Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Overseas Security Advisory Council's annual briefing, which was attended by some 1,500 security managers from corporations, non-governmental organizations and academic institutions. The meetings are always a great chance to catch up with friends, colleagues, Stratfor customers and business contacts. But the briefing is more than just a chance to network and socialize; it is also an opportunity to listen and learn from an impressive lineup of prominent speakers.
One of the keynote speakers this year was Jeh Johnson, the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security since December 2013. Johnson has had a long and distinguished career in government. He is also an engaging speaker and is obviously a very intelligent man. But during Johnson's presentation he made three assertions that I found quite shocking to hear from the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, namely, that the threat of foreign jihadists returning from fighting overseas is new, that the threat posed by lone wolf extremists is new and that the extremist use of social media is relatively new.
I am not sure if these three assertions were merely a result of a speechwriter who was misled by bad analysis or by too much consumption of mainstream media, or if Johnson himself actually believes these things. However, in light of last week's column highlighting how important it is that security managers and government officials present a rational and honest assessment of threats, I feel compelled to take issue with these three claims.
Certainly, the amount of press coverage given to the threat posed by jihadists returning from Syria and Iraq is unprecedented, but the actual threat posed by such individuals is far from new. As we noted in a Security Weekly on this last April, since 1979, tens of thousands of foreign fighters have received training at camps run by jihadists in places such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia, Libya and Syria.
Indeed, when Johnson was an assistant U.S. attorney in New York's Southern District (1989-1991), that office was overseeing the investigation of a group of men involved with the Al Kifah Refugee Center in Brooklyn, aka the Brooklyn Jihadi Office. The Al Kifah Refugee Center has been linked to prominent jihadists such as Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden and Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman.
Al Kifah was established for the purpose of recruiting men and raising funds for jihad in Afghanistan and elsewhere. After a man associated with the center, El Sayyid Nosair, assassinated the founder of the Jewish Defense League in New York in November 1990, the FBI managed to insert an informant into the group. According to Willful Blindness, a book written by Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew McCarthy, assistant U.S. attorneys from the Southern District of New York — Johnson's colleagues — oversaw the operation.
The operation to monitor the cell was dropped after the FBI's informant became difficult to control and the cell was judged not to pose a real threat. In hindsight, this assessment proved to be incorrect, and many men associated with Al Kifah were later convicted for participating in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and for plotting to attack a number of other high-profile targets in New York. Other Afghan jihad veterans involved with the case, including Ali Mohammed and Wadih el-Hage, were later convicted for their participation in the bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998.
In the 13 years since the 9/11 attacks, there have been many plots in the United States and in Europe involving jihadists who fought or who were trained in camps overseas. A partial list of them includes:
- Richard Reid, who failed to destroy American Airlines flight 63 over the Atlantic Ocean using a shoe bomb in December 2001.
- Jose Padilla, who was arrested in Chicago in May 2002 and convicted for plotting terrorist attacks inside the United States.
- Mohammad Sidique Khan and the three other suicide bombers, who attacked the London mass transportation system July 7, 2005.
- Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, also known as Carlos Bledsoe, who is serving a life sentence for shooting and killing one U.S. Army recruit and wounding another outside a U.S. Armed Forces recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas, in June 2009.
- Daniel Boyd, who was arrested in August 2009 and who pled guilty to terrorism charges in September 2011.
- Najibullah Zazi, who was arrested in September 2009 and who pled guilty of plotting to bomb the New York subway system.
- Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted and failed to destroy Northwest Airlines flight 253 over Detroit in December 2009.
- Faisal Shahzad, who attempted and failed to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in May 2010.
But returning jihadists have been a problem outside of the United States and Europe, too. For decades now, Egyptian, Libyan and jihadists of other nationalities have fought abroad and sought to bring their fight home with them. High-profile figures such as Nasir al-Wahayshi, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's founder, and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the founder of the group Al-Mourabitoun in the Sahel, also received training and combat experience in Afghanistan before returning to their home countries to lead jihadist groups.
In the 13 years since the 9/11 attacks, there have been many plots in the United States and in Europe involving jihadists who fought or who were trained in camps overseas.
In Asia, Indonesian jihadists, including Hambali and Dulmatin, and Filipino jihadists, including Abu Sayyaf's founder, Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, also received training and experience in Afghanistan and brought it home to wreak havoc in their home countries.
Clearly, returning jihadists are not a new threat by any means.
The Lone Wolf Threat
We did see a brief spike in lone wolf attacks in October following the Islamic State's plea for jihadists living in the West to undertake such attacks. However, as I discussed in the Oct. 20 Security Weekly, this type of leaderless resistance operational model is not new.
White supremacists and anarchists have been encouraging people to follow this strategy for decades now, as seen by famous lone wolf attackers such as Joseph Paul Franklin, Eric Rudolph and Ted Kaczynski.
Ideologues, such as Abu Musab al-Suri, have been promoting the leaderless resistance approach for jihadists living in the West since 2004. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula began promoting al-Suri's theories in 2009, most notably through the creation of Inspire magazine, and the al Qaeda core hopped on the leaderless resistance bandwagon in 2010.
The Role of Social Media
Jihadists have always used media to promote their cause. In the 1970s and 1980s they produced bulletins, magazines, and VHS and audio tapes to raise funds, draw people to their cause and convince them to migrate to fight jihad abroad.
Jihadists and other militant groups — including anarchists and white supremacists — were early adopters of the Internet. I have followed this progression since the early 1990s, and, by and large, militant groups have been slightly ahead of the rest of us when it comes to social media.
Jihadists were active on Internet Relay Chat boards in the mid-1990s and then in Usenet newsgroups in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They also became very active with websites such as azzam.com, which became one of the most popular jihadist web sites. Azzam.com was established in 1996 by Babar Ahmed, a British citizen of Pakistani descent, who traveled to fight jihad in Bosnia.
Azzam.com went offline in 2002 because of pressure following the 9/11 attacks, but the 9/11 attacks led to a veritable explosion of jihadist activity on the Internet. While many jihadists and jihadist cheerleaders started websites, others opted for Internet forums, rather than static websites that are easier to shut down. There are a wide variety of jihadist forums. Some are open to the public, others are password protected. Even today, these forums remain an important source of propaganda, networking, recruitment and radicalization.
In recent years, sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have become more popular among jihadists, as they have with the rest of us. I do agree with Johnson that the Islamic State's use of social media is masterful and more sophisticated than that of groups in the past. However, the jihadists' use of social media is not new.
Why It Matters
Portraying a longtime issue as something new and daunting may be a way to excuse the inability of the government to stop lone attackers and grassroots jihadists, but in reality, the government's inability to abate these threats stems more from their nature and not their novelty. Indeed, the United States and Europe have lived with the threats of returning jihadists and lone wolf attackers for decades now, and while such operators have been able to conduct occasional attacks, their impact has been quite limited when considered as part of the big picture. This is not to downplay the individual tragedies that happen when such operatives are able to kill and injure people in their terrorist attacks, but, quite frankly, the casualties produced by these attacks are dwarfed by those caused by other things, including car accidents, natural disasters and even the seasonal flu.
Terrorism has been a part of life for decades now, and it will continue to be, but it does not have to be a source of paranoia, fear and dread. It must instead be kept in proper perspective, as should any other problem, so it may be responded to appropriately.