USC Price School of Public Policy

NYPD Expert Breaks Down Al Qaeda’s Plots

Global Reach:

NYPD Expert Breaks Down Al Qaeda’s Plots

By Matthew Kredell

Mitchell Silber Mitchell Silber, director of intelligence analysis for the NYPD Analytical and Cyber Units, lectures at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center.
Photo by Erin Calicchio

Perceptions of Al Qaeda as a highly organized, rigidly centralized group that spanned the globe and exercised a precise strategy to defeat the West have proven to be untrue, Mitchell Silber said on Jan. 17 at the first of an ongoing lecture forum offered by the USC National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE).

Silber, director of intelligence analysis for the New York City Police Department’s Analytical and Cyber Units, offered an operational perspective to go along with the usual academic viewpoint on terrorism that has been presented in the CREATE Distinguished Speaker Series over the past couple of years.

“Leveraging the success of our CREATE Distinguished Speaker Series, we decided to add the CREATE Lecture Forum,” said Erroll Southers, associate director of the center and adjunct professor at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy. “The forum will feature operational experts – the growing field of what I call academic practitioners in the realm of national security – individuals with real-world experience and expertise in military engagement, counterterrorism, law enforcement, fire services and intelligence.

“Mitchell Silber’s lecture was the inauguration of another opportunity to strengthen our network and facilitate interdisciplinary research transition discussions through knowledge and education.”

Established in 2004, CREATE is an interdisciplinary national research center funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and based at USC Price and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

Prior to the 9/11 attacks, the world perceived Al Qaeda as a small band of revolutionary terrorists with a capability limited to attacking Western targets in the Middle East and Africa, Silber explained. After 9/11, the organization’s reputation was boosted to an entirely different level. It was thought that Al Qaeda deployed recruiters, operatives and sleeper cells who could be activated on command. These agents supposedly spotted recruits, sent them to Afghanistan or Pakistan for training and then launched them back to the West under precise command control of Al Qaeda to carry out its jihadist plots.

“We now know that the role of Al Qaeda in global jihadist plots against the West has actually varied significantly over time and that not everything we’ve called an Al Qaeda plot has had an equivalent involvement by Al Qaeda core,” Silber said.

This prompted Silber to ask the question of how much Al Qaeda core there is in the organization’s plots, which led to his work on the book The Al Qaeda Factor: Plots Against the West. To truly understand the nature of the threat, Silber set out to discover the genesis of the plots and how they got executed.

He looked at what he thought were the 16 most important plots attributed to Al Qaeda over the past 18 years. Silber identified three types of plots: command and control, where conspirators get orders from Al Qaeda core and have someone checking in to make sure they follow those orders; suggest or endorsed, where someone from Al Qaeda suggests doing something in a city but doesn’t provide a plan, target or timing; and inspired, where a cluster follows Al Qaeda ideology but has not necessarily met or spoken to anyone in the organiztion. Thirteen of the 16 plots Silber looked at were from the latter two categories.

“Al Qaeda’s actual role in the plots has been overstated,” Silber said. “They didn’t quite have a hand in these plots as the sort of all-powerful group that we thought it did.”

In only one plot did a representative of Al Qaeda go to a location to recruit operatives. More often, it was a bottom-up process with people from the West radicalizing on their own. The people might travel overseas for direction or training, but the operational cycle of target selection, casing and logistics is happening in the West.

“I think the fact that the people pulling off the operations now are so largely radicalized inside the United States, Canada or Europe is a very important finding and really says a lot about what we have to do to break the chain,” said Stephen Hora, CREATE director and research professor at USC Price. “It’s interesting to get somebody like Silber, who is right next to operations, giving his opinion.”

Silber’s conclusions suggested that increased resources should be deployed on the home front to detect dangerous dissidents before they radicalize toward violence or become operational.

“This is the first CREATE event I’ve been to so it was really interesting to get involved,” said first-year Master of Public Administration student Kenneth Gulley, who recently was accepted into the USC Price certificate program in homeland security and public policy. “You hear what is really building behind the scenes rather than the filtered idea of what is going on that is presented by the news media.”