Terrorism threat diminished, yet it remains, experts say

Michael Chertoff

John Negroponte

ASPEN — Nearly a decade after the 9/11 attacks and two months after the death of Osama bin Laden, terrorism is less of a threat to the United States, but the country should not let its guard down, several national experts said Thursday.

“I do think we have made considerable progress in bolstering our own defenses in that regard,” John Negroponte, who served as the first director of national intelligence under President George W. Bush, said Thursday during the Aspen Institute’s Aspen Ideas Festival.

Philip Zelikow, who directed the 9/11 Commission, said in a later discussion that U.S. operations against terrorism abroad explain why there hasn’t been another such domestic attack against the United States.

“We came after their home sanctuary, broke them up and set them on the run,” Zelikow said.

“America is the safest place in the world,” declared Mike McConnell, U.S. director of national intelligence from 2007–09.

But he and other speakers emphasized the need to be mindful of the continuing terrorism threat.

“There’s lots of ways that we can be attacked, so we have to be ever-vigilant,” he said.

To McConnell, the attacks could come in forms such as dissemination of anthrax or disruption of the U.S. banking system.

Jane Harman, who served on several security committees while in the U.S. House of Representatives, said she fears terrorists setting off a so-called dirty bomb consisting of a conventional explosive that disperses radioactive materials. Zelikow said another threat is an attack like in 2008 in Mumbai, where “some people with small arms just go out and start shooting.”

This week, the Obama administration announced a counterterrorism strategy that it characterized as being a war with al-Qaida, rather than what Harman described as a “more amorphous” war on terror.

Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security from 2005–09, said U.S. success in taking out bin Laden and other top al-Qaida leadership could lead to new leaders who are younger, have a better understanding of the West, and are more inclined to attempt smaller, numerous attacks rather than big but infrequent ones such as on 9/11.

“We need to make sure we can collect and analyze intelligence that’s picked up at the grass roots,” he said.

He said terrorists don’t necessarily look like Americans think they do, or fall only into certain demographic categories, which helps explain airport searches of seemingly innocuous people like the elderly.

Terrorists also understand Americans’ discomfort about being searched in certain anatomical areas, Chertoff said.

As a result, he said, for airport security personnel, “what makes no sense is to only look at half the body.”

Negroponte said fighting terrorism requires dealing with its root causes, which include some Muslim countries having little attachment to the global economy outside of oil exports.

“These countries have got to get more integrated into the rest of the world,” he said.


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