sponsored by Iran, is a different proposition than a metastasized non-state network like al-Qaida.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Different because Iran has been known to use proxies and groups like Hezbollah to launch attacks that are difficult to trace back to its source.

Brian Fishman is a terrorism fellow at the New America Foundation. And he says what worked so well dismantling al-Qaida, like drone strikes, won't work on this kind of terrorism.

BRIAN FISHMAN: What you need are not just those drones but very skilled operators that are able to insert themselves into a wide range of societies and a wide range of organizations and networks to gather intelligence, and in some cases operate offensively against these kinds of groups.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So in other words, the U.S. will have to go back to basics - getting better human intelligence, recruiting in-country spies, using diplomacy and sanctions. The trick will be adding those methods to the tools the U.S. has developed fighting al-Qaida.

Again, Phil Mudd of Oxford Analytica:

MUDD: The way the U.S. government chases people now is light-years different than it was a decade ago.

TEMPLE-RASTON: For example, the U.S. can connect people using cell phones and bank accounts and eavesdropping in a way they never could before. Agencies are now working to use those news skills against old adversaries.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at 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.