How Safe Is America, Really?

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Dickey, Daniel Klaidman, and Eli Lake

The Boston Marathon bombing was not another 9/11. Not close. The order of magnitude speaks for itself: three dead in Boston, nearly 3,000 in New York City. Still, in the aftermath of the Boston tragedy, it is impossible not to ask the same questions that came on the heels of 9/11: just how safe are we in our homes, in our workplaces, on our streets, and at our celebrations? And just how safe can we be?

As of Thursday, we have photos of two men who are suspected of planting the bombs. Still, we do not know their identities, or what might have motivated this act of terror.

One U.S. intelligence official who has been regularly briefed on the investigation tells Newsweek that he and his colleagues have all but ruled out al Qaeda central or one of its affiliates, and instead believe the bombing was carried out by lone wolves.

This doesn't mean al Qaeda played no role: on the question of whether the lone wolves had domestic or international grievances, the intelligence official thinks it's less likely that right-wing extremists or anti-government zealots were the culprits--and more likely that they were inspired, though not directed, by al Qaeda.

That said, officials appear to be taking seriously the possibility that the attacks could have been motivated by far-right ideology. "Have you ever read The Turner Diaries?" one counterterror adviser to the Obama administration asked provocatively when questioned about leads in the case. The reference was to a racist diatribe that partly inspired Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City 18 years ago. But the adviser would not elaborate.

The bombs used in Boston were improvised explosive devices, IEDs, made from everyday pressure cookers filled with easily fabricated explosives as well as nails and ball bearings to act as shrapnel. That could point to al Qaeda-inspired individuals--jihadist guerrillas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and India commonly use such IEDs--but it also could point to domestic terror. After all, the last man to attack strangers with an IED in the United States was Eric Rudolph, who planted a bomb at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

But whoever carried out the Boston bombings, one thing seems clear: the primary danger facing the United States today is no longer a 9/11-type attack resulting in thousands of casualties but rather smaller-scale violence, whether foreign or domestic in origin. "Are we safer than after 9/11? Absolutely! Are we absolutely safe? No," says a veteran official whose career in counterterrorism goes back decades. "And you're never going to be. That's the challenge."

To understand the threats we face, it makes sense to begin with al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden is no more, but his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is still at large and anchoring Internet videos broadcast on al Qaeda's propaganda networks. One of the organization's most dangerous operatives, Adnan Shukrijumah, has been lying low but remains a major worry for the United States, where he was brought up and knows his way around.

The Arab Spring that erupted in early 2011 disrupted or destroyed critical intelligence relationships that Washington had cultivated for years in the Middle East with dictators like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, and, yes, even Syria's Bashar al-Assad. All were focused on fighting the threat of Sunni jihadi terrorism. Now those intelligence networks are weak, alienated, less competent, or nonexistent.

Daniel Benjamin, who was the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism until the end of last year, insists that "right now there is no greater threat to the United States from that region than there was before those revolutions." True, he concedes, in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya "the security services are not what they once were, and that increases insecurity, especially for foreigners in those countries. …