THERE WAS much to celebrate when would-be subway bomber Najibullah Zazi entered a guilty plea this week in a Brooklyn court. But not all is well. The case is a forewarning about the evolving nature of threats from Al Qaeda.
In a good bit of police work, law-enforcement authorities prevented an attack on New York’s subways and likely acquired enough intelligence to help thwart other terrorist plots. Even so, the scheme they foiled ought to send shivers down the spines of all Americans. Zazi, an Afghan immigrant, and two former high-school buddies from Queens journeyed to the north of Pakistan to enlist in the Taliban fight against US forces in Afghanistan. There, Al Qaeda re-directed and trained them to prepare explosives and carry out suicide bombings on the New York subway.
What this incident shows is that instead of aiming exclusively for massive, concerted attacks like the destruction of the World Trade Center, Al Qaeda is turning its efforts toward smaller, harder-to-detect plots against Americans in their everyday activities. The Zazi case also demonstrates how Al Qaeda is recruiting residents and citizens of the United States. These kinds of attacks by these kinds of terrorists may not be as lethal as those on Sept. 11, 2001, but they can traumatize a population just as effectively.
There is a real danger of more American citizens or legal residents like Zazi being radicalized by predatory Pied Pipers. Until recently, the United States was less prone to that sort of thing than most European nations, with their large Muslim populations. Lately, however, there have been troubling instances of people in America being recruited to terrorism, from the army psychiatrist Malik Nadal Hasan at Fort Hood, Texas, to the 14 Somali-Americans from Minnesota who were indicted for joining an Al Qaeda-linked organization. There was also Bryant Neal Vinas, a truck driver who was accused of casing the subway in New York for Al Qaeda.
In addition to infiltrating terrorist networks, homeland security requires that government and opinion makers help Muslim leaders educate young people against the siren song of Al Qaeda. More and more, that will be the first line of defense against terrorism.