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Its Future and Ours
By Peter Probst


During my more than 30 years with the intelligence community, I have followed numerous terrorist organizations. Few have been as innovative and resilient as al-Qaeda. Rarely a week goes by that we don't read about an al-Qaeda or Taliban commander being arrested or killed. Our instrument of choice is often a predator drone and most of the intelligence is collected through state-of-the-art intercept operations, confirmed by Predator and other imagery, as well as through more aggressive collection efforts by friendly liaison services. Though we periodically read pronouncements that al-Qaeda is on the ropes and its demise is imminent, it has been my experience that only a few months later we learn that the organization has reconstituted itself, like the phoenix rising from the ashes, and is operating in a new, mutated, and more lethal form.


After 9/11 and our increasingly successful operations, al-Qaeda, in order to survive, was forced to adapt to a new reality. It morphed from a traditional, highly centralized, hierarchal organization into a loose network or confederation, wherein the individual components exercise varying degrees of autonomy and operate against targets of their own choosing and on their own timetable. Some jihadist organizations have no formal affiliation, but look to al-Qaeda primarily for inspiration and have little or no contact with "al-Qaeda Central."

What we fail to appreciate is that the ultimate adversary is not al-Qaeda or any number of similarly motivated jihadist groups it may have spawned, but rather the ideology and the marketing of that ideology that draws men to such organizations and motivates them to blow themselves up to advance the jihadist agenda. As long as the jihadist ideology retains its appeal, we will be engaged in a lethal game of "whack-a-mole," the challenge being to kill or capture our adversaries more rapidly than they can recruit new members. According to intelligence officers with whom I have spoken, the jihadist groups have more than enough candidates to fill their needs for suicide bombers and the like. They are, nevertheless, broadening their recruitment pool to include women and even young children.

The jihadist challenge is more complex than just the bomb, gun, or the carnage. Their true strength is their ability to provide the disenchanted, disaffected, and those who have run out of hope an ideology that promises them and their children an opportunity to recover the honor they believe they have lost, retribution against those they believe have humiliated them, a means to destroy their enemies, ultimate spiritual redemption, and a paradise beyond the dreams of mortal men. Al-Qaeda affiliates and like-minded groups share a worldview and mind-set that transcends differences of culture, nationality, politics, and class. The doctrine is interpreted and tailored by local leadership to meet local conditions and grievances; thereby providing relevance and a roadmap for immediate gratification.

Although we may have for the moment eroded al-Qaeda's operational capabilities, I have no doubt it will be reconstituted and the leadership we have eliminated will be replaced. New and imaginative organizational models will be established to reduce vulnerability and increase operational effectiveness. Some of these measures are already in play. Just as the Catholic Church survives the death of a Pope, al-Qaeda will survive the death of Bin Laden and those within his inner circle. It is not the individual leader who provides this organization its strength, but rather, its ideology that resonates and provides a singleness of purpose and a divine plan for the establishment of a Global Caliphate.

Al-Qaeda's Future

To maximize the odds for success and survival, I believe al-Qaeda is adopting a two- pronged strategy. On one hand, al-Qaeda is working fervently to recruit European and American citizens who look nothing like the conventional stereotype of an Islamist radical. Some of the most recent recruits look much like the boy (or girl) next door. Some are blond-haired and blue-eyed and may have even gone to school with our children. As with most cults or movements, perhaps the most dangerous are the new converts who are imbued with a fanatic zeal and single minded intensity. Their Westernized appearance enables them to blend and move with ease within Western societies. As such operatives become increasingly sophisticated, they will better play the part of the "sleeper"-lying low, blending with the environment, and striking targets at a time and place of their choosing.

The gold standard, of course, is an American citizen. A U.S. passport enables such an operative to travel the world virtually unchallenged and citizenship enables such individuals to blend, insinuating themselves into the political and social fabric of our towns and cities, waiting for an opportune moment to strike.

A New Organizational Model

Al-Qaeda is beginning to promote a form of "leaderless resistance," whereby an individual or a small cell self-recruits and works separately from other cells or organizations. With this model, there is no central command, no contact with like-minded individuals or groups, and no attempt to proselytize. The goal is anonymity, which makes detection and preemption extremely difficult.

A refinement of this strategy is the hallmark of a shadowy terrorist movement known as the Phineas Priesthood. A person becomes a Phineas Priest by committing an act of violence against people they consider to be breaking "Biblical Law," including interracial couples, abortion providers, and homosexuals. The Phineas Priest is, in essence, self-anointed. It is a form of self-recruitment. The act alone is the passport to membership. The movement has no leadership, no chain of command, no meetings, no rallies. Operating as a singleton, a Phineas Priest is a model of compartmentation.

Over the years there have been a number of killings in the United States carried out by radical Islamists that may fit this mold, some of which are listed here.

January 1993. Mir Aimal Kasi opened fire on a line of cars entering the CIA compound at Langley, Virginia. He killed two and wounded three others. He then fled to Baluchistan, Pakistan, but was captured by the FBI and returned to the United States. Tried in a civilian court in Fairfax, Virginia, he received the death sentence. Kanzi apparently was working alone and was not part of a larger conspiracy.

March 1994. A van carrying religious Jewish students was raked by gunfire on the Brooklyn Bridge. Four students were shot. One died; one was seriously injured. The perpetrator Rashid Baz, a Lebanese Druze, reportedly used a Cobray sub-machine gun and had a 12 gauge Streetsweeper and a 9mm Glock in his possession. The police originally characterized the shooting as an act of "road rage," but their finding was later amended by the FBI and classified as an act of terrorism. Baz received a sentence of 144 years. He apparently was acting alone.

