Concerns about the possible presence of an al Qaeda network on U.S. soil — which have persisted since the events of Sept. 11, 2001 — have been reinforced this year by the March 11 train bombings in Madrid and waves of arrests in the months since then in numerous European countries.
It is logical to assume that some or many of the suspected militants — who have been swept up in raids in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and Norway — if they are indeed terrorists, may not necessarily be al Qaeda members, but could belong to other militant groups or be merely lone radicals reacting to the widely held notion that Washington is waging a war against Islam and Muslims. However, there has long been evidence of an al Qaeda operations network in Europe, both before and after the Sept. 11 attacks.
And this raises a question: If there is an active network in Europe, could there be one inside the United States as well? STRATFOR examined this issue in June 2003, prompted by the question of what had become of the Sept. 11 hijackers' support network. Noting that there have been no further attacks on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, nor any al Qaeda-related arrests, one could argue that the Sept. 11 attacks were a "special project" that fell outside the range of regular al Qaeda activity and plans. Or more to the point, consider the possibility that — whether the group was working to establish a network within the United States before or since the Sept. 11 attacks — an active network does not actually exist on U.S. soil at this time. An active network, at minimum, would involve a number of operatives who are willing to stage suicide and other types of attacks, as well as leaders possessing ideological and managerial skills. The group would, in essence, be self-sustaining, with access to sources of funding, multiple hideouts and vehicles, ways to replenish weapons and other assets and the ability to conduct training. In the hyper-sensitive security environment of the United States, these capabilities would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. Though one must always allow for the possibility of another al Qaeda attack in the United States in the future, the only way to logically measure the odds is in terms of probabilities. And for that, examining the questions of actors and agency is necessary. Like any group, al Qaeda needs both human and material resources to be able to stage attacks. In order to gather the material resources for an attack, obviously, human actors must be involved. In other words, operatives willing to engage in attacks need to be placed in the country of operations and/or cultivated from an indigenous Muslim community. In the United States, this would mean either those present in the country temporarily on visas or from amongst the 7 million-strong American Muslim community. The history of the Sept. 11 hijackers highlights the case for temporary residents or visitors. All of the 19 were present in the country on temporary visas, and given that their ties to the Muslim communities in the cities where they lived were almost non-existent, it is apparent that these were operatives who were dispatched to the United States for the task of operationalizing the Sept 11. plans. Authorities have not been able to detect the presence of their handlers in the United States, leaving open the possibility that they have gone dormant in the wake of the massive homeland security initiative. Furthermore, it has become almost impossible for anyone possessing the "profile" of a potential terrorist — a relatively young Muslim male from South Asia or the Middle East — to enter the United States, either with or without valid documentation, in the post-Sept. 11 dragnet. That, coupled with the fact that there has been a mass exodus and roundup of illegal aliens since Sept. 11 and the absence of further attacks, support the notion that al Qaeda might not have assets in the United States that have been deployed from overseas. Of course, many foreigners — Muslims and non-Muslims alike — still attempt to enter the United States, often using student visas even when the purpose for immigration is to find jobs. Until Sept. 11, the buzz in Third World countries was that if one wanted a visa to go to the United States, student visa applications were the most likely to be approved. However, once in the country, if they do not show up for classes, these immigrants become illegal aliens and undocumented workers, who may pursue several other channels in efforts to legalize their presence, such as employment or marriage to a U.S. citizen. A very tiny number may seek political asylum, claiming to be members of religious minorities — Shia, Ismaili, Ahmadi, Parsi, Christian, Hindu or Sikh — who would be persecuted in their home countries by autocratic regimes. In any case, statistics show that the overwhelming majority of those who have sneaked into the United States, under whatever guise, have done so in hopes of improving their lives and economic conditions. This is supported by four sets of recently generated numbers. First, about 82,000 men, ages 18-45, from about two dozen countries (mostly Arab or Muslim states, with the exception of North Korea) participated in a special registration process for non-immigrants in 2002 and 2003. No one in the now-discarded U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services program was found to have ties to terrorism. One cannot say for sure how many did not show up for this voluntary process, which means there could be potential terrorists among them. Second, the Department of Justice launched a review of non-immigrant visas, issued after January 2000, for males from the Middle East and South Asia. None of the roughly 8,000 people interviewed were found to have terrorist ties. Third, more than 5,000 foreign nationals were underwent preventive detention after Sept. 11. However, only three were ever charged with a terrorism-related crime — and of that number, two have been acquitted and one is appealing his conviction, on grounds that the prosecution did not disclose evidence that its principal witness lied on the stand. All told, some 6,000 foreign nationals reportedly either have been or are waiting to be deported from the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks. These statistics cannot rule out the possibility that terrorists planning attacks have successfully established a presence on U.S. soil, but the empirical evidence indicates that an overwhelming number of illegal immigrants who fit the "profile" are merely young men willing to take their chances for economic opportunities they would never have in their home countries. This leaves the final question: Could al Qaeda or other jihadist groups be present within the indigenous American Muslim community? Certainly, there have been arrests of American Muslims linked to charities that have been accused of sending money to al Qaeda or other militant Islamist organizations, but no one has been linked to working directly for al Qaeda. Returning to an earlier point, the arrests of many suspected militants in Europe has raised concerns about whether they have American counterparts. But while there is always the possibility that radicalized American Muslim youth could commit a terrorist attack, there are structural realities that render this a very low probability in the United States in comparison to Europe. First, Muslims in Europe are now in their fourth generation, while the U.S Muslim community is in its second generation. Second, rampant unemployment in Europe, particularly among immigrant populations — and the welfare state, which gives them more free time than they would experience in the United States — allows for a large number of young Muslims to be exposed to radical discourse or take part in radical or militant political activity. Third, comparatively looser immigration laws have allowed many radicals and militants in the past to set up shop in European states, while U.S. immigration laws have become progressively more restrictive, even before Sept. 11. And finally, American Muslims are more integrated into the mainstream of U.S. society than are their European brethren, who frequently live in more homogeneous ghettos. These cultural and economic differences significantly decrease the probability that indigenous Muslims in the United States will take up militant action in ways that they have in Europe. Furthermore, those who take up temporary residence in the United States are faced with the same forces of integration and the need to work to survive, which can impede the desire or willingness to carry out attacks. That, of course, does not preclude the possibility of "lone wolf" attacks, which can be nearly impossible to predict or prevent — but which also would be an exception to the rule.