The arrest of Christopher Lee Cornell, a 20 year-old Cincinnati, Ohio man who allegedly plotted to blow up the U.S. Congress and kill congressmen and officials working there is both bad and good news.
The bad news is that this plot is yet another example of the new form of terrorism that the West is facing: a lone-wolf style attack conducted by a person either with or without a criminal record or ties to terrorists. “I believe we should meet up and make our own group in alliance with the Islamic State here and plan operations ourselves,’’ Cornell allegedly wrote to a government informant.
The new terrorist is no longer a former fighter in a holy war with organizational ties to al-Qaeda or other groups. In effect, he or she could be anyone — a neighbor, a co-worker, even a relative.
This has been evolving for several years. Conducting an attack is as easy as booting up one’s personal computer and following the step-by-step instructions on the Internet on how to build a bomb or some other destructive device. Anwar al-Awlaki, the late leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen, had a website with videos explaining all the technical information needed to build a bomb, if an attacker was looking for authorities on the subject.
While the United States was able to defeat al-Qaeda’s central organization in Pakistan and kill Osama bin Laden, bin Laden has won posthumously. His war against the West and the secular regimes in the Islamic world continues, fulfilling his often-repeated dream to be an inspiration for generations to come.
The good news,however, is that while the Obama administration is facing challenges in fighting terrorism and ISIS abroad, it is doing a good job securing the home front. Unlike France, Canada, and Australia, Americans fighting terrorism have adapted to the new style of jihad. Nonstandard terror attacks require nonstandard counter-terrorism. This implies the government be proactive to protect the public.
That same type of proactivity was on display in Europe this week, as police swept up more than two dozen suspected militants in Belgium and France and killed two others alleged to have been on the verge of carrying out a plot to attack police. German police also said they had arrested a number of suspected militants.
Those raids, together with the arrest of Cornell, highlight the challenge that authorities face in trying to foil jihadists, whether they have formal training from ISIS or al-Qaeda, are organized in cells or are acting alone. The arrests this week are all the more remarkable in light of the varying nature of the jihadist threat. By infiltrating those suspected as potential terrorists, planting informants who pose as terrorists or sympathizers, and using continuous surveillance for phone, emails, social media and in person, plots have been discovered before being set into motion. As with Cornell’s plans for the Congress, sophisticated security averts mass tragedies.
However, al-Qaeda and ISIS have proven their ability to adapt as well. They have and will seek new improvised methods to breach the systems in place. While some analysts think an internal conflict between ISIS and al-Qaeda is good for us, that may not be the case. Both ISIS and al-Qaeda are sophisticated organizations capable of functioning in different and even contradictory ways at the same time. They fought each other in Syria, but that didn’t stop them from launching joint attacks in Lebanon.
Both organizations are large enough to function more or less like corporations. They might have a dispute in one field, a joint venture in another, and a competition in another. This very complexity is why we could see them work together or support each other, as in the Paris attacks, or simply compete with one other for recruits and tactical novelty, giving their members another motive to kill and master the killing.
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