WASHINGTON – The U.S. government must shift its terrorism focus and resources away from Pennsylvania Avenue and onto Main Street, several national security experts told Congress on Wednesday.
They had a special message for the American public: Buck up. Overreacting to failed plots and near misses, they warned, only encourages terrorists.
Nine years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the experts told a House committee Wednesday, the federal government's effort to predict, prevent and respond to terror plots must focus more on local law enforcement, public safety personnel and hometown residents.
To date, said Stephen Flynn, president of the Washington-based Center for National Policy, our effort has been "an away game" that relied on the military and national intelligence agencies to fight the terror threat on distant shores to prevent it from getting here. Now, he said, that threat is here.
"The new front lines are the streets of Bridgeport, Denver, Minneapolis and other big and small communities across America," Flynn told the House Homeland Security Committee. "We've invested in taking it to the enemy. But keeping the threat at arm's length is not sustainable. We need to focus on the homeland security realm."
Local authorities, he said, don't necessarily have the expertise or intelligence sources to detect such plots.
While cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and, most notably, New York City, have invested in extensive training and education on terror threats, smaller communities need to be as well prepared, said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and Georgetown University professor.
It's being done in snippets, Hoffman said, but "it has not received the systemic and systematic attention that it needs. There needs to be greater coordination and a greater recognition of locals' role."
The panelists and lawmakers pointed to the Homeland Security Department's effort to create fusion centers around the country, where local, state and federal authorities collect and share information about potential terrorist threats. There are more than 70 across the nation.
At the same time, they said the public needs to be better informed about the terror threat and more engaged in the effort to root out plots.
An attack will eventually get through the U.S. defenses, the experts said. And when that happens, federal officials, Congress and the public must not resort to hysteria or costly short-term fixes.
The growth of al-Qaida affiliates and the spread of jihadist teachings, particularly through the Internet, have made the terror threat more diverse, they said.
As recruits take up the fight from within the U.S. — as they are alleged to have done in the botched Times Square bombing, the failed Detroit airliner attack on Christmas Day and the shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas — they are likely to be smaller and less sophisticated than the Sept. 11 terrorists and therefore harder to detect and prevent.
According to U.S. military and counterterrorism officials, al-Qaida central, which is in hiding in Pakistan's border regions, has become degraded, finding it more difficult to raise money and execute complex attacks.
Meanwhile, affiliated groups in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan have been linked to recent terror plots in the U.S. and have become havens for Americans seeking training so they can return to the U.S. and set off their attacks.
The committee's chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said Americans are grappling with the notion that these homegrown radicals are now a greater threat to the U.S. homeland and don't fit any particular profile.
"We have to rob them of the benefit they expect," said Flynn. "We have to show we will not be cowed by acts of terror. If it's a dud when you do these things, it takes away the excitement."
(This version CORRECTS the quote by deleting reference to Dallas and adding Minneapolis.)