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The constant increase in the number of foreign terrorist organizations poses a severe threat to the security of the United States. This paper examines the profile of al-Qaeda, one of the well-known and dangerous extremist groups that unite supporters of radical Islamism. The organization is over 30 years, and during this time, it has not changed its intention to fight with Western countries, particularly the United States. Al-Qaeda’s resources and reach are crucial reasons to strengthen the country’s homeland security. Due to the 9/11 attacks, the government began targeted work to counter extremist threats.
As a policy addressing this objective, the Department of Homeland Security Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence has been reviewed, which was ratified in 2019. The assessment of how this framework works and whether it is relevant in the context of its objectives has been performed in the context of countering al-Qaeda. Recommendations for strengthening the policy are given, particularly the emphasis on improved training of the personnel involved, the expansion of intelligence capabilities through foreign partnerships to combat terrorism jointly, and bipartisan support.
Countering the threats of terrorism is an urgent task of the national security bureaus of many countries due to increased extremists’ activities in recent years. The United States, being one of the world leaders in various indicators of economic, social, political, and other forms of development, has more than once become the target of foreign criminal groups. The terrorist attack of 9/11 became the starting point in the country’s active fight against terrorism, and confronting al-Qaeda, as the organization responsible for that bloody attack, is one of the US priority goals in the framework of ensuring homeland security. Al-Qaeda is banned on the territory of most world countries. However, being created in the late 1980s, it has developed into an extensive structure that includes many countries – Syria, Libya, the states of the Arabian Peninsula and the Caucasus, and other regions.
As a potentially viable initiative to counter the al-Qaeda threat at the national level, a dedicated framework has been adopted by the Department of Homeland Security. The value of this policy lies in the fact that it addresses an immediate terrorist threat from the largest extremist groups, whose goal is to undermine the authority and integrity of the Western world (U.S. Department of Homeland Security).
Countering al-Qaeda is one of the main purposes of this program that does not separate targeted violence from extremism. A deeper analysis of this framework can help identify its features and make recommendations for strengthening. Although al-Qaeda opposes globalization, it itself uses the fruits of this strategy for its own purposes actively, and addressing the threats emanating from this terrorist organization is of fundamental importance for the US homeland security.
International Terrorist Organization’s Profile: Al-Qaeda
Today, al-Qaeda is one of the most dangerous foreign terrorist organizations, whose activities pose a threat to both the security of the United States and the entire world. According to Burke (2021), al-Qaeda is translated from Arabic as the basis or foundation. This is an international terrorist organization that professes the Wahhabi direction of radical Islam. The group was founded by Osama bin Laden at the end of the 20th century, and today, it includes a wide range of groupings, mainly within Muslim countries (Burke, 2021).
The main goal of the organization is to fight against the Western world and the governments of those Muslim countries that cooperate with the West. Al-Qaeda was one of the first to be listed as a foreign terrorist organization in 1999, and since then, the group has remained powerful and dangerous (U.S. Department of State, n.d.). Although today its influence has diminished due to the growth of other extremist groups, such as ISIS, al-Qaeda remains one of the most dangerous foreign terrorist organizations.
Al-Qaeda emerged in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, and its founder and spiritual leader was Osama bin Laden, who was later recognized as the number one terrorist in the world. Burke (2021) researches the story of the organization and notes that in 1992, the Saudi Arabian authorities expelled Osama bin Laden from the country, and he found refuge in Sudan, where the Islamists were in power at the time. However, Saudi Arabia soon revoked his citizenship and froze his accounts, and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad that, together with bin Laden stood at the origins of al-Qaeda, collapsed in Egypt. In 1996, Osama bin Laden was expelled from Sudan and had to return to Afghanistan. In the same year, he and his followers declared war on the United States.
The main goals of al-Qaeda are the fight against the United States and Israel, the overthrow of the Western-oriented ruling regimes in Muslim countries, as well as the approval of Sharia law in them. Bin Laden stated that he wanted to unite all Muslims and establish a world caliphate. As Ibrahimi (2017) states, according to a 1998 fatwa, every Muslim is to fight Americans and Jews. Those who do not heed this call are declared apostates and traitors to the faith.
