Al Qaeda's core in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been dismantled, but the terrorist syndicate's operatives are becoming harder for U.S. intelligence officials to track because they are scattered across the globe. As the group tries to evade the watchful eyes of the Western world, security experts continue to express concern over another growing threat: homegrown terrorists.
With Al Qaeda operating as a weakened group, the "likelihood of a multi-pronged attack"—like 9/11—on the U.S. homeland "has been reduced," says National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen.
During the last few years, however, al Qaeda affiliates in Africa and other Middle Eastern nations have become more potent. Olsen points to a list of nations from which the al Qaeda threat is most lethal, pointing specifically to Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia and Pakistan.
Olsen also spent ample time discussing the burgeoning homegrown terrorism threat.
Most have "never been to a training camp" and "may never have had direct contact with terrorist group," Olsen said. These individuals "operate independently from al Qaeda [and] each other," making it "harder for us to uncover plots," he said.
Olsen highlighted the recent arrest and guilty plea of a Moroccan man who intended to blow up the U.S. Capitol Building. He was charged in February and pled guilty last Friday.
"Amine El Khalifi sought to bring down the U.S. Capitol and kill as many people as possible," U.S. Attorney Neal MacBride said in a statement. "He admitted today that he picked the targets, weapons, and means of the suicide attack while working with someone he believed was an Al Qaeda operative."
Olsen told a forum in Washington Tuesday that Khalifi admitted to a desire to kill "30 people."
Some national security experts, however, question whether homegrown terrorists who seek to emulate al Qaeda represent that much of a threat to America.
One study, conducted by Brian Michael Jenkins of the RAND Corp., concludes that of 32 attacks plotted by U.S.-based terrorists since 9/11, few "got much beyond the discussion stage."
"Only 10 developed anything resembling an operational plan that identified a specific target and created the means of attack," states a RAND summary of the study. "Of those 10, six were the subject of [FBI] stings."
"When provided with bombs, they were willing to act, but only two actually tried to build devices on their own, and only one of these actually built an incendiary device, which failed to function," Jenkins says. "In a country where guns are readily available, only two—and the only two to succeed—actually obtained guns and used them to kill Americans."
The RAND study acknowledges one thing U.S. officials have been known for some time: al Qaeda's various cells are trying to use the Internet to engage with American citizens and others already in the United States who would be able to blend in rather easily as they constructed and carried out attacks.
But, so far, those individuals lack follow-through.
"Suicide missions and martyrdom for American jihads are rarely contemplated," Jenkins concludes, "a factor that is said to have disappointed Osama bin Laden."
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.