US facing attacks by home-grown terrorists, senior adviser warns
The sheer volume of terror plots against the US means that the country will become unable to prevent a fatal terror attack by a new breed of extremists radicalised in America's towns and cities, the top counter-terrorism official has warned.
In unusually candid remarks, Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Centre, said that the nation's defences would be probably be breached by a home-grown radical, after a year-long period containing several failed or thwarted attacks that had seen the most intense terror activity since September 11, 2001.
"Although we aim for perfection, perfection will not be achieved. Just like any other endeavour, we will not stop all the attacks," he said.
"If there is an attack, it may well be tragic. Innocent lives will be lost. But we still have to be honest, and we have to be honest that some things will get through."
He said: "To say that we will not successfully defend against all attacks is certainly not to say that we are not trying to stop all attacks. We are."
The FBI last week arrested Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a 19-year-old Somali-born American, for plotting to detonate a bomb as thousands of people attended the lighting of the Christmas tree in the centre of Portland, Oregon.
Speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Mr Leiter, who advises the US government on the terrorist threat, said: "In this era of a more complicated threat, a more diverse threat and lower-scale attacks to include individuals who have been radicalised here in the homeland, stopping all the attacks has become that much harder."
The threat has risen in part because of the increased involvement of the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born radical cleric.
Known as AQAP, it has pursued smaller attacks perpetrated by lone operators which have complicated the challenges facing the US security services still battling the threat of another attack on the scale of September 11.
AQAP and Al-Awlaki, now living in Yemen, have been linked to Maj Nidal Hasan, an army psychiatrist, is accused of killing 13 people during a shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas in November, 2009, and to Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, the Nigerian student suspected of the failed attempt to blow up a flight headed for Detroit last Christmas.
Other "lone wolf" plotters based in the US have operated with a small amount of contact with any handlers in Pakistan's tribal areas, where Osama bin Laden and the core leadership is now based.
In October Faisal Shahzad, an American citizen born in Pakistan, was sentenced to life imprisonment after pleading guilty to planning to blow up a car packed with explosives in New York's Times Square. The FBI recently arrested a man who had allegedly surveyed train stations in the Washington area as potential targets of terror.
Conceding that the anti-terror services had made errors under President Barack Obama, particularly in the Christmas plot, Mr Leiter however asserted that hard work played a part in bringing about what critics have called lucky outcomes.
Having been nominated for his current role by George W Bush, he said neither Republicans nor Democrats should claim they had all the answers in protecting the country.
Offering some positive news, he said that the threat of a catastrophic attack on the US planned by the traditional al-Qaeda leadership had diminished, along with the likelihood of a chemical, biological or radiological attack.
In reacting to the next attack America should, he advised, avoid talk of a clash of civilisations between the West and Islam that merely feeds al-Qaeda's propaganda, and should avoiding portraying terrorists as all-powerful.
"We should not assume that the terrorists are ten feet tall. The fact that they get through at times in a relatively free and open society does not mean that they are all-powerful. We have to be taller than them. We have to be more resilient than them," he said.