As a result, bin Laden can be called the first who was able to turn terrorism into a global tool of geopolitics. Al-Qaeda has clearly demonstrated that one organization can challenge and successfully counter the entire might of the West, including its financial, military, and technological advances. This allowed al-Qaeda to establish control and subjugate many extremist Muslim groups around the world that had previously been independent.
Al-Qaeda pays great attention to the psychological training of future fighters. According to Tominaga (2017), a person is instilled with the idea that death while completing a mission or in battle is not a loss but luck and a privilege that every faithful should strive for and want. It was this group that first organized the preparation of suicides as a continuous process (Tominaga, 2017). A massive and effective recruitment system was also established inside the organization.
To do this, today, al-Qaeda is actively using the latest communication technologies, particularly social networks, to involve followers and deliver the necessary messages. Moreover, the organization publishes videos of crimes in the public domain, thereby expressing its confidence in impunity. The proliferation of social media is a significant barrier to the identification of the group’s extremist activity.
Al-Qaeda is funded from various sources, and one of the main ones is private donations that come from individuals and various organizations. The organization adheres to a complex scheme for transferring funds when not large amounts are transferred from one account to another, often within several countries (Burke, 2021). Another powerful source of income for al-Qaeda is the drug trade (Burke, 2021). In addition, the organization is involved in illegal trade in minerals, smuggling, human trafficking, and some other forms of crime. Part of the funds through dummies is invested in legal businesses – banks, food production, equipment, or trade (Burke, 2021). All these activities help al-Qaeda earn money and invest in the accumulation of a resource base, including weapons and the training of its followers.
The main tactics al-Qaeda adheres to are the organization of terrorist attacks in regions that are fighting extremism and the constant replenishment of the group with new members. Due to constant ideological work, new terrorists are constantly joining it. In addition, al-Qaeda is regularly fighting for new territories and conquering regions with an unfavorable environment, establishing Sharia law in them and proclaiming its leadership based on the principles of religious extremism.
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The criminal activities of the extremist group began in the early 1990s. The first terrorist act organized by al-Qaeda was an explosion in a hotel in Aden, the capital of Yemen, on December 29, 1992 (“Al Qaeda,” 2021). Then bin Laden sponsored the Islamists of Algeria, which led to widespread violence in the country, and the victims were numerous (“Al Qaeda,” 2021). However, the authorities succeeded in suppressing the attacks of the terrorists. Bin Laden allocated money to the Afghan Taliban movement, which he needed to continue the civil war in this country (“Al Qaeda,” 2021). The turning point in the history of al-Qaeda was August 7, 1998.
On this day, powerful explosions thundered near the American embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya (“Al Qaeda,” 2021). Hundreds of people died, and only a few dozens were Americans. The US intelligence services found out quickly that al-Qaeda was behind these crimes. After these events, Osama bin Laden was included in the top ten most wanted terrorists by the FBI, and al-Qaeda acquired the unofficial status of the number one terrorist organization in the world.
However, the largest terrorist attack organized by al-Qaeda took place on September 11, 2001. According to Wright (2016), on that day, four groups of terrorists were managed to hijack four American passenger planes. Wright (2016) gives a chronology of the events of that day. Two of the planes were sent to the towers of the World Trade Center in New York. The target of the other airliner was the Pentagon building.
The fourth plane fell in a field in Pennsylvania – its passengers were trying to take control of terrorists. As a result, almost three thousand people were killed, which is the most massive terrorist attack in the history of humanity. Al-Qaeda initially denied any involvement, but the FBI, almost immediately after the tragic events, provided the evidence of the involvement of bin Laden and his organization in the attacks.
The 9/11 attacks triggered a chain of events that began the US campaign against terrorism. Soon, the Americans launched an invasion of Afghanistan and, together with units of the Northern Alliance, defeated the Taliban, al-Qaeda’s main allies in this country (Tominaga, 2017). However, fighting between government forces and Islamists continues today, with Taliban resistance only growing. As Susilowati et al. (2018) note, in 2003, the United States accused Saddam Hussein of supporting al-Qaeda and participating in the preparation of the 9/11 attacks, which was the reason for the introduction of troops and the fight against extremists.
