INSIGHT: US chemicals, other key areas are terror targets

23 September 2010 17:55  [Source: ICIS news]

Times Square bomber Shahzad warned of more to comeBy Joe Kamalick

WASHINGTON (ICIS)--Domestic terrorist plots and attacks by radicalised US citizens and residents have increased alarmingly over the last two years and now pose the most pressing and challenging threat to US society and critical infrastructure such as rail systems, ports and chemical facilities, top US intelligence and counterterrorism officials said this week.

In testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller said that the rise of domestic terrorists presents a troubling trend that is very hard to counter.

“Home-grown extremists are increasingly more savvy, harder to detect, and able to connect with other extremists overseas,” Mueller told the committee.

Mueller said that their varied backgrounds, life experiences, education levels and other characteristics not typical of terrorists make it difficult to identify domestic extremists before they act.

“Identifying these individuals is among the FBI’s highest counterterrorism priorities,” he said.

He cited the 2009 plot to bomb New York City subway operations by naturalised US citizen Najibulla Zazi, and separate and unrelated bombing plots late last year by Hosam Smadi in Texas and allegedly by Michael Finton in Illinois.

And in May this year, Faisal Shahzad, a naturalised US citizen, attempted to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in the heart of New York City. In confessing to the attack later, Shahzad said that more such attacks would be forthcoming.

Mueller added that “plots disrupted in New York, North Carolina, Arkansas, Alaska, Texas and Illinois during the past year were unrelated operationally, but are indicative of a collective subculture and a common cause that rallies independent extremists to want to attack the homeland”.

Committee chairman Senator Joe Lieberman (Independent-Connecticut) noted that since 2009 “at least 63 American citizens have been charged or convicted for terrorist attacks or plots” against targets within the US.

Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican on the committee, said that “since May of 2009, there have been arrests in 19 plots involving US citizens and residents”.

“That compares with 21 such plots in the previous seven years,” she noted, adding that “this is an alarming increase.”

She also said that last year 43 US citizens were charged or convicted for terrorist crimes, and the number so far this year has risen to 20.

“These statistics are a cause for alarm,” she said.

Michael Leiter, director of the US National Counterterrorism Center, said that the increase in domestic extremism and related attacks or plots constitutes “the most significant development in the terrorist threat to the homeland since 9/11”, referring to the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York City and at the Pentagon near Washington, DC.

He told the panel that the number of domestic-generated terrorist actions along with those launched by Al Qaida against US targets “have surpassed the number and pace of attempted attacks during any year since 9/11”.

In addition, Leiter said, “the threat of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] terrorism to the homeland remains a grave concern”.

He said that while terrorists face technical hurdles to developing and employing devices that could cause mass casualties, such as improvised biological and chemical weapons, “the consequences of a successful attack force us to consider every possible threat”.

During a recent chemical industry antiterrorism security summit in Baltimore, Maryland, sector officials responsible for protecting plant sites were warned that terrorists would more likely seek to divert weapons-capable chemicals by deception rather than attempt to steal large quantities from production or transit facilities.

Appearing with Leiter and Mueller before the Senate Homeland Security Committee for their annual briefing for the panel’s members, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned that “home-grown terrorists represent a new and changing facet of the terrorist threat”.

She reported that “over the past 12 months, efforts by violent extremist groups and movements to communicate with and recruit individuals within the US have intensified”.

Napolitano also said that because radicalised US citizens or residents can be familiar with US culture and security practices, they “increase the likelihood that an attempted attack could be successful”.

In addition, she said, because domestic radicalised extremists often operate alone and without extensive or any contact with foreign terror groups, the threats they pose can materialise before intelligence agencies can detect and thwart them.

“Recent attempted terrorist attacks have proceeded quickly, with less extensive pre-operation planning than previous attempts and with fewer linkages to international terrorist organisations,” she said.

Napolitano noted that unlike large-scale, coordinated attacks - such as the hijacked airliner attacks of September 2001 - smaller-scale attacks require less planning, fewer people and fewer pre-operational steps.

“Accordingly, there are fewer opportunities to detect such an attack before it occurs,” she said.

Leiter agreed, saying that the lessons of the last year of increased domestically developed attacks “suggests that Al Qaida and its affiliates and allies will attempt to conduct smaller-scale attacks targeting the homeland - but with greater frequency”.

Because such radicalised US citizens or residents can be of varied backgrounds and often have been part of US society for years, they offer fewer advance clues for the many US intelligence agencies, Napolitano said.

The burden of detection consequently may fall to those closest to a potential target, she added.

“Today’s diffuse threat landscape means that a police officer on the beat, rather than an intelligence analyst in Washington, DC, may have the best opportunity to detect an attack or attack planning,” she said.

As more US citizens and legal residents become radicalised, she said, the threat they pose is broad.

“We must recognise that virtually anything is a potential target,” Napolitano said.

While commercial aviation remains a favoured target of terrorists, much has been done to forestall such attacks, she said.

Now, she said, public places and critical infrastructure are more likely to be the focus of terrorists because they are more vulnerable to penetration and are hard to defend without shutting them down.

“Potential targets include mass transit and passenger rail, which serve thousands of people every day, operate on predictable schedules and have many access points - all of which are appealing characteristics to terrorists,” Napolitano said.

“There also continues to be a general risk to our critical infrastructure such as ports and chemical facilities,” she added.

“Consequently, our thinking needs to be ‘outside the box’ while we simultaneously focus our planning on targets that intelligence forecasts to be most at risk,” Napolitano said.

Senator Collins said she was troubled by what she termed “a more dangerous pattern” of domestic terrorism. She also noted that there is no federal security agency charged with trying to interdict the recruitment of US citizens for terrorist acts.

“We simply must increase our efforts,” Collins concluded. “We cannot risk another failure of imagination.”

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By: Joe Kamalick
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