Homeland security and counter-terrorism officials warned lawmakers Wednesday that the nation is increasingly threatened by foreign terrorists who seek to recruit U.S. citizens.
The largest threat to the U.S. is no longer Osama Bin Laden, according to the director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCIC), Michael Leiter, but is now Anwar Al-Awlaki, the head of the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula group based out of Yemen.
The increased threat that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula poses revolves heavily around its ability to attract and reach U.S.-natives who want to be trained in terrorism techniques, and who could fall beneath the radar of intelligence circles more easily.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told members at the hearing that domestic terrorism and homegrown radicalization is a very large focus of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Leiter said Al-Awlaki has become the most well known English-speaking ideologue and has the largest Internet following among the radicalized population.
“I actually consider Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, with Al-Alwaki as a leader within that organization, probably the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland,” Leiter said during a hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee.
A recent report from the fusion center for the State of New York revealed that 50 out of the 88 people involved in Al Qaeda-related terrorism plots in the U.S. since 9/11 have been U.S. citizens, with a majority of those having been born in the U.S.
To counter this growing threat, Leiter said that the integration of homeland security, intelligence, and law enforcement personnel has improved rapidly. Now, he regularly meets with Napolitano and the directors of the CIA, FBI, and National Intelligence to discuss ways to further integrate their missions.
“And frankly that’s night and day from where we were in 2009,” said Leiter. “So I think there’s always some tension when organizations are trying to do the right thing and someone else disagrees. Not all of that tension is bad. On the terrorism issue, I’ve never seen it better integrated than it is today.”
Napolitano said that the U.S.-Mexico border remains a challenge but that it is safer than it has been in the recent past.
U.S. intelligence and security officials have been monitoring the ties of the major drug cartels operating in Mexico, such the Los Zetas cartel, for possible connections to Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda affiliates. Several members have expressed their concern in recent years that the increasingly emboldened cartels could form a profitable partnership with terrorists to smuggle weapons and equipment into the U.S. through existing drug routes.
“All I will say in an open setting is that we have, for some time, been thinking about what would happen if say Al Qaeda were to unite with the Zetas – one of the drug cartels – and I’ll just leave it at that,” she said.
Napolitano also said that the U.S. is now screening 100 percent of at-risk cargo coming into the country, which it was not doing last year. And though DHS and the private sector have made significant strides in securing the country from a chemical, biological, or radiological attack, she said, there remains much more to be done.
DHS has built four major areas of security, she said in prepared remarks. Those include: the creation of Joint Terrorist Task Forces; the launch of state and major urban area fusion centers staffed with 68 DHS officials throughout the country; the implementation of the nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) initiative, which is expected to reach the entire country by September; and the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign, which promotes awareness of suspicious activity and behavior by citizens, businesses, and local law enforcement.