In a few weeks, the Iraqi army was defeated, and the Hussein regime fell. The US invasion has become one of the main reasons for the emergence in the future of a new terrorist organization – the Islamic State (ISIS). The destruction of bin Laden was a priority goal of the American special services, and as a result of a complex operation, the number one terrorist was eliminated in Pakistan in 2011. Nonetheless, the loss of the spiritual leader did not break the extremists, and they continued to seize territories and establish Sharia law.
As a result, al-Qaeda can be described as a foreign terrorist organization with large resources, which poses a threat to America due to the clear line of extremists to fight the Western world. The long existence of the group has allowed it to attract numerous supporters globally and carry out a series of successful attacks on civilians, realizing its criminal goals. The continuous recruitment of new forces and active propaganda through various communication channels make al-Qaeda extremely dangerous for the civilized world.
U.S. Homeland Security Policy: DHS Strategic Framework
One of the recent federal programs ratified as a policy aimed at countering external terrorist threats is the Department of Homeland Security Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (2019), the framework was introduced in 2019. It lists “the tools and expertise that have protected and strengthened the country Secretary of Homeland Security from foreign terrorist organizations to address the evolving challenges of today” (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2019, p. 2).
Kevin McAleenan, who represents national security interests, emphasizes that this program addresses not only international terrorism but also targeted violence, which is an integral component of extremist activity (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2019). The principle of the program is based on a constant assessment of potential threats with an annual analysis of terrorist activities that pose a threat to the United States. The framework defines the principles of resource allocation, threat mitigation practices, and optimal responses to possible attacks from extremist groups. The DHS program mentions al-Qaeda as one of the most dangerous organizations that need to be confronted in the context of ensuring the country’s security.
The ratification of this project at the national level is of great importance for the United States. Although Guittard (2019) notes that many ordinary Americans pay little attention to domestic terrorism, focusing on the threats of al-Qaeda and ISIS, the DHS program is an adequate policy to respond to the constant threat of attacks from radical Islamists. In addition, the author argues that the country’s legislation began to pursue a biased anti-terrorism policy after the 9/11 attacks, focusing exclusively on external threats (Guittard, 2019).
Nevertheless, the considered policy is a convenient and adequate framework that allows continuous monitoring of extremist activities while not creating undue pressure on the budget and not spending colossal resources. The core principles of the framework are observation and regular reporting, designed to identify threats timely and address real risks but not abstract problems. Without such work, the identification of upcoming terrorist attacks is impossible, and any intelligence activity is meaningless. Therefore, the policy summarized the main steps to be taken to ensure the national security of the United States and protect its citizens.
One of the main advantages of the program in question, ratified by the Department of Homeland Security, is the fact that it addresses not only foreign but also domestic terrorist threats, being a universal framework. At the same time, as Miroff (2021) argues, the program has received little attention from the White House, although, in general, the policy includes reasonable and financially low-cost tasks to implement. The author also adds that a weak focus on the proposed framework could be one of the reasons for the terrorist attack in one of the shopping centers in El Paso, Texas (Miroff, 2021). Particularly, the intelligence services were unable to identify and prevent the massacre.
The DHS program of 2019 mentions domestic terrorism and focuses on “white supremacist violent extremism, one type of racially- and ethnically-motivated violent extremism” (p. 15). In the light of aggression on a religious basis, pro- and anti-Muslim movements cause significant contradictions within the country, which, in turn, is a catalyst for terrorist attacks. Therefore, the presented framework contains valuable provisions that address different threat channels and help build a sustainable mechanism of ensuring the country’s homeland security.
In relation to the aforementioned foreign terrorist organization al-Qaeda, the DHC policy of 2019 offers clear guidelines for addressing danger. The Department classifies al-Qaeda and ISIS as the major threat actors and classifies these organizations as Islamic terrorist groups (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2019). One of the challenges the policy sets in the context of targeted work is to monitor the capacity building of the organization in view of its changed activity since 2011. After the death of bin Laden, al-Qaeda shifted its focus from aggressive attacks to and accumulating resources through the seizure of new lands (US Department of Homeland Security, 2019).
