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Arizona’s homeland security strategy needs to be revamped

As Al Qaeda’s strategy evolves, our homeland security agencies have to adapt or it could spell catastrophe for the homeland. And evolve Al Qaeda has: Experts recently testified to Congress that, since the beginning of 2009, there has been a visible shift in Al Qaeda’s strategy inside the United States.

Al Qaeda’s new plan is designed to increase the number of “lone wolf” and small-scale attacks perpetrated by radicalized Americans – so-called “homegrown” terrorists. The problem is that our security agencies have been slow to adjust.

One analyst testified matter-of-factly that, in light of the terrorists’ evolution, our “homeland security enterprise is currently not up to the task of dealing with the terrorism threat we face today.” Meanwhile, a new Congressional Research Service report points out there is still no “unified strategy, plan, or framework focused on homegrown jihadist terrorism.”

State law requires Arizona’s Department of Homeland Security to develop a statewide homeland security strategy. However, no federal or state law requires Arizona to wait for the federal government to come up with a strategy first.

Accordingly, Arizonans deserve answers: Given that Al Qaeda’s strategy underwent a significant shift in 2009, why is it that Arizona’s homeland security strategy has not been revised since January 2008?

“The spike in homegrown violent extremist activity during the past year is indicative of a common cause that rallies independent extremists to want to attack the homeland,” Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, explained to the Senate. “The impact of the attempted attacks during the past year suggests Al-Qaeda, and its affiliates and allies, will attempt to conduct smaller-scale attacks targeting the homeland but with greater frequency.”

Leiter said that many groups affiliated with Al Qaeda, including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), “could pose a direct threat to the homeland.” LET is the Pakistani jihad organization responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks in India.

To be sure, a case decided by the 4th Circuit two weeks ago details the activities of Ali Chandia, an American resident who coordinated terrorist operations in Falls Church, Va., at the direction of LET.

The court said Chandia facilitated the purchase of anti-ballistic materials and remote-controlled aircraft equipment, served as the contact point for LET operatives visiting from abroad, and shipped materials intended for use in terrorist training programs to Lahore, Pakistan.

A report published earlier this month by the National Security Preparedness Group tells of Al Qaeda’s director of external operations, an American who grew up in Brooklyn and Florida and who is known to have instructed three operatives living in the U.S. to attack American targets.

Another story involved a Baptist from Alabama who converted to Islam and is today a military officer for Al Shabab, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia that has been particularly successful in its drive to radicalize and recruit Minnesota high school students.

What these stories show is that terrorists do not restrict their operations to any particular region of the country. They can be found anywhere, from Alabama to New York, Florida, or a D.C. suburb.

That means Arizona needs a plan.

“Terrorist organizations are increasingly seeking operatives who are familiar with the United States or the West,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in her Senate testimony.  “The threat is evolving in several ways that make it more difficult for law enforcement or the intelligence community to detect and disrupt plots.”

Terrorists do not only seek to perpetrate massive, 9/11-style attacks. They are positioning themselves to wreak havoc in other ways. The only option is to sober up and reform our security agencies to meet the new challenges posed by fresh terrorist strategies.

— Anthony Tsontakis served as a law extern for the Arizona Department of Homeland Security. He recently earned his J.D. from the Phoenix School of Law.

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