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Countering Threats Abroad, and at Home

Interviewee: Richard A. Falkenrath, Shelby Cullom and Kathryn W. Davis Adjunct Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security
Interviewer: Greg Bruno
September 10, 2010

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The calls by a Florida pastor to burn the Quran, coupled with the controversy over a planned Muslim community center near Ground Zero, pose risks that the United States will be increasingly viewed worldwide as a setting for anti-Muslim sentiment. The Quran-burning threat has already stirred large protests in Afghanistan and raised concerns of a broader anti-U.S. backlash. Richard A. Falkenrath, a CFR adjunct senior fellow and a former counterterrorism official with the New York City Police Department, says policymakers are right to criticize people promoting hateful views of Islam and Muslims. But as the United States marks the ninth anniversary of 9/11, Falkenrath says such controversies, and how politicians respond to them, will do little to change the calculus of Islamic radicals. "We're talking about very small numbers of people that we worry about," he says. "If we successfully impact the hearts and minds of 50 percent of the global Muslim population, we still have the less than 1 percent that is a potential threat that is unaffected." While law enforcement officials have worked hard to prevent a repeat of 9/11, Falkenrath says, the terror threat against the United States and its interests abroad is more complicated than it was nine years ago. "Eventually," he says, "something is going to slip through and we will be attacked again." This threat is increasingly likely to emerge from within the country's borders, he adds.

Anti-Islam sentiments have preceeded the nine-year anniversary of September 11, 2001. Do you think policymakers are doing enough to debunk the perception that the United States is at war with Islam, countering what has become a primary motivation for Islamic radicals?

I personally am a bit of a skeptic of these sorts of public diplomacy. Public viewers are going to form their own opinion based on what they see on television, and I think in the minds of many people around the world, their opinion of U.S. actions in Iraq is already set, and it's not going to change if the president gives more speeches, or if we put out different press releases, or establish alternative means of getting information. We do some of that; maybe it makes a difference in the margins. But we're talking about very small numbers of people that we worry about. If we successfully impact the hearts and minds of 50 percent of the global Muslim population, we still have the less than 1 percent that is a potential threat that is unaffected.

Yet it would seem the anti-Muslim sentiment surrounding debates over the Ground Zero mosque in New York City, and the pastor in Florida who had called for a day of Quran burning, reinforces the impression that this country is engaging in a war against Islam.

It does, and this controversy over the mosque is just terrible, in terms of how America is perceived by Muslims around the world. I think [New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg] got it just right in his speech on Governor's Island. I was pleased to see General David Petraeus note that this pastor in Florida, who intends to have a Quran burning, is exactly the sort of wrong thing to do. It's exactly the sort of imagery that our enemies use against us and to rally support against U.S. forces fighting abroad.

How much progress has the country made since 9/11 in improving its capacity to respond to large-scale terror attacks?

Eventually something is going to slip through, and we will be attacked again. That's just a reality.

We are much better prepared than we were nine years ago. But our level of preparedness nationwide is uneven. There are certain things we're well-suited to handle--more conventional sorts of attacks. The exotic attacks, the most damaging sorts of them--chemical weapons, biological weapons, nuclear weapons--still would very swiftly overwhelm our capabilities to respond. [But] the key question is not really preparedness. The key question is prevention, and this has got to be our primary focus. Once you're dealing with the consequences of that, you've already lost out. The most important thing we can do as a country is identify the plot as it is developing and take it down before it materializes.

Does al-Qaeda continue to pose the biggest threat to domestic homeland security?

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we were completely focused on al-Qaeda and the threat it presented. [The threat from al-Qaeda] continues to exist, but it is much diminished and degraded. We've seen local franchises of al-Qaeda pop up around the world, in Somalia and Yemen, and other parts of the Middle East, Iraq to a certain extent. And we've seen radicalization occur, principally among disaffected Muslims, who have really no connection to al-Qaeda but do, from time to time, coalesce and attempt to get off an attack. So it's a more complicated picture today than it was nine years ago. It's hard to say if it's less or more dangerous.

Nearly a decade into the so-called war on terror, does United States' counterterrorism strategy need an overhaul?

