WASHINGTON – Peppered by rapid-fire questions from House Judiciary Committee members during a marathon session last week probing the “Fast and Furious” debacle, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder calmly rolled his pen in his fingers, waiting for a chance to respond.
Interrupted repeatedly by members alleging the Department of Justice was hiding something, Holder’s brow wrinkled time and again as worry lines crept into his face. For the man who carries power of attorney for the entire United States, the blistering hearing was just one of a litany of complex issues stirring in the recesses of his mind.
Each day he arrives at his office on Pennsylvania Avenue, Holder is briefed on the ills and issues facing America — from white-collar and violent crime to national security concerns and human and civil rights.
But one prickly group of problems sticks out prominently.
“I worry about al-Shabab. I worry about AQAP. I worry about the Pakistani Taliban,” Holder said during an interview at the Justice Department.
In spite of the fact they and other al-Qaida-linked groups are wilting under relentless drone attacks and assorted military pressure, Holder said, “They still have the capacity to reach beyond their regions and have an impact on American interests in other parts of the world, but also on the (U.S) homeland.”
Seated in the large conference room just outside his office, Holder confessed during the interview that “lone wolves are the ones who worry me the most.”
He meticulously explained why.
“That printer on a cargo plane I think is a stark reminder that they’re still out there and they’re still plotting, still trying to figure out ways in which they can hit us here. The underwear bomber, Abdulmutallab, is another stark reminder,” said Holder, a native of the Bronx.
“And then we look at the Times Square bomber — (Faisal) Shahzad. You think, ‘Well now, this is a person who, if you look at all the normal indicators, you would not be necessarily worried about. And yet he was going to go and blow up a car in Times Square.'”
FBI agents in New York had to face a disturbing fact after Shahzad’s failed attempt on May 1, 2010.
“He wasn’t on our radar screen until he attempted to light off the device,” said Greg Fowler, the former head of the counterterrorism division with the FBI’s New York Field Office who’s now special agent in charge of the Portland, Ore. Field Office.
If the device had functioned, scores of people could have been killed or injured. But the device turned out to be much less sophisticated than Shahzad’s ability to avoid detection during his training, acquisition and preparation of the materials to build the bomb.
That is why Holder is worried.
“They (lone wolves) are the ones that are in some ways the least predictable, the hardest to find, and given that the threat seems to be moving in that direction, that’s something that gives all of us on the national security team a great deal of concern,” he said.
His is not an inside-the-Beltway state of mind. From New York to Los Angeles, from Michigan to Texas, U.S. law enforcement officials are deeply concerned about the “lone wolf.”
Steve Gomez, special agent in charge of the FBI counterterrorism unit in Los Angeles, is familiar with the worry.
“The homegrown violent extremist,” is what keeps Gomez up at night. He describes them as “those individuals who are Americans or who have lived most of their life in America, they know the way American society is, they know the way law enforcement is, they know how to maneuver within our community and they become extreme.”
The outgrowth of Osama bin Laden’s and al-Qaida’s decades-long campaign to plant seeds of American hatred has sprung up all over the U.S. Holder and his team are scrambling to stay ahead of the escalation in activity.
“Every day, I start at 8:30 with a meeting with the FBI director and we go over the threat stream for the past 24 hours,” Holder said.
“I meet with the president on Tuesday afternoons as part of his national security team and we talk about those things that are of concern to the team and to the president. And then I have meetings with my counterparts who are on the national security team throughout the course of the week.”
Holder is aware of what’s at stake.
“We have to focus on al-Qaida, we have to focus on the affiliates of al-Qaida, and we have to focus on the lone wolves here in the United States and the lone wolves overseas, so the threat is more diffuse than it was before,” he said.
TOMORROW: Holder discusses the killing of Osama bin Laden and the impact of the raid.