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al-Qaeda: The Many Faces of an Islamist Extremist Threat

109th Congress
2d Session
Union Calendar No. 355
Report 109-615

al-Qaeda: The Many Faces of an Islamist Extremist Threat








We remain a nation at war. The United States is not safe simply because we have not seen an attack on U.S. soil since September 11, 2001. The loss of key personnel, training camps and lines of communication have had a significant impact on al-Qaeda's near-term operational capabilities, but the group still remains the single, greatest threat to America, our allies and our interests abroad. Al-Qaeda has bridged some of these gaps by increasingly reaching out to other Sunni extremist organizations, as well as homegrown terrorist cells, to support local attacks against the United States and our allies. In addition, its ability to exploit the Internet has enabled the group to communicate with its followers, recruit new supporters and spread its message to a wider audience. These groups continue to plan for horrific attacks. The Intelligence Community is fighting a daily war against Islamist extremism-this can not be stressed enough. Just because terrorists are not conducting attacks does not mean they are not recruiting, fundraising, training and planning future attacks. Unfortunately, there are still gaps in our understanding of Islamist extremist groups, which leaves America vulnerable to future attacks.

Since the September 11th terrorist attacks there have been numerous commissions, reports and studies to identify shortfalls in the Intelligence Community and recommend ways to improve the capabilities and effectiveness for all intelligence components to prevent future attacks against the United States. Some of the most noteworthy recommendations acted on by the Congress and the Bush Administration include the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence who serves as head of the Intelligence Community and acts as the principal adviser to the President. In addition, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act created the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) to integrate all intelligence possessed by the United States Government pertaining to terrorism. Finally, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) established a National Security Branch (NSB) that integrates intelligence collection and analysis capabilities addressing the domestic terrorist threat.

These reforms have strengthened Americas stance against Islamist extremist terrorist groups, and without question we are a safer nation than we were before 9/11. However, there are still significant shortfalls within the Intelligence Community.

Recognizing this War is Different-The global war on terrorism is not a war of our choosing. America did not seek out this conflict, but it is upon us and must be won. It is a new type of war - one where the enemy is not a nation, but a movement. Our enemy seeks to inflict massive civilian casualties. We must be willing to use force when necessary, and the command and control of our forces much be sufficiently nimble to strike when the opportunity presents itself. In this war, intelligence and information are as important as military capability. Losing control of information can cost American lives.

Understanding Your Enemy-A successful U.S. strategy will ultimately depend on our ability to counter the ideological appeal of al-Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups. To be successful, we first need to better understand the animosity and arguments that underpin al-Qaeda and the wider radical Jihad movement, and the region of the world from which its struggle emanated and upon which its argument still rests.82 Understanding the Islamist extremist ideology will not allow us to influence the terrorists-these extremists cannot be reasoned with. We cannot expect to win the hearts and minds of those who have already been indoctrinated into the jihadist cause. We, however, can look to influence younger generations that may be vulnerable to recruitment.83

The Central Intelligence Agency created an office in September 2004 to look at political Islam and brief senior policy makers on the issue, as well as organize academic outreach programs around the world. These types of efforts are essential to help people better understand the terrorist, and how they use religion to justify and rationalize their actions. Still, this is not enough. This one program at the CIA can only reach a finite number of people. In the years ahead, the Committee would like to see the Intelligence Community dedicate additional funding and resources to standing up similar offices to help people understand the challenges of Islamist extremism. Otherwise, we will continue to make the same mistakes.

Domestically, we need a better understanding of the threat posed by homegrown terrorist groups. One of the things we have learned from the attacks in the Netherlands, Madrid, Casablanca and London is that there is not a "one size fits all" reason to answer why these individuals chose to adopt this violent form of Islam. The Department of Homeland Security should look to address the issue of radicalization, not just among Islamist extremist groups, but all terrorism groups within the United States. We need a better idea of who is vulnerable, where are people becoming radicalized and to what extent the threat already is ingrained in our communities.

Winning the War of Ideas-The global war on terrorism is different than any other war in America's history. However, as in most wars, America has been forced to engage in a "War of Ideas" against the enemy. This war against Islamist extremism can only be partially won through the military force, the rest must be accomplished with soft power, or diplomacy. The terrorists understand the importance of this tactic and are extremely adept at waging a war of ideas. Through the use of the Internet and other means, terrorists have had considerable success in spreading an anti-American message throughout the Muslim community. Terrorists utilize Internet websites to post comments and pictures that will incite their target audience-the younger Muslim population. They are distorting the truth to recruit new supporters. For the most part, they do this uncontested. America, with the help of our allies, in particular our Muslim partners, must increase its efforts to counter these anti-Western messages.

Responding to the Enemy Presence within the United States-The Islamic Jihadist war against the West is a war without borders. Since 9/11, a number of jihadist cell, have been identified within the United States, and terns ut plots have been thwarted in their initial phase of planning. Prudence demands that we remain alert to the very real possibility of terrorist attacks on the Homeland. U.S. law enforcement authorities must utilize all legal and constitutional tools to aggressively prevent domestic terrorist activity. Successfully combating terrorists or would-be jihadists who are already located within the United States will require the cooperation of all Americans. It is quite possible that the local police or highway patrol may get the first inklings of some terrorist activity. As a result, it is also absolutely essential that the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and other federal agencies work very closely with state and local authorities. The Joint Terrorism Task Forces that have been established throughout the country now serve an important coordination and communication function.

The JIS case in California illustrates the importance of law enforcement partnerships and cooperation between state, local and federal authorities. In this particular case, local police officials uncovered critical information that they then shared with the FBI, and all levels of law enforcement worked together to protect our country from the threat of terrorism.84 We should continue to look for creative ways to capitalize on the expertise and knowledge of local law enforcement.

The Internet-The Internet has become a key enabler for Islamist extremist groups to recruit, train, raise money and propagate their message. Although the United States has done an adequate job of creating venues to reach and influence moderate Muslims with a pro-Western message, these same forums have proven ineffective at influencing persons who may already have been radicalized by the Internet." The Committee impresses upon the United Government the need to do a better job in this realm to counter terrorists' unchallenged use of the Internet. We need to increase efforts to challenge the propaganda, distorted truths, messages of hate and calls for violence on the Internet.

82 Ibid.
83 Richard Perle, Testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, February 2, 2005.
84 "Four Men Indicted on Terrorism charges Related to Conspiracy to Attack Military Facilities, Other Targets," U.S. Department of Justice,, August 31, 2005.
85 Bruce Hoffman. "The Use of the Internet by Extremists," Testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, May 4, 2006.

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