The main threat to the US is no longer foreigners infiltrating the homeland for conducting terrorist attacks, Attorney General Eric Holder says in this ABC News interview. The threat that keeps him awake at night comes from the radicalization of American citizens into terrorists, an effort conducted primarily by Anwar al-Awlaki, with whom the Pentagon initially partnered after 9/11 to promote moderation in Islam. So far, the FBI has discovered dozens of would-be jihadis and “neutralized” them through prosecution; Holder says that they’ve been good rather than lucky, but that Americans will still have to prepare themselves to hear “bad news” eventually:

Attorney General Eric Holder has an urgent message for Americans: While he is confident that the United States will continue to thwart attacks, “the terrorists only have to be successful once.”

And while it is not certain we will be hit, the American people, he told ABC News, “have to be prepared for potentially bad news.”

“What I am trying to do in this interview is to make people aware of the fact that the threat is real, the threat is different, the threat is constant,” he said. …

And while it is not certain we will be hit, the American people, he told ABC News, “have to be prepared for potentially bad news.”

“What I am trying to do in this interview is to make people aware of the fact that the threat is real, the threat is different, the threat is constant,” he said.

“It is one of the things that keeps me up at night,” Holder said. “You didn’t worry about this even two years ago — about individuals, about Americans, to the extent that we now do. And — that is of — of great concern.”

That’s not entirely true.  The Bush administration also discussed the problems of home-grown jihadis, especially after Richard Reid’s attempt to blow up an airplane with explosives hidden in his shoes, an attempt thwarted by alert passengers on the flight.  Reid was a British citizen, not American, but certainly personified the threat in real and stark terms in 2002.  The US rounded up other home-grown AQ wannabes during the Bush administration, including the Florida group that plotted to bomb the Sears Tower.  Saying that “you didn’t worry about this even two years ago” flies in the face of the evidence.  If that was intended as a shot at the previous administration, Holder missed his target by a mile; instead, it just makes him look sadly and perhaps dangerously uninformed.

Bruce McQuain notices something missing from Holder’s threat assessment:

Well acknowledging that every single one of the “terrorists” or “radicals” among the 50 or so apprehended this year was Muslim or a convert to Islam might go a long way in identifying the threat.  Osama bin Laden, Al Awlaki and the 50 Americans all have in common their brand of radical Islam.  Al Qaeda didn’t just pop up because it thought it would be fun to target and kill Americans, it exists because its followers believe in a radical brand of Islam that instructs them to make war against infidels.  And America is considered the infidel of infidel nations.  Ergo, it is their primary target.

Without the underlying thread of their radical beliefs, they have no real reason to attack us.  But, acknowledging that all 50 of the “Americans” were Muslim and the fact that all 126 arrested shared that same radical faith would mean acknowledging that Muslims are 100% of the problem.  Can’t do that and search granny at the airport (in the name of fairness)can we?  Can’t do that and risk the charge of “profiling” – something we absolutely ought to be doing until circumstance or evidence lead us to do otherwise.

The fact that they have arrested so many and apparently all sharing radical Islamic beliefs indicate that they’re more focused operationally on the threat than they are rhetorically in their public relations.  That may be a strategic impulse at the DoJ — refraining from adding to a notion that America is at war with Islam itself — in order to keep a lid down on the numbers of those radicalized.  As long as they have the right approach operationally, I’d be willing to trade the rhetorical PR for the results.  Airport security is another issue entirely, of course, under the purview of a different Cabinet member (Janet Napolitano), and Bruce makes a great point.

To get back to Holder’s point, will Americans accept “bad news” as a matter of course?  We’ve been fortunate, for the most part, since Reid’s attempt.  The only successful attack inspired by Awlaki or other AQ efforts was the Fort Hood shooting, but two more came close enough to rely on the incompetence of the bomber for safety in the past year.  A successful terrorist attack will raise all sorts of questions about competence in counterterrorism.  The string of success this far has created an expectation of security that will burden any administration if an attack occurs.