The warnings from two senior counterterrorism officials this week could not have been starker, though they differed dramatically in tone and style. Americans have grown unduly complacent about the threat of Islamic terrorism, the officials said. We ignore it at our peril.
Director of Homeland Security John Kelly, a retired Marine general, was extraordinarily blunt Tuesday in a speech at George Washington University. "Make no mistake," he said. "We are, in fact, a nation under attack." Despite all that Washington has spent and done to protect Americans, the U.S. now faced "the highest terror threat level in years."
There have been 37 Islamic State-linked plots to attack the U.S. since 2013, according to Kelly. An estimated 10,000 Europeans have joined the Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq, plus "thousands more" from Asia, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere. "They have learned how to make IEDs, employ drones to drop ordnance, and acquired experience on the battlefield that by all reports they are bringing back home," Kelly said. In recent years, there has also been an "unprecedented spike in homegrown terrorism." In the past year alone, there were 36 homegrown terrorist cases in 18 states. And "these are the cases we know about," he said. "Homegrown terrorism is notoriously difficult to predict and control." The FBI has opened terrorism investigations in all 50 states.
Even worse, Kelly acknowledged, while terrorists were plotting "each and every single day . . . no one can tell you how to stop it. No one."
Director Kelly's alarm was overshadowed by his harsh words for his agency's critics, especially in the media and Congress. Many news stories about his agency were misleading or flat-out wrong, he asserted, though he offered no examples. Inaccurate news stories not only gave Americans a false sense of security, he said, but denigrated the officials performing "heroic work each day." And if Congress was unhappy with the Trump administration's crackdown on illegal immigration or other laws and regulations, it should pass new ones or "shut up."
John J. Miller, the New York Police Department's deputy commissioner for counterterrorism, was as diplomatic in his remarks at New York Law School on Friday as Kelly was abrupt. But there was no mistaking his concern about the evolution of militant jihad since Osama bin Laden first declared war on the U.S. in an ABC News interview with Miller months before the 9/11 attacks. Bin Laden said that his own fate mattered little, Miller recalled. Whether he lived or died, no matter how America responded, bin Laden warned, al-Qaida would become a network, the network a movement, and the movement a globally potent message, capable of mobilizing young men and women everywhere for jihad.
That message now resonates with far too many young people living in their parents' basements and searching for a purpose. Thanks to the Internet, and to militant Islam's focus on what Miller called the "compelling marketing" of its message through social media, so-called "lone wolves," who may never have left America or even met face-to-face with a radical militant, could be recruited to conduct terror attacks on their own. They could be taught online through Islamist media like Inspire magazine how to build, deploy, and detonate bombs, without ever shaking a terrorist trainer's hand.
While Miller was proud that the NYPD, working with the FBI and other government agencies, had prevented 21 terror plots against New York or involving people in New York since 9/11, he remained focused on what the NYPD has learned from the two attacks it failed to prevent since then, though each caused only minimal damage.
In May 2010, a car bomb planted in Times Square by Faisal Shahzad, a 30-year-old naturalized American citizen from Pakistan, failed to detonate. Because of what Miller called a "technical error"—the use of the wrong chemicals in an effort to avoid detection—Shahzad's bomb fizzled. But what if Shahzad had used more lethal chemicals and built a better bomb?
Thirty-one people sustained injuries, none life-threatening, in last year's bombing in Chelsea, a downtown Manhattan neighborhood. But the homemade bomb that Ahmad Khan Rahami planted in a dumpster was powerful enough to hurl the container 120 feet through the air. Rahami, 28, an Afghan-born American citizen who lived in Elizabeth, New Jersey, had planted others, which fortunately were found or failed to detonate. Had Rahami been better trained or more knowledgeable, the Chelsea bombing could have been "as deadly as the Boston Marathon," Miller said, referring to the 2013 attack in which two homemade bombs killed three and injured several hundred more, including 16 people who lost limbs.
"Destiny smiled," Miller said.
But Miller was unnerved to see that the Islamists had analyzed the bombing to make future strikes more effective. Rahami's bomb, and his choice of neighborhood and time of attack, were all ideal for killing many people, an article in Inspire concluded, in what the military likens to an after-action report. Only the placement of the bomb was a mistake: the dumpster's heavy steel had shielded passersby from the explosion's full force.
The Islamic State's determination to improve its terrorism capabilities worries Miller, as does the lack of a powerful "counter-message" to the steady stream of slick videos designed to recruit adherents on Facebook and other social media. Another source of concern is "going dark," the terrorists' increasing use of encrypted programs and communications that law enforcement cannot crack. Miller said that in the case of the Garland, Texas shooting—the May 2015 attack in which two ISIS-inspired gunmen opened fire and wounded a security guard inside an exhibition of controversial cartoons of the prophet Muhammad—law-enforcement officials were still unable to read 109 messages in one of the shooter's cell phones believed to be related to the attack. "We, as a country, must sort out priorities," Miller said. Is preserving the privacy of conversations on an Apple iPhone 7 more important than preventing the next terrorist attack?
While Miller and Kelly warn about ongoing and future terrorist plots, they disagree sharply about an effort to make the nation more secure. Kelly defends President Trump's travel bans and executive orders aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants from terrorist-prone countries without sufficient government anti-terror vetting; Miller is critical of these measures. Such actions are creating fear within immigrant communities, he says, making it harder to secure information and cooperation from the people on whom counterterrorism depends, he said. Political refugees, especially from states plagued by terrorism, were already subjected to substantial vetting. Driving immigrant communities underground would make it harder to stop terror, he warned. The NYPD now had to work "double-time" to assure immigrants that working with the cops would not lead to their deportation.