March 1997. Ali Abu Kamal, an elderly Palestinian, opened fire on the observation deck of the Empire State building, killing a tourist and wounding six others before committing suicide. Originally his family and police suggested that he took his life after suffering severe business reverses, but some 10 years later after reading his diary and a letter found on his body, his daughter stated he planned the attack as a political act. "When we wanted to clarify that to the media, nobody listened to us. His goal was patriotic. He wanted to take revenge from the Americans, the British, the French and the Israelis." Kamal evidently acted alone, and was not part of an organized conspiracy.

July 2002. Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, a 41-year-old Egyptian, opened fire on the El Al ticket counter at LAX killing two and wounding four before he was shot by an El Al security guard. Hadayet evidently acted alone and was not part of a larger conspiracy.

August 2004. In Houston, a Saudi student, Mohammed Ali Alayed, after undergoing a religious "awakening," attacked a Jewish friend with a butterfly knife, almost severing his head. Alayed apparently acted alone and was not part of a larger conspiracy.

March 2006. At the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar, an Iranian-born American citizen, deliberately ran down nine students "to avenge the deaths of Muslims worldwide and the punish the United States government." He boasted in a letter that he was trying to emulate the act of the 9/11 skyjacker Mohammed Atta. Taheri-azar apparently acted alone and was not part of a larger conspiracy.

November 2009. Army Major Nidal Hasan fatally shot 13 and wounded 30 personnel at Fort Hood, Texas. Hasan, as the others, apparently acted alone and was not part of a broader conspiracy.

These types of attacks will increase in frequency and lethality with the Internet providing indoctrination, affirmation, and instruction. Individuals such as those cited above are turning to the Internet to relieve their sense of isolation and to find support and affirmation and learn the skills needed to further their plans. The Internet, thereby, promotes and accelerates the radicalization process. Password-protected chat rooms enable the would-be jihadist to vent and explore operational strategies in the belief that the Internet itself provides them safety and anonymity. YouTube functions as a virtual university, schooling the neophyte on strategy and tactics while providing hands-on instruction on bomb making, surveillance, pre-operational planning, document procurement and forgery, etc. It also provides outreach and a bully pulpit for some of the most radical and vicious proponents of jihad. On YouTube, the neophyte can find clerics such as Anwar al-Awlaki, the imam who preaches hatred, jihad, and vitriol, and who served as a spiritual guide to Major Nidal Hasan and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Underwear Bomber.

New Tactics/New Targets

With new operational models come new tactics. I am sure any of our readers who were in the Washington D.C. area in 2002 will recall the episode of the Washington snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo. They held Washington hostage for some three weeks, during which they shot and killed 10 innocent people they picked at random. It was the randomness of the shootings and the inability of the authorities to make an arrest despite being supported by the state-of-the-art technology provided by the Department of Defense that added to the sense of terror. The message internalized by the public was if the government, with all of its resources, could not protect them, then who could?

Because some victims were shot at gas stations, it was not unusual to see men and women crouching down behind their vehicle while they filled their tanks. Other people curtailed their travel. Some refused to report to work. The fear was palpable and contagious.

Particularly chilling was the shooting of a school boy who fortunately recovered. Malvo testified during his trial that John Allen Muhammad was planning to specifically target school children as a way to ratchet up the terror. Fortunately, he was apprehended before he could fully put his plan into gear, but had he not been apprehended, the Washington D.C. area and its environs would have remained in a total state of panic. The Washington snipers were not terribly bright, but with an old rifle and shooting from the back of an old Chevrolet Caprice that they had converted to a "blind," they ruled the headlines and held the residents of the nation's capital psychologically hostage.

My concern is that homegrown Islamist radicals, who are smarter, better trained and equipped, may operate in the mold of the Phineas Priesthood and turn to using similar campaign tactics.

Thinking about the Unthinkable

Over the years, the U.S. has spent millions to protect prominent political figures and harden vital infrastructure but perhaps the most valuable target-our children-still remains virtually unprotected. One of the most serious threats we face are attacks on our school buses or the schools themselves in the mode of Columbine. Theme parks, playgrounds, and daycare centers are also potential targets. It is not a new idea, terrorists have done this before. In 1974, three members of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine seized control of a high school in Ma'alot, Israel and murdered 22 students before they were killed.

More recently, in September 2004, Chechen terrorists seized control of a school in Beslan, Russia and took more than 1,200 students and adults hostage, resulting in the deaths of some 384. They shot children and parents in cold blood, and killed others with explosives. When Russian security forces attacked and breached the wall of the school, the terrorists shot fleeing schoolchildren in the back. For terrorists who may not choose to seize a school, there is always the option of improvised claymore mines deployed in any number of diabolical configurations.

Other ways that jihadists may attack our children would be through the contamination of baby formula and baby food, using either commercially available poisons or naturally occurring pathogens such as E. coli. Similarly, childhood vaccines could also be adulterated. The list is limited only by the imaginations of our adversaries. We have seen in the past how the jihadists have used our own technology against us–transforming fuel-laden passenger aircraft into improvised cruise missiles.

Terrorism is a form of psychological warfare and we are most vulnerable to threats that directly target our children. Such operations are what I would call low-tech/high impact, and they require little in the way of technical expertise.

There is no shortage of horrors the Jihadists can inflict. They have the will, the means, and the imagination. The nature of the conflict is evolving and I am concerned that when it comes to the issues of planning and countermeasures, we are increasingly behind the power curve. And this is simply unacceptable!

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