I have worked in counterterrorism since the 1980s, and I have come to this disheartening conclusion: The threat of terrorism in the nation’s homeland is worse now that it has been since 2001.
The dramatic deterioration of the security conditions across the Islamic world coupled with a degree of complacency at home, is responsible for this situation.
The first reason for my grim assessment: Since the so-called Arab Spring of 2011, the breadth and depth of conflict raging across the Islamic world has grown dramatically.
Four nations are completely broken and in engulfed in devastating wars with no end in sight: Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Libya.
In at least four other nations, including western Pakistan, several provinces of Afghanistan, large sections of Iraq and northern Mali, there are large areas persistent conflict and jihadi presence.
If you add Boko Haram fighting areas in the Nigeria-Niger-Cameroon border area, terrorists in the Egyptian Sinai, the bloody sectarian attacks in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, and extremists in the southern Philippines, the picture becomes even more troubling.
The United States has not always been helpful. Three armies that we trained and equipped collapsed in front of different jihadi militia in the past several years, providing tons of equipment to terrorist groups.
After a military coup in Mali in early 2012, Army units north of the Niger River fell to a Taureg tribal rebellion coupled with local Al Qaeda and other jihadi elements. Although Libyan arms played a role in this breakdown, French intelligence informed us that many of the captured weapons in the French counter offensive in January of 2013 were indeed American weapons captured from Mali units that deserted in 2012.
Between January and June of 2014, the world watched in horror as the Iraqi Army collapsed in front of ISIS units, leaving behind tons of American arms and ammunition, including tanks and armored vehicles.
The third collapse was in Yemen, when, between September 2014 and February of 2015, the Yemeni Army, funded with several hundred million dollars of U.S. aid, also collapsed in front of a militia in Toyota trucks with mounted machine guns.
We cannot allow this to happen again. We must stand by our allies, especially during their most difficult times. This will be critical for Afghanistan in the years ahead. We cannot “pull the plug” on them for whatever reason, or we will pay a far larger price when their Army army collapses and Al Qaeda comes roaring back.
Layered on top of these conflicts is a growing power struggle for regional dominance between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iran, a radical and corrupt revolutionary theocracy that has supported Hezbollah aggression since the 1980s, is expanding this model by supporting other Shia militia groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen in an attempt to gain power and influence over Shia populations throughout the Muslim world.
Saudi Arabia, for its part, has long been exporting its own brand of Wahhabi ideology throughout the Islamic world, contributing to the radicalism within moderate Sunni communities and exacerbating tensions with local Shia populations. Saudi Arabia and Iran are now conducting dangerous proxy wars in Yemen and the Levant, sending more arms and fighters into this ever-growing cauldron of violence and hatred.
Egypt and Turkey, perhaps the two most important Sunni countries in the region, are both troubled. Egypt is struggling to provide jobs for its millions of unemployed youth, but its tourist industry and the overall investment climate is undermined by persistent political instability and terrorist violence. They need our steadfast support.
In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to expand his power and strangle any moderate opposition, as he continues to bend his country into something that looks more like an Iranian theocracy rather than a western-leaning European democracy.
As if all of this is not enough, the example of Tunisia is even more depressing in some ways. Since the Arab Spring, Tunisia has been the model of Arab modernization, politically, socially and economically. Yet, despite doing everything right, we know that on a per-capita basis, Tunisia sends more jihadis to fight with ISIS than any other country.
In the past year, the United States and its allies have made some progress against this grim scenario. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and the generals at the Pentagon have nudged the Obama administration into a more aggressive presence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and North Africa, mainly with increased Special Forces advisers, combat aviation, intelligence support and the occasional direct action attack by drone aircraft or by Special Operations forces.
In Yemen, the Saudis have led a brutal air campaign, which has enabled President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to return. And Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has abandoned some of its previously held territory.
In Mali, French forces, supported by U.S. intelligence, continue to hammer Al Qaeda’s local branch, but the situation seems to be deteriorating in the past few months.
In Syria, we are doing more, as the President has finally authorized U.S. forces to operate inside Syria and has approved more troops for Iraq as allied units prepare to take on Mosul. But even these commitments pale in comparison to the efforts made by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and their Shia militia units.
