The Terror Threat to the US in the Wake of the Paris Attacks

  • November 17, 2015

Abdelhamid Abaaoud, believed to have been the mastermind of the Paris attacks

Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian man believed to have been the ringleader in the Paris attacks

Following the November 13 terror attacks in Paris, cities around the world have ramped up security. While the type of coordinated attacks that have been carried out in France can occur in the U.S., an analysis of domestic Islamic extremist activity and plots in 2015 indicates that the U.S. faces a different threat landscape than many European countries.

Investigators still do not have profiles of all of the individuals alleged to have taken part in the attacks on Paris. However, certain features of the attack are already apparent.

1. External coordination by foreign terrorist organizations

The Paris attack is the second attack in France this year that appears to have been planned, at least in part, by foreign terrorist organizations.

By contrast, only one of the 15 domestic attack plots in the U.S. motivated by Islamic extremist ideology this year appeared to have had possible external coordination: Abdirahman Sheikh Mohamud, arrested in February, had allegedly been plotting an attack with some direction from terrorists in Syria, although the extent of that direction was unclear.

A second plot, the shooting of a Draw Mohammed contest at a Garland, Texas community center, was influenced by conversation with ISIS supporters online, including some who are believed to be fighting abroad. However, it seems that those online supporters incited activity against the contest but did not coordinate the plot with the alleged shooters.

2.  Foreign fighter threat

The attack in Paris was allegedly planned in large part by a Belgian citizen who had spent time fighting with ISIS in Syria before returning to Europe.

Only one individual in the U.S., Abdirahman Sheikh Mohamud, attempted to plot an attack after allegedly fighting with extremists in Syria this year. Interestingly, Mohamud had allegedly fought with Jabhat al Nusra, Al Qaeda in Syria, and not with ISIS; however, court documents indicate that he was also sympathetic to ISIS.

The U.S. also has far fewer individuals who have traveled abroad to join ISIS than France or Belgium. At least 100 Americans are believed to have joined ISIS – approximately 1 person per million in the U.S. – compared with between 1,000 and 1,200, or 18 people per million in France and approximately 440 individuals, or 40 people per million, in Belgium. As such, the risk of returning foreign fighters attempting to perpetrate attacks in the U.S. is statistically lower than in France or Belgium.

At least 4 individuals believed to have been planning domestic plots in 2015 allegedly conceived of their plots after finding themselves unable to travel to join ISIS. At least 3 individuals allegedly planned to travel to join ISIS after perpetrating an attack.

In total, 29 U.S. residents arrested in 2015 allegedly attempted to join ISIS.

3. Plot size

At least ten individuals are believed to have taken part in the attacks in Paris.

By contrast, the majority of attack plots in the U.S. this year have been in small groups. Eight plots were allegedly planned by individuals (but not lone wolves, as they were often coordinating with informants or contacts on the internet); five were planned by two people working together; two were planned by groups of three. One plot involved a ring of five ISIS supporters, but only two of the five appear to have been actively engaged in the plot, while the others were primarily planning to travel abroad to join the terrorist organization.

Again, none of this data should be interpreted to mean that a large-scale, externally directed plot in the U.S. cannot occur; the 9/11 attacks proved that the U.S. is vulnerable to such attacks. However, it does indicate that the threat facing the U.S. remains different than the threat facing European countries.

The following is a list of domestic attack plots against the U.S. in 2015:

  • Joshua Ryne Goldberg of Florida was arrested in September for allegedly sending bomb-making instructions to and developing a plot with an undercover source. The plot involved building a pressure cooker bomb and detonating it at a 9/11 memorial in Kansas City, MO. Following his arrest, Goldberg claimed he had planned to alert law enforcement prior to the bomb's detonation.
  • Harlem Suarez of Florida was arrested in July for allegedly plotting to detonate a bomb at a Florida beach. He also discussed attacking law enforcement officers.
  • Moham­mad Yousef Abdulazeez of Tennessee was killed after he opened fire at two military facilities in Chattanooga, Tennessee in July. The attack resulted in five deaths, in addition to Abdulazeez's death. Abdulazeez was reportedly inspired by Al Qaeda propaganda.
  • Alexander Ciccolo of Massachusetts was arrested in July as a felon in possession of a weapon. Ciccolo allegedly planned to attack a state university.
  • Justin Nojan Sullivan of North Carolina was arrested in June for allegedly plotting an attack that included shootings in public venues and a bomb plot that involved biological weapons.
  • Munther Omar Saleh and Fareed Mumuni of New York were arrested in June after each attempted to attack law enforcement officials in separate instances. The two had allegedly planned to undertake an attack on a New York City landmark. Saleh and Mumuni were part of a conspiracy that also involved at least three other people, Samuel Rahamin Topaz, Alaa Saadeh and Saadeh's brother, but these three were apparently more focused on traveling to join ISIS and the degree of their involvement in the plot is unclear.
  • Usaama Rahim of Massachusetts was killed when he drew a knife after being approached for questioning by law enforcement officers. He had allegedly plotted with David Wright of Massachusetts and Nicholas Rovinski of Rhode Island to behead Pamela Geller (head of the anti-Muslim organization Stop Islamicization of America) on behalf of ISIS; the plot later shifted to attempting to behead a police officer.
  • Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi of Arizona were shot and killed when they attempted to undertake a shooting at a Garland, Texas community center. They were allegedly assisted by co-conspirator Decarus Thomas of Arizona, who was arrested in June.
  • Miguel Moran Diaz of Florida was arrested in April on charges that he was a felon in possession of a firearm. Reports indicated that he planned to target Miami residents.
  • John T. Booker and Alexan­der Blair of Kansas were arrested in April for allegedly attempt­ing to under­take a sui­cide attack at the Ft. Riley mil­i­tary base.
  • Noelle Velentzas and Asia Sid­diqui of New York were arrested in April for allegedly pur­chas­ing bomb-making equip­ment with plans for an attack.
  • Hasan and Jonas Edmonds of Illi­nois were arrested in March and charged with attempting to join ISIS and plotting an attack against a military base.
  • An unnamed minor from South Carolina was arrested in February and accused of formulating a plot to attack a North Carolina military base and then travel abroad to join ISIS.
  • Abdura­sul Juraboev and Akhror Saidakhme­tov of New York were arrested in Feb­ru­ary and charged with mate­r­ial sup­port for ter­ror. Court doc­u­ments state they were attempt­ing to join ISIS and discussing the pos­si­bil­ity of a domes­tic attack.
  • Abdirahman Sheikh Mohamud of Ohio was arrested in February and charged in April with joining Jabhat al Nusra. He allegedly returned to the U.S. with the intention of perpetrating an attack against a military base in Texas. Court documents indicate that Mohamud supported both ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra, although he had fought with Jabhat al Nusra.
  • Christo­pher Lee Cor­nell of Ohio was arrested in Jan­u­ary for his alleged plot to attack the U.S. Capi­tol after fail­ing to con­nect with ISIS members abroad.

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