The apprehension last week of Sudbury native Tarek Mehanna is the fifth terrorism-related arrest in the United States in as many months, putting homegrown radicalism back on the radar screen. But many question whether individuals like Mehanna are the "real deal.'' Do they really pose a significant terrorist threat or are they acting out but lack the capability to inflict any real damage? How dangerous are homegrown radicals? Will the United States, like Europe, become more susceptible to native radicals rather than terrorist plots hatched abroad from organized groups like Al Qaeda?
Terrorism specialist Marc Sageman claims that we are facing a "leaderless jihad.'' Al Qaeda central is not the driving force of terrorism as an operational machine but rather its ideology serves as an inspiration for self-organizing local groups to carry out their own attacks.
But other experts, including Bruce Hoffman, maintain that it is established organizations like Al Qaeda that remain the dominant threat and that we must focus more on the organization and its capabilities rather than random, radicalized individuals.
The pattern of terrorism arrests since 9/11 seems to support the argument that homegrown radicalism is the greatest threat the United States faces and that Al Qaeda has lost its capability to carry out direct attacks outside of its Afghanistan-Pakistan operating base. But just because homegrown plots constitute the majority of those uncovered doesn't mean that homegrown terrorism is the greatest threat. Many of the homegrown plots have been all talk and little action. Even if the plots were executed, they would have been limited in scope - small explosive and ambush attacks or targeted killings. Mehanna allegedly plotted to ambush and shoot shoppers at a mall. While it would have been a tragic incident, it would be nowhere near the scale of 9/11 or the Mumbai attacks.