We haven't been attacked again in nine years, so at the most simple level it is working. The al-Qaeda core that we know about is much degraded through intelligence and increasing UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] strikes on FATA [Federally Administrated Tribal Areas, in Pakistan] and also in Yemen and Somalia, in Saharan Africa. The basic strategy of taking this fight to the terrorist organizations in their foreign bases is right. I'm pleased to see it was continued and indeed in certain respects intensified by the Obama administration. This is really one of the foundational strategic elements of our counterterrorism operations.

How about non-traditional forms of terrorism? For instance, is there a point where we might actually see the next 9/11 be more of a cyber-infrastructure attack than something physical?

Some would probably say it's happening already, but instead of loss of life you have loss of data. The purely cyber scenarios that result in widespread loss of life are fairly remote possibilities. What is not at all a remote possibility is the loss of system functionality and of critical data, which, in combination with military action or with a terrorist [act], could compound our losses and limit further our ability to respond effectively.

Given these threats, is it time to have a conversation in this country that while we've been pretty lucky in the last nine years preventing another attack, luck can't last forever?

The conversation has happened to a certain extent. When I was in government, my philosophy was to come to work every day with the objective of preventing [terrorist attacks]. But if you want to take a more academic approach then yes, you're certainly right. Eventually something is going to slip through, and we will be attacked again. My judgment is that we are a strong nation, we will survive it, and we will be fine in the end, but it will be terrible while it's happening and for the victims. That's just a reality. But when you're in government, you cannot have these sorts of conversations with the public. The leaders don't like to do it, and the working level officials, it's just not in their job description.

In the United States, homegrown terror suspects are presenting a new set of challenges. In the last fifteen months alone, authorities have disrupted nearly two dozen terror plots involving individuals radicalized at home. How do you defend against domestic al-Qaeda sympathizers?

The last fifteen to eighteen months have been the most dynamic period since 9/11 in terms of threats against the homeland, many of them originating from within our own borders.

The last fifteen to eighteen months have been the most dynamic period since 9/11 in terms of threats against the homeland, many of them originating from within our own borders, in one way or another. This is a very concerning development. There is no simple way to deal with it. We do not live in a police state, we do not have the necessary controlled and measured surveillance of U.S. persons inside the country, and so the hardest part is to find out about the threat at the beginning.

Once you have an initial lead, there are things you can do. There are initial investigative steps you can take--there's electronic surveillance; there's human agents that can be deployed; there's interviews; there's the threat of legal action. The hardest part is getting that first lead. And essentially you have to rely on the radical, the bad actor, the militant, drawing attention to himself in one way or another. If he does not, if his operational security is perfect, then in all likelihood he will elude U.S. law enforcement and intelligence. And we have the real risk there of being taken completely unaware by a terrorist attack from within our own midst.

Why do you think this is happening?

We're talking about very small numbers of people, so it's hard to generalize. What they say in their custodial interviews after they've been arrested is that they were triggered by imagery of damage and battle and the war in Muslim lands by U.S. forces. I'm not sure that's exactly the right causal factor because there are hundreds of millions of Muslims all over the world who see exactly the same imagery and never elect to become terrorists. So what we're really doing is trying to explain the deviants of a very small number of people, and for that, social science and psychology have really yet to give us a good explanation.

Analysts have pointed to a couple of radical groups that operate openly here in New York City, like the Islamic Thinkers Society and the Revolution Muslim group. How can law enforcement officials, politicians, and civic leaders counter hateful rhetoric without trumping free speech?

Certainly, the law enforcement community is aware of the two groups you mentioned. These people are entitled to that rhetoric. That's the First Amendment. They can say whatever they want, and it's our responsibility to defend that right. It's the actions that you worry about. It's when they begin preparing for a terrorist act or committing material support that you have to watch. The law enforcement agencies in the United States, and New York City in particular, watch these groups very closely when they draw attention to themselves, genuinely looking out for evidence of crimes. If they commit a crime, they are very likely to face criminal charges, but they have to commit the crime first. There are a lot of different crimes, a wide range of counterterrorism statutes, the authorities rely upon to arrest people when necessary. But before they can do that, the individuals in question need to present a set of facts that allow them to be arrested and indicted.

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