By MATTHEW BRODSKY, senior editor/Web editor of Risk & Insurance®
Iran is perhaps the biggest wildcard in terrorism today. Still unsettled after last month's controversial re-election of President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, pointing fingers at supposed British and American interference in its internal affairs, the nation's leadership could deal the West a nasty hand if it felt threatened.
It hasn't yet, according to Bruce Hoffman, eminent terrorism researcher and professor at Georgetown University. But if put under heavy political pressure about its nuclear program--or, say, attacked by Israel--Iran could unleash Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist/political organization.
Iran funds this "A team" of terror, Hoffman said, with at least $300 million a year, and operational cells are strategically implanted across the world, including in the United States.
"From their point of view, that's their trump card," said Hoffman.
It's not the only trick up Iran's sleeve. About 200 to 300 al-Qaida members are being held captive in Iran--about one-third of its membership--and some important members as well, such as the heads of WMDs and training, said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.
"Iran is against al-Qaida," said Gunaratna, explaining that anger built up in the Shia-led nation when Sunni terrorists targeted their brethren and holy sites in Iraq. But if Iran felt threatened, anger could be put aside and these prisoners could be released.
Gunaratna and Hoffman spoke at the 8th annual terrorism seminar, hosted in the historic Hudson Theater in New York City by catastrophe modeling firm Risk Management Solutions Inc.
Of course, the world has plenty of active terrorists to worry about without considering Iran, with at least 30 to 40 groups affiliated with al-Qaida in existence and unknown numbers of "lone wolf" operatives in Western countries. With the terrorist threat as robust as ever, experts have also had to answer the question: Are we safe with President Barack Obama?
When you drain the discussion of partisan nastiness, you reveal consistency between the Bush and Obama administrations. With some efforts, such as drone attacks in Afghanistan, Obama appears to have leaned more heavily on some tactics than others.
Where Obama has broken with Bush, it's been "prudent," said Hoffman. He's abandoning terminology that's lost currency or gained negative connotations, such as "war on terror." The current administration has also tackled issues such as Guantanamo Bay, which could ease cooperation with allies around the world.
Gunaratna also sees the deployment of more troops to Afghanistan as wise, as many of the original planners of Sept. 11, 2001, still remain in the tribal border region between that country and Pakistan.
The administration did not carry out the usual wholesale bureaucratic purges that often are the case when the White House changes hands. Much of the intelligence and experience from the Bush and Clinton administrations still remains, especially in the National Security Council and the Defense Department, said terrorism experts.
Perhaps most importantly, Obama's soft-sell approach and gifted oratory skills could win the proverbial hearts and minds of the global Muslim community. This "Obama effect" will take time, but such improvements in U.S. strategic counterterrorism are needed, according to Gunaratna.
GOOD WITH THE BAD
Despite success in preventing an attack since Sept. 11, U.S. counterterrorism forces have suffered a distressing failure.
At least 30 Americans of Somali origin have been recruited, indoctrinated and then sent to Somalia to fight with al-Shabaab, an al-Qaida-affiliated group that now controls large swaths of that troubled African country. One American recruit carried out a suicide bombing in October 2008, another was killed in a U.S. missile attack in Mogadishu, reported Hoffman. These men came from the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, but reports are Somalis are being recruited from at least four other U.S. cities.
"This is a well and we still don't know how deep it is," said Hoffman.
U.S. officials only found out about this first-ever instance of radicalization of U.S citizens when family members reported the recruitment. The most credible security threat to the Obama inauguration this past January involved al-Shabaab.
July 24, 2009
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