Could bin Laden’s death increase risk of domestic terrorism attacks?
Interpol, the international police organization, today warned its member countries, including the United States, "to be on full alert" for attacks by Islamic terrorists looking to avenge the killing of the movement's long-time spiritual leader.
The U.S. government is said to have conveyed the same message internally. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last night issued a preliminary "situational awareness alert," obtained by the AP, saying bin Laden's death could inspire retaliatory attacks from al Qaeda or its allies--or even from radicalized individuals in the United States.
But in a statement to the press, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said that although the department remains "at a heightened state of vigiliance," it doesn't plan to issue a broader security alert. Napolitano explained that DHS officials only approve that shift when "we have specific or credible information to convey to the American public."
Still, counter-terrorism experts see the possibility of an increased threat level in the immediate wake of bin Laden's death. "There is a window of vulnerability in the short term," Frank Cilluffo, a former special assistant for homeland security to President Bush who now runs George Washington University's Homeland Security Institute, told The Lookout in an interview. But he stressed that for several years, terror groups and individual actors have been trying to launch attacks on the United States--almost all unsuccessful--so bin Laden's death may not be a game changer.
Former C.I.A. director Michael Hayden told Bloomberg the United States should "brace for retaliatory attacks," as the news service put it, from al Qaeda and affiliated groups.
And former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned on NBC's Today Show this morning: "There has been intelligence that suggested that if Osama bin Laden were ever captured or killed that there would be a violent attack on America or Europe, in one way or another."
Vince Cannistraro, a former operations chief at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, suggested that any domestic attacks likely would mirror other recent attempted terror plots in the United States--meaning, in other words, that they wouldn't be terribly advanced or elaborate. "I don't think there will be sophisticated retaliatory actions here in the U.S.," Cannistraro told The Lookout. "We may very well see emotional ones."
Cannistraro, who now works as a consultant on terrorism and security issues, said the more serious retaliatory threat is to places where terror groups have a greater operational capacity to strike.
"There will be attempts in other places in the world," he said, singling out Yemen in particular, where the U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki is based. Awlaki is said to have had contacts with both Umar Abdulmutallab--better known as the Underwear Bomber--and Nidal Malik Hassan, the Fort Hood shooting suspect.
Still, in the longer term, counter-terror experts agree, bin Laden's demise massively undercuts the ability of al Qaeda and its allies to continue recruiting followers and mounting successful operations.
"It's a catastrophe for them," Cannistraro said. "Bin Laden was the movement itself."
Although he wasn't immersed in the day-to-day operations of al Qaeda, Cannistraro said, bin Laden appointed the people who were, as well as acting as a spiritual leader and motivator. "The leadership came from bin Laden," Cannistraro said. "His leadership is gone."
But in recent years, the Islamic terror movement has become more decentralized, meaning that even taking out the leader won't decisively end the threat. "Many of the operations are being designed at lower levels," said Cilluffo. "It's no longer 'Wait from on high,'" for terrorist plotters.
(Image made from video broadcast on Oct. 7, 2001, showing Osama bin Laden at an undisclosed location.: AP/Al-Jazeera)