Napolitano: Homegrown terror plots are key concern

The head of the Department of Homeland Security stressed on Friday that a growing number of homegrown terrorist plots are the most concerning threat to national security.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano emphasized that large terrorist plots like the al-Qaeda attack on Sept. 11, 2001, are still a serious danger to the U.S. But the growing number of individual and local terrorists, often inspired by the umbrella hardline groups, are more troubling and harder to thwart, she said.

“The kind of threats and possible attack tactics we see now are different than 9/11,” said Napolitano, speaking at a lunch sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor.

“They’re not large complex conspiracies. They’re smaller. They’re more diverse. It’s not just al-Qaeda, it’s other related new groups that have been inspired perhaps by al-Qaeda. It’s [improvised explosive devices], small arms, hydrogen peroxide-based explosives designed to be left in backpacks and left around smaller targets in the United States.”

Napolitano’s comments were a glimpse into what she’s likely to present to Congress next Wednesday when she is set to testify before the Senate Homeland Security Committee with FBI director Robert Mueller and National Counterterrorism Center director Michael Leiter about the current threat situation for the U.S.

“The larger [and] the more complex [create] more opportunities to intercept [and] to prevent [them from happening],” said Napolitano. “Smaller plots, individual activities, things that are homegrown as opposed to coming in internationally [are] much more difficult from a law enforcement perspective to prevent from actually occurring.”

Friday’s emphasis on homegrown terrorists comes six months after Napolitano admitted to a panel at the National Governors Association that the U.S. doesn’t “have a very good handle on how you prevent someone from becoming a violent extremist.”

Napolitano said on Friday that DHS was attempting to do a better job at preparing information fusion centers, which includes using Suspicious Activity Reports (SARS) so that they seamlessly share and collect data on terrorist trends and tactics. The approach works simultaneously with the citizen-driven “See something – Say something” education program, which works with large public destinations like sports leagues to encourage people to contact officials if something seems suspicious, she said.

The DHS is also looking into new technology and new research to combat larger-style attacks that might use weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but those types of tactics were less likely to appear, she said.

“A WMD attack is much more complicated…in the sense that the mastery of technology you have to have, the accessibility to material, and so forth,” she told reporters.

Despite the attention DHS is placing on smaller homegrown terrorist groups, Napolitano said that recent intelligence reports have revealed that al-Qaeda is still aiming to carry out large scale attacks.

“I don’t think [al-Qaeda] has given up the idea of taking out, for example, a commercial airliner,” she said.