Writing in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper on Nov. 1, Colin Clarke of RAND Corp. reflected on the Oct. 31 vehicular assault in New York that killed eight people and injured 11 others. He wrote:
"But in the United States, the greater threat emanates from people who are already in the country, sometimes referred to as homegrown violent extremists. Tuesday's attack in New York underscores this point."
At Stratfor, I have long argued that grassroots jihadists (which Clarke refers to as homegrown violent extremists) pose a persistent and deadly threat. Indeed, I have warned for many years of the vulnerability of soft targets to these terrorists armed with simple weapons. In the following excerpt from a Stratfor security column dated Nov. 4, 2009, I again raised the alarm after Nasir al-Wahayshi, leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), called for jihadists in the West to conduct attacks using readily available weapons:
"The most concerning aspect of al-Wahayshi's statement is that it is largely true. Improvised explosive mixtures are in fact relatively easy to make from readily available chemicals — if a person has the proper training — and attacks using small IEDs or other readily attainable weapons such as knives or clubs (or firearms in the United States) are indeed quite simple to conduct. As STRATFOR has noted for several years now, with al Qaeda's structure under continual attack and no regional al Qaeda franchise groups in the Western Hemisphere, the most pressing jihadist threat to the U.S. homeland at present stems from grassroots jihadists, not the al Qaeda core. This trend has been borne out by the large number of plots and arrests over the past several years, to include several so far in 2009."
However, while I agree that attacks by grassroots jihadists using simple weapons are the ones most likely to occur, I disagree that those attacks present the "greater" threat to the United States — or the rest of the world for that matter.
Defining the Greater Threat
It is important to place the danger posed by grassroots jihadists in the proper perspective. Overstating the risk is counterproductive, but so is downplaying it. Labeling grassroots jihadists as the deadliest threat to the United States falls into the former category.
By their very definition, grassroots jihadists are people who have become radicalized and have decided to heed the call to attack. They think globally but act locally, to borrow a phrase, but tend to lack the skills generally associated with professional operatives. In the paradox associated with grassroots radicals, they are generally more difficult to identify than people associated with a terrorist organization, but they are also generally less capable of conducting a spectacular attack.
But in the grand scheme of things, eight deaths are not a huge toll, and occasional attacks of this sort do not pose an existential threat to society.
It is difficult for me to associate the term "greater threat" with an attack such as the Oct. 31 truck assault in New York. I do not want to ignore the personal tragedies that such an attack causes for the families of the victims; on the individual scale, the attacks are devastating. But in the grand scheme of things, eight deaths are not a huge toll, and occasional attacks of this sort do not pose an existential threat to society. Nearly anyone could drive a vehicle into a crowd of people. Efforts certainly must be made to prevent such attacks, but there are simply too many soft targets and too many possible weapons to be able to protect everything against every possible form of attack. It is frankly quite easy to kill people if one wishes — especially if one is willing to die in the process.
While grassroots assailants have been responsible for all fatal jihadist attacks inside the United States since 9/11, all those deaths combined — our count is 114, not including attackers — pale in comparison to the 2,977 victims of the 9/11 hijackings. But even if we throw out 9/11 as an aberration, the threat from professional terrorists, or attackers equipped by professionals, outstrips that from grassroots jihadists. For example, Richard Reid, who had been given a shoe bomb by an al Qaeda facilitator, nearly brought down American Airlines Flight 63 with 197 passengers and crew on Dec. 22, 2001, and on Christmas Day 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab nearly destroyed Northwest Airlines Flight 253, which was carrying 290 passengers and crew. He was trying to use a bomb concealed in his underwear that AQAP had given him. Had either been successful, it likely would have eclipsed the death toll of all the grassroots attacks inside the United States since September 2001.
The same factors are at play in Europe, where in Paris on Nov. 13, 2015, a cell of operatives dispatched by the Islamic State killed 130 people, a toll far higher than any from attacks by grassroots terrorists in France. Members of the same cell killed 32 more in the Brussels bombings of March 22, 2016, before they were all finally rounded up. While the Bastille Day assault in 2016 by a grassroots attacker in a cargo truck led to 86 deaths in Nice, France, that is still far fewer than the 162 people killed by the professional terrorists of the Paris-Brussels cell. Quite simply, professional terrorists are a more severe threat than grassroots operatives, and we must not lose sight of that danger. Even though they have not been able to launch a successful attack against the United States in the post-9/11 era, it is not for lack of trying.
Despite a few close calls such as the would-be airliner bombers, security forces have proved capable at identifying operatives tied to terrorist groups and stopping their plots. Indeed, this is the very reason that jihadist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State have embraced the leaderless form of terrorism that encourages grassroots jihadists to attack. The two organizations have been frustrated by their inability to get operatives into the United States.
This reality has implications for security forces. First, they must maintain their relentless focus on the acute and significant threat that the professional terrorist cadre from the Islamic State and al Qaeda pose to the United States (and the rest of the world). These operatives who possess sophisticated terrorist tradecraft will continue their attempts to commit spectacular attacks, and the likelihood of success will increase if resources are reassigned from countering them to focus on the less-capable grassroots operatives.
Again, I am not arguing that resources should not be assigned to counter the grassroots threat; I'm arguing that the more capable and dangerous extremists should remain the primary focus of counterterrorism efforts. The potentially devastating cost of easing the pressure they have been under is simply too great.
Second, people need to understand that the government can't protect every soft target from every possible type of attack and that they must take measures to protect themselves and their families from these homegrown radicals.