The news out of Canada is that authorities have broken up a terrorist cell that had more than 50 electronic circuit boards that could be used in improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The details of the plot are still a bit cloudy, but Canadian authorities were quick to point out that the plotters had ties to other actors in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Dubai. One of the cell members taken into custody had reportedly received terrorist training in Afghanistan/Pakistan. And this raises a basic point.
The Canadian plotters are being referred to as a “homegrown” cell, which is true from a certain point of view. They all lived in the West, and it is likely that some if not all of them were radicalized while living in Canada. But when analysts and commentators say “homegrown” they often act as if this is something new – as if we now have to worry about terrorists being indoctrinated in the West, whereas previously we did not. In that sense, the terminology is misleading.
Al Qaeda operatives and like-minded terrorists have long been recruiting in the West. The suicide hijack pilots for the September 11 operation were indoctrinated in Hamburg, Germany. Other al Qaeda terrorists were recruited in the U.S. long before the 9/11 attacks. So, “homegrown” terrorism isn’t new.
The scope of the “homegrown” threat has certainly increased since 9/11. In that sense, the phrasing is helpful. The ability of al Qaeda cleric Anwar al Awlaki and other top jihadists to indoctrinate susceptible new recruits via the Internet is just one prominent example of how the homegrown threat has evolved and grown.
There is another aspect to the “homegrown” moniker that is misleading. At least one of the alleged terrorists arrested in Canada traveled to Afghanistan/Pakistan for training. Much of the time this is the case: Even terrorists who are indoctrinated in the West end up traveling abroad to receive training.
This underscores the importance of physical safe havens.
Consider some of the terrorist attacks/plots since January 2009. Najibullah Zazi’s plot against New York City commuter trains was broken up in 2009, but only after Zazi was trained by al Qaeda in northern Pakistan. The would-be Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab, was first indoctrinated in the UK but traveled to Yemen for training before trying to blow up Flight 253. Faisal Shahzad, who tried to detonate a car bomb in the middle of Times Square, lived in the U.S. for years and was first radicalized here, but he traveled to northern Pakistan to receive training from the Pakistani Taliban.
On the other side of the ledger, the Fort Hood Shooter, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, was radicalized here in the U.S. but never traveled abroad for training as far as we know. Then again, Hasan didn’t need training for the type of operation he pulled off. It is easy to pick up a gun and start shooting. It is much more difficult to blow up trains (Zazi), construct an underwear bomb (Abdulmutallab), or detonate a car bomb (Shahzad). It is so difficult that even after receiving training two of these terrorists failed to achieve their mission despite being able to deploy their weapons of mass terror.
In this admittedly limited sample then, three of four “homegrown” terrorists who have targeted the U.S. since January 2009 all traveled abroad to one of the jihadists’ safe havens for training. The Canadian cell is no different. The cell received at least some training abroad.
The bottom line is that “homegrown” terrorism does not mean that the terrorists themselves are unconnected to the global jihadist threat. Quite often they seek out and receive assistance from professional terrorists living in jihadist hotspots abroad. Terrorist safe havens are still an important part of the threat we face.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.