WASHINGTON — Thirteen years after the devastating attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, led by Osama bin Laden and a relatively small band of hardened jihadists from the Soviet-Afghan war, today’s biggest terror threat is composed of teenagers who’ve slipped away from home, societal misfits and confused thrill-seekers.
The common denominator is, none of them have any terrorism experience. Their strength is their staggering numbers.
“There are 20,000 Western passport-holders fighting with ISIL in Syria and Iraq. The number could be higher,” said outgoing House intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers. He told WTOP hundreds or more of them are believed to be Americans.
They are a part of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIL/ISIS). The largest terror group in history rose to power seemingly overnight last summer “in a really lighting campaign which I believe was really a strategic surprise in Bagdad, in Tampa at U.S. Central Command and in Washington,” says retired Lieutenant General Michael D. Barbero.
ISIL was focused on building a global caliphate that few outside of the leadership of the organization could imagine. “I tell you honestly it’s not just the U.S.,” says Israeli Intelligence minister Yuval Steinitz.
Steinitz adds, “The Israeli intelligence services didn’t appreciate that ISIS would become such a great problem. Nobody has predicted that suddenly ISIS would get the upper hand in large parts of Syria and Iraq, not just against the government of Iraq and Syria but also against other similar terrorist organizations.”
While ISIL has established itself as the dominant terror organization of the day, there are others. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, in a July speech commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 Commission, said, “The terrorist threat is not diminishing.”
He added, “It is spreading globally and it is morphing into more and more into so-called franchises. The rise of ISIL, for example, is particularly of concern. And the literally thousands of foreign fighters who gravitated to Syria and now are returning to their countries of origin are a great concern to us.”
Barbero, who served as director of the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) from March 2011 until May 2013, spent years studying terrorists’ tactics and trends. He has noticed the capabilities of such franchises growing and is concerned about the trend he sees unfolding.
“There is a car bomb or an IED coming to a National Mall near you. They are coming here. They are determined; they’ve stated that they’re going to attack the United States.”
That development is not lost on Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson.
“The terrorist threat to our nation is evolving in a way that our domestic-based efforts are becoming even more important.”
Johnson says that since 9/11 the U.S. has become good at detecting plots from overseas. But he’s worried because terror groups such as ISIL have a new approach — using propaganda to recruit people inside the U.S. to launch attacks.
Fran Townsend, former special assistant to President George W. Bush, has watched this unsettling evolution and says, “Over the years, and certainly when I was in the White House, we began to see the rise of extremism in a new battle space, and that’s cyberspace.”
ISIL’s clever utilization of young people with no criminal histories and the move to the cyberspace dimension appears to have overcome a barrier that’s hindered other terror groups for decades: The need to cross borders and risk getting caught to launch attacks.
Now, shrewd use of existing Internet tools and computer-based technology has opened up a new frontier in the war against terrorism.
That frontier is defined in part by anonymity — which some U.S. intelligence sources say is among the terrorist’s greatest weapons.
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