RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
And Im Linda Wertheimer.
This year is ending with a flurry of terrorism sting operations. From Oregon to Virginia to Maryland, there have been two common threads: The would-be plots who are believed to be the work of lone-wolf attackers; and in each case, the FBI was in the middle of the scheme helping suspects get what they thought were explosives, and providing the know-how needed to put together what turned out to be dummy bombs.
As NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, we can expect to see more undercover operations in the coming year.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: If you follow terrorism sting operations, they tend to have a familiar ring. Take last month's Christmas tree lighting plot in Portland, Oregon.
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Unidentified Man #1: Mohamed Mahmood, he had for the past 18 months or so, been plotting this thing. But he was talking to the wrong people. He thought he was talking to Pakistanis through email. Turns out though that the FBI stepped in, and he was emailing back and forth with the FBI.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Or Antonio Martinez, the Baltimore man who allegedly wanted to bomb a U.S. military recruitment center.
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Unidentified Man #2: After an FBI informant picked up Martinez and drove him to a nearby vantage point, authorities say he tried to detonate the dummy explosive.
TEMPLE-RASTON: In each of these operations, the young men at the center of these cases were American citizens. And in each of these cases, the FBI derailed a plot by posing as a violent jihadi.
Experts say to expect more undercover cases next year. They say it's the way the FBI has decided to battle the homegrown threat.
Mr. PHILIP MUDD (Senior Research Fellow Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative, New America Foundation): I do believe that we have something in the middle ground, something that you don't see characterized in things like TV shows. And that is, it's not cells and it's not individuals or like-mindeds; its clusters of kids who are talking about extremism.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Philip Mudd worked terrorism issues for both the CIA and the FBI, and is now at the New America Foundation.
Mr. MUDD: And I think this exists across the country - talking about what they don't like in Iraq or Palestine or Afghanistan. And within those clusters, occasionally, you're going to have a couple of kids who say, you know, all my friends, all our friends are talking, why don't we do something about it?
TEMPLE-RASTON: As it turns out, this increasing interest in violent jihad here at home is coinciding with al-Qaida's own plans. Pinned down by drone attacks in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the group's leadership has been calling on affiliates to launch attacks. And that, too, is expected to pick up next year.
Bruce Hoffman is a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.
Professor BRUCE HOFFMAN (Director, Center for Peace and Security Studies, Georgetown University): I think regional affiliates will get more aggressive, precisely because al-Qaida central is being pressed so hard in South Asia. So the current terrorist strategy, ironically, is at once, a product of our own success and, indeed, of their own resiliency - that even under this intense pressure they are able not only to survive, but to evolve a different strategy.
Mr. MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Former Director, Department Homeland Security): I'm concerned that what's happened is that the terrorists, al-Qaida and similar groups, have finally decided that there is still value in smaller less sophisticated attacks.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Michael Chertoff is the former director of the Department of Homeland Security.
Mr. CHERTOFF: And so they're looking at a broader set of targets and that means, frankly, it's going to be harder to detect and stop those attacks.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And by broader set of targets what do you mean?
Mr. CHERTOFF: If you look at their public comments, they talked about how they're now looking at economic impact as part of the benefit of a terrorist attack. And that suggests to me that they're going to be trying to hurt our commercial businesses in the way that they previously focused, frankly, on mass casualties.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Twenty eleven holds special significance to al-Qaida for another reason. It marks the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. There hasn't been a successful major attack against the U.S. since then.
In the words of one high-ranking terrorism official in the Obama administration, nothing focuses minds in al-Qaida like a symbolic anniversary.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, New York.
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