In sum, we have improved our efforts over the past year . But the cumulative cost of inaction and half steps has made the situation far more difficult to manage than would have otherwise been necessary.
The dozen or so conflicts brewing across the Islamic world are worsening in many cases, ripping apart the fabric of their societies and creating conditions that inevitably will have an impact on our homeland, either by exporting radicalized fighters or inspiring home- grown jihadis to attack us where us they live.
Against this backdrop, the terrorist attacks last week in Minnesota, New York and New Jersey are ominous. The good news is that these attacks were still relatively small compared to previous Al Qaeda attacks in the West. such as the 9/11 hijackings or the train bombings in Madrid (2004) and London (2005).
However, although these attacks were small in size and lethality, the growing number and frequency is are problematic. We must be concerned that as the number of jihadi attacks increases, the likelihood of a larger or more sophisticated attack increases. And it might just be a matter of time before a more sophisticated cell is able to conduct a more spectacular attack.
It should as no surprise that the New York City bomb was constructed in New Jersey. The first World Trade Center truck bomb of 1993 was built in Jersey City, and the May 2010 Times Square bomb, which thankfully fizzled out, was built in Connecticut.
That is why, after New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine dismantled his very effective homeland security team after intense pressure by the FBI and state police, the New York City Police Department was quick to hire the team and continue its investigations in New Jersey and beyond.
Gov. Chris Christie, like Corzine before him, was also not a fan of these operations, and was incensed to learn about NYPD operating in New Jersey. He threw a bucket of cold water on those operations.
These petty bureaucratic jealousies must be broken down. Terrorists do not honor state or international boundaries. Law enforcement agencies must be more aggressive and cooperate across jurisdictions. If one area is not up to the task, they should be able to expect investigations from neighboring jurisdictions to follow their suspects across state lines.
The jihadi narrative, although relatively weaker in these United States, still resonates among far too many young men in this country. The ongoing situation abroad will fuel hatred and inspire radicals to conduct violence.
We must identify these threats before they build more bombs or it will be too late.
This requires sophisticated criminal investigations by the FBI, as well as by state and local authorities, which quite frankly, outside of New York City, have happened very infrequently.
Most local police departments will say they lack resources to pursue such leads, but that is simply no longer an excuse. As was done in the NYPD, priorities must be set and assets re-deployed to meet the terrorist threat, and that means deploying experienced detectives capable of running investigations against potential terrorist cells.
Departments need informants, undercovers and wiretaps. That is what it is all about. It can be done and should be done now in most major cities within the United States.
And we desperately have to close the cracks that people keep falling through. In the wake of the recent last week’s New York City bombing, we learned yet again that the suspect was had been on the FBI radar for years, as had been the case with the perpetrators in Boston and San Bernardino.
This cannot be tolerated in the future.
When the FBI, for lack of resources or personnel, cannot be expected to sustain investigations against every suspect, local law enforcement must be ready to pick up the slack.
The feds should turn over these cases to local authorities, who, using their own capabilities, can grab the baton and track suspicious individuals. Even if they cannot put a person under 24-7 surveillance, they may be able to identify illegal activity or deter a plot.
Our enemies are not 10 feet tall. We know how to defeat them and we have many allies on our side.
Abroad, we must support key allies like Mali, Yemen, Egypt and Afghanistan, and recognize that Wwestern, style democracy cannot be forced down their throats before they are ready. Reluctantly and a bit late, we have increased our military support in these conflict zones — but more must be done. The Iran nuclear deal is done, for better or worse. Now we need to bring much more pressure on Iran to deter their its regional aggression.
At home, we must anticipate the steady rise of extremism and its seepage into the United States population, both physically with the travel of jihadis to and from combat zones, but also psychologically with those that who buy into the narrative without traveling abroad.
We must find a balance between overwrought political correctness that hampers aggressive law enforcement and calls for more extreme and counterproductive measures against the broader Islamic population. This balance can be found.
The NYPD is not a perfect institution by any means. However, for the past 15 years, it has demonstrated that a police department can be aggressive, creative and relentless in its pursuit of dangerous terrorist without trampling on the rights of its citizens.
State and local law enforcement agencies can and must take a page from the NYPD playbook and get moving.