The involvement of more and more followers in the group poses a threat not only to the US but also to world security because al-Qaeda expands its sphere of influence, earning credibility and forming an anti-Western coalition. In the context of globalization and free access to remote communication, the danger is increasing since this is much more difficult to control the activity of the organization than it was some time ago. Thus, the policy in question includes al-Qaeda as one of the main adversaries to confront.
When assessing the effectiveness of the policy under consideration, one can observe that not all decisions of the Department of Homeland Security justify the threat from al-Qaeda. For instance, Miroff (2021) criticizes the DHS for being overly passive and notes that with existing resources, the board could have put in more efforts. The author remarks that the Department “and its agencies have nearly eight times as many employees as the FBI” and encourages the DHS “to play a more muscular role” (Miroff, 2021, para. 7).
In light of the attack on El Paso, this criticism does not seem unfounded, and strengthening measures to counter Islamic extremism is a sensible task. The Department has the technical capacity, human resources, and political clout to mobilize efforts and take the necessary action to counter al-Qaeda. Therefore, objective recommendations for strengthening work in the direction of the threat of extremism and targeted violence are essential.
Particular attention should be paid to intelligence practice as one of the components of the activities aimed at countering foreign terrorism. In line with this policy, the DHS plans to expand its engagement with the Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2019). However, domestic work is not enough to address the threat of foreign extremism. The Department should expand its contacts with international organizations and create a sustainable reporting base that includes different participating states. This will allow conducting intelligence activities more efficiently and not missing important events related to the movements of al-Qaeda fighters.
In addition, the establishment of an international network can help reduce terrorist activity in other countries through increased control, thereby mitigating the risks of terrorist attacks and addressing the threat of open recruitment performed by the terrorist organization. The more countries involved, the less likely al-Qaeda will be able to expand its sphere of influence unhindered and build capacity. Therefore, maintaining partnerships with national security agencies globally can complement the Department of Homeland Security Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence.
Another valuable recommendation for improving the effectiveness of the proposed policy is the emphasis on training employees involved in the fight against foreign terrorism. According to Miroff (2021), the Department of Homeland Security receives data from FBI investigators, the police, and private contractors. At the same time, none of these parties have sufficient experience and training to effectively work to prevent external threats due to a shift in focus on domestic security (Miroff, 2021).
Building a productive educational base for members of the program is an objective step to take to avoid relying on unverified data. Open-source materials may be false, incomplete, or contain ambiguous information. The more qualified investigators, the more likely the policy members will be able to address the risks of attacks timely due to the professionalism of the staff involved. Thus, to strengthen the framework, more attention should be paid to the training of its participants working in the anti-terrorist direction.
Finally, another important initiative to take to make the policy in question work more effectively is to ensure that it is supported by both Democrats and Republicans. Guittard (2019) notes that the steps taken by Barack Obama to counter violent extremism were perceived as weak by Republicans. More aggressive attempts by the Donald Trump administration to provide homeland security were focused primarily on safety at the national level (Guittard, 2019). To make the Department of Homeland Security Strategic Framework an effective program, bipartisan support is needed to provide assistance and funds to counter violent extremism. In this case, the framework will become a truly national program and will be able to fight foreign terrorism more successfully due to joint efforts.
Targeting terrorist threats from al-Qaeda, one of the most dangerous foreign extremist groups, is an important US national security challenge. The analysis of the structure, tactics, resources, goals, and other factors related to al-Qaeda confirms the extreme threat posed by this organization. Being responsible for the New York terrorist act, the group continues to build capacity even without its spiritual leader, eliminated by the US intelligence agencies in 2011.
As a policy addressing the threat, the Department of Homeland Security Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence can be considered. This program includes a number of objectives and measures to counter foreign terrorism. However, for it to work more effectively, building partnerships with global agencies, focusing on training the involved participants, and bipartisan support are valuable recommendations to follow.
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