Late Monday evening, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation pulled Faisal Shahzad, a 30-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen off of a plane at John F. Kennedy International airport in New York. Faisal, wanted in connection with the attempted bombing of Times Square on Saturday night, is now sitting in jail and charged with five counts, including attempting to detonate a weapon of mass destruction. Questions about how close Faisal came to escape aside, we must applaud the impressive performance by federal, state and local law enforcement that the lead to this rapid arrest.
Before we invest too much energy in celebration and self-congratulation, however, we ought to spend a little bit of time contemplating a much more sober reality. The United States has now joined a long list of nations in having its own domestic Islamic terrorist problem.
Since 9/11 we in the United States have expended most of our time and effort on the prevention of another attack on our soil by a team of terrorist operatives sent in from abroad. We have implemented stricter border controls. We have created vast watch lists composed of the names of foreigners believed to be linked to extremist activity. We have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in technologies to detect nuclear weapons being smuggled into the country. We have sent hundreds of thousands of troops abroad to occupy terrorist safe havens and breeding grounds.
And, now, we find that the United States is itself a breeding ground for terrorists.
Earlier this year, Sharif Mobley, an American citizen, was arrested by Yemeni security forces as part of ongoing counterterrorism operations in that nation. Mobley was apprehended in a raid on a known al-Qaida site. Prior to his departure for Yemen in 2008, Mobley spent five years working inside U.S. nuclear power plants in several states.
On November 5, 2009 Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. Army officer and U.S. citizen opened fire at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 individuals and wounding 30 others. Prior to the attack, Hasan, who had apparently developed radical Islamic beliefs after joining the military, was in contact via the internet with an Islamic cleric named Anwar Al-Awlaki in Yemen. Al-Awlaki, a senior member of al-Qaida, is himself a U.S citizen.
In September 2009, Najibullah Zazi, a legal permanent resident of the United States living and working in Denver, was arrested and charged in connection with a plan to stage a series of coordinated suicide attacks on the New York City metro system. Charged along with him were two other individuals, both U.S. citizens, who planned to participate in the attacks.
In October 2009 Coleen Renee LaRose, aka “Jihad Jane”, was arrested and charged with a series of terrorism related crimes including conspiracy to commit murder and material support to terrorists. LaRose is a U.S. citizen, born in Michigan and raised in Texas. She converted to Islam sometime after 2004.
In January 2009 Bryant Neal Vinas, a U.S. citizen and convert to Islam, plead guilty to three counts of terrorism charges. Prior to his apprehension by Pakistani authorities, Vinas was working with al-Qaida to plan attacks on the Long Island Railroad commuter train network in New York.
This is a just a small sampling of a long series of cases. Nothing about these developments suggests that they are aberrations or isolated incidents. Nothing indicates that we are anywhere close to seeing the end of this phenomenon.
None of this is cause for hysteria or overreaction. None of this should be used as a justification for stereotyping or for discrimination against the Muslim population of the United States, the overwhelming majority of whom are hard working, patriotic and committed to the American dream.
It should, however, be cause for some sober assessment of the status of our internal security. We were fortunate in detecting Zazi’s plot before he had a chance to strike. The fact remains that passenger rail remains dangerously vulnerable, and Zazi’s plan likely would have worked had he had a chance to go forward with it. Similarly, across America major targets, including chemical plants and nuclear power facilities lack sufficient security. We can no longer afford this complacency. We need to address these issues now.
Other western nations have preceded us on this path. The British in particular have learned the hard way how widespread and dangerous a domestic Islamic terrorist problem can be. We got lucky in Times Square. The splendid post-attack investigative efforts of law enforcement aside, we were saved from significant loss of life more by the ineptitude of Shahzad than by any action we took in our own defense. We may not continue to be so fortunate in the future.
Charles Faddis served 20 years in the Central Intelligence Agency as an operations officer, holding positions as a department chief at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center in Washington, D.C., and as a chief of station in the Middle East. He is the author of the new book “Willful Neglect.”