Where America Stands: Terrorism

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In its "Where America Stands" series, CBS News is looking at a broad spectrum of issues facing this country in the new decade.

For more than a decade, Americans have been living in what's being called the Age of Terror.

From Africa in 1998, to New York and Washington in 2001, to the skies over Detroit in 2009 - the report card is grim.
CBS News chief foreign affairs correspondent Lara Logan reports between 1998 and 2001, al Qaeda struck U.S. and western targets just four times. Three countries were hit. A total of 248 were killed.

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Then came 9/11, and those figures skyrocketed: 144 attacks in 8 years by al Qaeda or its affiliates. Twenty-four countries were hit. Including the World Trade Center, more than 4,300 people were killed.

CBS News Coverage on 9/11/01

Al Qaeda's main area of operations has expanded beyond Afghanistan. It now has substantial bases in Yemen, Iraq, Algeria, Somalia, and Kenya.

CBS Reports: Where America Stands

Homegrown terrorism is also on the rise. From Bostonto Dallas, to New York City, 44 plots have been uncovered in the U.S. since 9/11. Twelve of those in the last year alone.

The Problem

The problem for the U.S. is personified in radical recruiters like Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed. He's the spiritual leader of an extremist group that's just been banned in the U.K- notorious for glorifying 9/11 and sending their members to militant training camps in Afghanistan. Bakri fled the U.K. in 2005, and CBS News found him in northern Lebanon, still glamorizing terror and glorifying Osama Bin Laden.

In exile, Bakri recruits daily - via the Internet - on campuses and mosques around the globe, fueling the hatred of a new generation of terrorists.

"The youth become more angry and they see and they look to Bin Laden and to al Qaeda," Bakri said. "They look to them really as a people who fight for just cause."

Just cause against what Bakri calls the injustices of Guantanamo and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"There is a huge number of people who are coming to offer themselves, not to fight, no, to die for the sake of god," Bakri said.

The problem for the U.S. is that the allure of radicalism spread by Sheikh Bakri and Osama Bin Laden has taken root in more and more places like Yemen -transforming regional extremists into international terrorists.

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"That is disturbing because up until now, we've largely focused on the Pakistan problem as being the center of gravity for the threat directly to the homeland and to the west," said CBS News national security analyst Juan Zarate. "Now that problem is shifting."

Zarate said there's also a growing problem of radicalized Americans seeking to join the global jihad.

"The pace at which we're seeing the manifestation of this is quite troubling," he said.

As the threat evolves, The U.S. remains unprepared said Stephen Flynn, President of the Center for National Policy. Flynn served as President Obama's lead advisor on homeland security during the presidential transition. He said the U.S. is more vulnerable because of where and how we live today: concentrated in fewer urban areas, millions of more Americans are reliant on the same power grids, and transportation systems.

The heavily guarded ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, for example, bring in 50 percent of all energy west of the Rocky Mountains.

"If you disrupt that port and you can't get the ships in," Flynn said. "There's no oil to refine and you'll literally run out of gas in a matter of days."

With so much at stake, we turned to John Brennan - President Obama's top man on counter-terrorism.He was the administration's leading voice in the aftermath of the failed Detroit bombing at Christmas.

"I failed the President, and I told him," Brennan said.

Poll: U.S. Gets Low Marks on Fighting Terrorism

Solution #1: Take the War to al Qaeda

There is no simple solution to America's security in the 21st century, but Brennan believes, it begins with decimating al Qaeda's leadership.

"We're going to continue to relentlessly pursue Osama Bin Laden and Zawahiri and all the others at the senior leadership ranks," Brennan said. "We do need to decapitate that organization and we will.

This administration has certainly been trying. It has conducted more Predator missile strikes (61) inside Pakistan under Obama than President Bush did (48) during his entire presidency.

CBS News got a rare look at what these spy planes can do, and why they're so effective - this past spring in Nevada.

Lara Logan's 60 Minutes Drone Story

Logan demonstrated the effectiveness of the Predator missile. Even though she knew there was a Predator missile directly overhead, she couldn't hear it. She looked up to the spot in the sky where the Predator was, and couldn't see anything but clouds and blue sky.

Solution #2: Build International Capacity

The other part of the solution, Brennan says, is to train and equip countries like Pakistan and Yemen.

"To give them the wherewithal," Brennan said, "that will allow them to find where al-Qaeda operatives are and to arrest them - and - if need be, kill them."

Solution #3: Reform America's Image:

Beyond the military solution, Brennan said America needs an urgent makeover in the Muslim world.

"Al-Qaeda has really corrupted the image of the U.S. abroad and we can't let that happen," Brennan said.

"Isn't that a very important part of the solution - getting Muslim countries on board in taking a stand against this kind of extremism," Logan asked.

"What we need to do is to work with Muslim governments and organizations to let them know that al-Qaeda is evil incarnate."

But the sobering reality is that no "solution" enacted since 9/11 was able to prevent al-Qaeda from penetrating America's defenses on Christmas day.

"The only reason that attack failed was not because of any success on our part," Logan said. "It was because of a failure on their part."

"Maybe that's a good wake-up call for some of the folks within the community who need to work harder, that need to put together those bits and pieces of information so we can stop the next person from getting on that plane," Brennan replied.

It's a wake up call Brennan knows may not come again. But he does not believe the next attack is just a matter of time. "I don't want another one," he said. "I want perfection."

That commitment may be the best way to keep America safe.

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  • Lara Logan
    Lara Logan

    Lara Logan's bold, award-winning reporting from war zones has earned her a prominent spot among the world's best foreign correspondents. Logan began contributing to 60 Minutes in 2005.