01/07/2010 12:41 PM

US Expert

'The Fight Against Terrorism Will Define Obama's Presidency'

With a near strike on a flight to Detroit and a suicide attack in CIA agents in Afghanistan, terrorism has become the new focus of Barack Obama's presidency. US terror expert Bruce Hoffman tells SPIEGEL ONLINE that the threat of terrorism will dominate Obama's first term.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Has the failed Detroit airline plot ruined all the progress made in the "war on terror"?

Hoffman: I think a watershed has been crossed. Over the past year, we have seen a dozen terrorism plots or attacks in the United States -- at least one a month, which is completely without precedent. Some are directly orchestrated by al-Qaida or one of its franchises, such as the Northwest Airlines plot on Christmas Day. Others are executed by individuals directly inspired by al-Qaida, such as the shooting spree at the Fort Hood military base.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: We also appear to be seeing a new dimension of home grown terrorism.

Hoffman: American citizens are functioning as "sleepers" -- as illustrated by the arrest of an Afghan-born US resident who was trained by al-Qaida in Pakistan and plotted to carry out coordinated suicide attacks in Manhattan. Also, there are individuals acting completely on their own who were not even radicalized by al-Qaida or its sympathizers. For instance, the US authorities prevented a plot in May to bomb two synagogues in the Bronx and shoot down military airplanes flying out of a National Guard air base near New York.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The terrorism threat has become more diverse.

Hoffman: Exactly. We now have to face motivated recruits, trained al-Qaida terrorists, and loners who suddenly strike, like the shooter Nidal Malik Hasan in Fort Hood. I am worried that we have so many more attempts from so many different dimensions. That has a great impact on our already strained intelligence services.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Wouldn't that indicate that the al-Qaida network has been weakened and is now forced to resort to more crude attacks?

Hoffman: Quite to the contrary. If the movement was weakened you would not have so many different approaches. I think it is a new strategy of al-Qaida to have this large number of individual adversaries. They do this to create a distraction so that more orchestrated large-scale attacks can be prepared discreetly. The Detroit airline plot shows that these big attacks are still being planned.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Compared to the attacks in 2001, though, it was still on a rather small scale.

Hoffman: Sept. 11 was unique in history. But if the Detroit bomber had succeeded, he would have killed 300 people. Just think of the outrage and panic attacks with fewer deaths triggered in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What needs to be done now?

Hoffman: We finally have to take the terrorism threat seriously. We need a flexible response that looks at lone individuals but also larger organizations -- and a system that looks more specifically at certain risks.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Would that include the "profiling" of passengers and stricter controls for citizens of certain countries? So far, the US authorities have shied away from this.

Hoffman: We need some system to identify persons who may pose a genuine threat as opposed to treating everyone the same. And this is not about an effort to treat people differently. We simply have to look at all details and all characteristics that can be helpful. Also, we need to finally take full advantage of the existing technology, such as full-body scanners, etc. Many politicians and citizens seem to want one thing or the other -- either more technology or more intelligence work. We need a combination of both. A system that has been put in place eight years ago has not evolved. But we are facing a very new and constantly evolving threat.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Obama said he would "not tolerate" intelligence failures. Will we see heads rolling in his staff?

Hoffman: No heads rolled after 9/11. Much more important than finger-pointing is an effort to figure out where the system broke down. For instance, the newly designed counter-terrorism center seemed to be working well but now it turns out the analysts there were not able to connect the dots after the warning about the Nigerian airline terrorist. These are issues we need to examine.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Will the president change his tone? Barack Obama promised an end to George W. Bush's "war on terror". But in his speech on Tuesday, he seemed more serious and determined than ever to fight terrorism.

Hoffman: Yes, we will see that happening. Both the Detroit attack and the suicide bombing that killed seven CIA operatives in Afghanistan will have a massive impact. The fight against terrorism will define Obama's presidency, too.

The interview was conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz


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