The Upshot

White House: Al-Qaida shifting focus to small-scale terror attacks

Brett Michael Dykes
The Upshot

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It's gettin' hard out there for a terrorist.

That's the gist of the latest news from the Obama administration's homeland security team:  Al- Qaida is shifting its focus away from carrying out broad, ambitious terror attacks like the 9/11 plane hijackings, and focusing more on smaller, lower-impact attacks like the failed bombing of Times Square.

The reason for the shift, administration officials said, is that al-Qaida faces steeper challenges to carrying out larger attacks, now that American intelligence outfits have beefed up their anti-terror efforts.

"Unlike large-scale, coordinated, catastrophic attacks, executing smaller-scale attacks requires less planning and fewer pre-operational steps," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said yesterday in testimony to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "Accordingly, there are fewer opportunities to detect such an attack before it occurs."

The Washington Post's Peter Finn notes that terrorism experts were expecting this strategic shift for some time. Indeed, officials monitoring terrorist activity had been baffled that it hadn't come sooner. As Finn put it,  even after the post-9/11 crackdown, al-Qaida "appeared fixated on orchestrating another dramatic mass-casualty event, such as the simultaneous downing of several commercial airliners."

As part of the new initiative, the terror organization appears to be trying to recruit more home-grown terrorists to attack the United States, rather than sending in foreign operatives to carry out attacks.

"Groups affiliated with al-Qaida are now actively targeting the United States and looking to use Americans or Westerners who are able to remain undetected by heightened security measures," FBI Director Robert Mueller told the committee. He also observed that the increasingly radical mood among American followers of al-Qaida has created an outflow of U.S. recruits to other nations as they seek " for extremist opportunities abroad."

Napolitano and Mueller hinted that al-Qaida has attacks against America's Western allies in its plans as well. Napolitano stressed that "there have been a number of activities in Europe."

"Despite the significant counterterrorism pressure abroad," Mueller said, "al-Qaida continues to be committed to high-profile attacks directed at the West, including plans against Europe as well as the homeland."

(Photo:  AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

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