The terrorist threat to the United States may be at its most "heightened state" since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and al-Qaeda and its affiliates are placing increased emphasis on recruiting Americans and other Westerners to carry out attacks, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said at a congressional hearing Wednesday.
Napolitano spoke before the House Committee on Homeland Security, whose chairman, Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), is planning hearings on the threat posed by domestic radicalization and a growing incidence of U.S. citizens or legal residents involved in terrorist plots.
"This shift, as far as I'm concerned, is a game-changer that presents a serious challenge to law enforcement and the intelligence community," King said.
While Napolitano addressed the growing threat of homegrown terrorism, Michael E. Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said that al-Qaeda's leadership, based in Pakistan, is "at one of its weakest points in the past decade."
He said, however, that the pressure on al-Qaeda has allowed its affiliates, such as the group's allied organization in Yemen, "to innovate on their own."
"I actually consider al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula . . . [to be] probably the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland," said Leiter, using the formal name for the Yemeni affiliate. "They've been quite successful at being innovators."
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been tied to attempts to blow up a commercial aircraft over Detroit and two cargo planes traveling to the United States. One of the group's leading ideologues, U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, has been linked to Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, an Army major facing trial for the mass shooting at Fort Hood.
The Yemeni group has also aggressively courted Westerners, an effort that has included the launch of an English-language magazine titled Inspire.
"It is spiffy," Leiter said. "It's got great graphics, and in some sense, we think probably speaks to individuals who are likely to be radicalized."
Articles in the magazine have called on supporters to launch attacks in Western cities. King asked Leiter whether he was concerned that messages or signals were being sent through Inspire.
"I think I'd take that more in a classified setting," Leiter said, "but as a general matter, I think Inspire is attempting not to build a secret network between AQAP folks in the United States or other English-speaking countries. It is more looking to what the title suggests: inspire them to act on their own."
King's focus on the radicalization of American Muslims has drawn criticism that his forthcoming hearings could indict an entire community.
"There are a variety of domestic extremist groups more prevalent in the United States than Islamic extremists, including neo-Nazis, environmental extremists, anti-tax groups and others," Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, wrote last week in a letter to King in which he called for the scope of the hearings to be expanded.
King rejected that idea, saying in a written reply that threats from "Islamic jihad were uniquely diabolical."
"The Committee cannot ignore the fact that al-Qaeda is actively attempting to recruit individuals living within the Muslim American community to commit acts of terror," he said.