WASHINGTON (CN) – The Department of Homeland Security is helping local forces prepare to respond to terrorist threats, which have changed substantially since the Sept. 11 attacks to include more homegrown terrorists and smaller, faster-developing plots, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Wednesday.
“Homeland security in fact begins with hometown security,” Napolitano said in a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing. Napolitano appeared before the committee with two other national security heads, FBI Director Robert Mueller and National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter, to report on their agencies’ efforts to combat terrorism.
Napolitano said foreign terrorist groups have adapted to the ramped-up response in the United States since Sept. 11 in both the tactics used, which include recruiting U.S. citizens, and the targets of terrorist plots, which have shifted from commercial aviation to mass transit systems and chemical facilities. Terrorists are also relying on smaller, faster-developing plots and are using small arms and explosives, Napolitano said.
She said these smaller, faster plots are best thwarted by local law enforcement and citizen awareness, so her agency is focused on aiding police in disrupting or detecting terrorist threats and strengthening the “if you see something, say something” message to citizens.
She also said she is working to “get resources out of Washington and onto the front lines.”
“We can’t simply put the country under a glass dome,” Napolitano said.
The United States faced three major terrorist incidents in the past year: a shooting at the Fort Hood military base in Texas last November that killed 13 people, a failed bombing aboard a flight to Detroit, Mich. on Christmas Day 2009, and an attempted car bombing in Times Square on May 1. Explosives failed in the latter two incidents, but the plots were able to get to an advanced stage, senators noted.
“Even failed attempts further al-Qaida’s goal to show that groups are embracing al-Qaida’s vision,” Leiter said.
Mueller said contemporary terrorists are more sophisticated, harder to track and better able to communicate with other extremists, making them “more operationally capable.”
Part of their success comes through the spread of the Internet, which has enabled terrorist organizations to use online propaganda. Since 2006, Mueller said, al-Qaida has focused on recruiting westerners, as opposed to supporters in southeast Asia and the Middle East, via the Internet, some of who travel overseas to seek terrorist training. The western sympathizers give the groups insight into the United States, Mueller said.
Leiter said that although al-Qaida is at its weakest point organizationally, it remains a “very capable and determined enemy.”
Even those who are not acting under the direction of foreign terrorist organizations, whom Napolitano called “lone wolves,” can seek out information on the Internet, the leaders said.
The agencies have launched a multi-pronged effort to deal with the emerging threats, in which the FBI performs investigations, Homeland Security works with communities to aid local law enforcement, and the NCTC studies the emergence of radicalization at home and abroad.
“Success, whether it be law enforcement or intelligence, is generally up to relationships,” Mueller said.
Neither the NCTC nor Homeland Security existed before Sept. 11, 2001. And though the groups are still working through policy and legal limitations to link databases in order to better piece together information, they say their readiness is improving.
“The steps we are taking are not a panacea,” Napolitano said, but she said they are strengthening the government’s response.