Terrorists 'outsourcing attacks on US'

US President Barack Obama speaks about the shootings in San Bernardino, California during a meeting with his national security team in Washington Dec 3, 2015.
US President Barack Obama speaks about the shootings in San Bernardino, California during a meeting with his national security team in Washington Dec 3, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • The day before Thanksgiving, US President Barack Obama reassured Americans that there was "no specific and credible intelligence indicating a plot on the homeland". Seven days later came an explosion of gunfire and the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States since Sept 11, 2001.

What may be most disturbing is not that Mr Obama was wrong, but that apparently he was right.

By all accounts so far, the government had no concrete intelligence warning of the assault last Wednesday that killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California. Swift and deadly, the attack appeared to reflect an evolution of the terrorist threat that Mr Obama and federal officials have long dreaded: home-grown, self-radicalised individuals operating undetected before striking one of many soft targets.

The White House announced that Mr Obama would address the nation yesterday night (9am Singapore time today) about the nature of the terrorist threat and steps being taken to protect the US.

"We have moved to an entirely new phase in the global terrorist threat and in our homeland security efforts," Mr Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security, said in an interview on Saturday. Terrorists have "in effect outsourced attempts to attack our homeland. We've seen this not just here, but in other places. This requires a whole new approach, in my view".

Mr Johnson said the government should continue to augment airline security and further toughen standards for the visa waiver programme that allows visitors from certain friendly nations easy entry into the country.

Unable to curb the availability of guns at home or extremist propaganda from overseas, the authorities may have to rely more on encouraging Americans to watch one another and report suspicions.

Some experts urged officials to keep the danger posed by terrorism in perspective. The death toll from Islamist terrorism on US soil since the Sept 11, 2001 attacks - 45 people - is about the same as the 48 killed in terrorist attacks motivated by white supremacist and other right-wing extremist ideologies, according to New America, a research organisation in Washington. And both tolls are tiny compared with the tally of conventional murders, more than 200,000, over the same period.

But the disproportionate focus they draw in the media and their effect on public fear demand the attention of any administration.

Mr John Carlin, Assistant Attorney-General for national security, said in an interview on Saturday that ISIS was adapting. "Al-Qaeda really put a premium on large-scale catastrophic attacks with large loss of life. I think ISIL is trying to explore this as well, but this tactic of small-scale attacks that might fail but still inspire terror" is relatively new for the group, he said, using another acronym for the group.

He added that home-grown terrorists were harder to spot, partly because they act with less preparation. "We used to have a long time from flash to bang because Al-Qaeda would spend years planning," he said. "Now we see a much shorter time from flash to bang."

In his weekly address on Saturday, Mr Obama urged the country to uphold its values, which administration officials said means not demonising Muslims. "We are strong," the President said. "And we are resilient. And we will not be terrorised."

Meanwhile, at least 32 ISIS fighters were killed yesterday in apparent US-led coalition air strikes on the group's Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, a monitor said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the series of strikes to the north, east and south-east of Raqqa city hit ISIS bases and also injured more than 40 members of the group.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2015, with the headline 'Terrorists 'outsourcing attacks on US''. Subscribe