Illustration by Open, N.Y.
Illustration by Open, N.Y.

The sentencing this week of a Newburgh, New York, man to 25 years in prison for plotting to attack two synagogues and shoot down U.S. military aircraft as part of a self-styled jihad is a reminder -- and we need this sort of reminder -- that a crucial question we ask ourselves about our fight against al-Qaeda might be the wrong question.

The question we usually ask is: Is al-Qaeda entirely defeated, partially defeated or not-so-partially defeated? Recently, one answer came from the secretary of defense (and former CIA director), Leon Panetta, who said in July, “We’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda.”

This is unalloyed good news -- better a world without al-Qaeda than with al-Qaeda. But the real question is: Will the defeat of a particular group, even one of the most deadly terrorist organizations in history, end the threat of Islamist terrorism? The Newburgh plot, among other recent and vexing developments in the battle against homegrown terrorists, suggests strongly that the answer is no.

Yesterday, I stopped by the headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security to talk to its chief, Janet Napolitano, who seemed unusually somber and pensive. I think the lingering effects of Hurricane Irene, and the upcoming Sept. 11 commemoration, were weighing heavily.

The Lone Wolves

I skipped making the plea I usually make when I see Napolitano, which is that the department change its name to something less embarrassingly Sovietish than “homeland security.” But I did ask her about another perennial obsession: the (to me) semi-meaningless security measures put in place in our airports after the Sept. 11 attacks, and whether Panetta’s recent declaration of near-victory over al-Qaeda meant that we would soon see some of the more theatrical procedures rolled back.

“No,” she said.

I waited a long moment, having done my duty for the flying public. Then I asked, “Would you care to explicate?”

She smiled and said, “First of all, I think you have to distinguish among core al-Qaeda” -- al-Qaeda’s Pakistan-based leadership -- “and other al-Qaeda-inspired but not operationally controlled groups.” She pointed to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Shabab, in Somalia, as organizations “that previously had not aimed at anything beyond their state borders but now are being more anti-Western in their activities.”

She continued, “We are going to be, in my view, dealing with terrorism as a threat to the United States from abroad for the foreseeable future.”

When I asked her what worries her more -- threats from abroad or threats concocted by Muslims already in the U.S. -- she suggested strongly that the danger posed by self-radicalizing “lone wolves” is the one she’s most concerned about.

Homegrown Extremism

Statistics buttress her worry. In their new book “Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against al Qaeda,” Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker write that Muslims in the U.S. “were said to exhibit little of the alienation that often gripped their counterparts in Europe.” But that began to change, they write, starting in 2009. “In all there have been more than forty plots involving American citizens or permanent residents in the ten years since the 9/11 attacks, and roughly half of these were launched in 2009 or 2010.”

They go on, “The jihadist plots or attacks inside the United States have baffled terrorism experts because the would-be bombers have no evident links to one another and little in common beyond their apparent ideological motive.”

Schmitt and Shanker point to three men in particular as evidence of a rising tide of homegrown extremism: Najibullah Zazi, who pleaded guilty last year to plotting to place explosives in the New York City subway system; David Coleman Headley, in Chicago, who confessed to aiding the conspirators behind the 2008 terror assault on Mumbai; and, of course, Faisal Shahzad, whose car bomb miraculously failed to explode in Times Square in May 2010.

On the Islamist lone wolves, Napolitano is clear: She believes they may succeed in carrying out an attack that would have failed if it were organized solely overseas. “It is much more difficult to defeat a lone actor for all the reasons you would suspect: They usually use simpler tradecraft, they’re not conspiring with people, there’s nothing to intercept, a lot of times they act on almost a sporadic basis, so it’s very hard to predict.”

She went on, “The growth of homegrown violent extremism within the United States, individuals and small cells, is something that I’ve seen expand in my tenure as secretary. Protecting the American people from this is one of the most difficult problems we have.”

A Deeper Problem

Napolitano believes that community policing, and close cooperation with imams and other Muslim leaders, will help law enforcement identify dangerous young men before they become radicalized. Yet how do we as a society isolate a small minority of potential terrorists from the much larger population of innocent and loyal Muslim-Americans? Napolitano said she is confident law enforcement can work within the bounds of the Constitution to do so.

But the problem has become more complicated than that. The notion that Islamic jurisprudence is somehow penetrating our legal system -- and that American Muslims and their (mainstream) organizations seek to undermine this country -- has infected the way many people (even some Republican presidential candidates) think about Islam. It’s possible that the extreme vilification of Islam one finds in some quarters of the right-wing Internet and talk radio could intensify the alienation and anger of a young Muslim man already exposed to Islamist propaganda -- and perhaps even prod him to violence.

The radicalization cycle remains something of a mystery, and unlocking it will preoccupy the Department of Homeland Security for some time. It clearly concerns Napolitano. “I’ve been thinking a lot about what causes someone who lives in a comfortable suburb of northern Virginia to want to camp out” in Pakistan’s tribal areas, “then come back home and kill people. We just don’t know what flips that switch.”

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this column: Jeffrey Goldberg at goldberg.atlantic@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.