NEW YORK- New Yorkers have more to fear from homegrown terrorists inspired by Osama bin Laden's message of hate than from seasoned al-Qaida operatives sent to the city to carry out attacks, a federal official said at a security conference.
"We have to be concerned about who is already is in our midst, as opposed to somebody who is being deployed from abroad," said John O. Brennan, the outgoing interim chief of the National Counterterror Center. "Who is a terrorist among us?"
Brennan also warned that Iraq has become a breeding ground for terrorists who - unlike their predecessors trained in Afghanistan - have honed their skills in urban settings. He said the new generation could enter the United States "and bring with them the tactics and techniques they've developed there."
The remarks came at a conference organized by the New York Police Department to encourage more vigilance by private security at large hotels, Wall Street firms, Broadway theaters, storage facilities and other businesses.
Brennan, a 25-year CIA veteran and Middle East expert, has headed the new federal center that coordinates the nation's fight against terrorism by analyzing intelligence from 15 independent spy agencies and law enforcement officials in state and local governments. He is scheduled to leave the post next week after announcing his retirement in May.
Brennan said U.S. military forces and law enforcement agencies succeeded at disrupting al-Qaida's operations. But the bombings of mass transit targets in London and Madrid, he added, revealed the new face of terrorism: less sophisticated, radical Muslims from local communities who have "a willingness to engage in a less spectacular attack" than that launched on Sept. 11, 2001.
The homegrown terrorist has "responded to the call, the exhortations of bin Laden and others, to reach out and damage and hurt those who are being portrayed as damaging to Islamic ideals, Islamic values and the Islamic people," he said.
He likened al-Qaida to a cancer that has metastasized.
"Whether or not al-Qaida has a reach into the boroughs of New York or the areas of East London or not, I think we're going to be seeing the metastases developing more and more along the continuum of radicalism, extremism, violence and then leading to terrorism," he said.
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who hosted the conference, credited law enforcement with thwarting a handful of local plots in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He said the arrests last year of "two homegrown jihadists" in an alleged scheme to blow up a busy subway station were proof the city could protect itself.
The London attacks "again raised the fear that another terrorist strike against New York City is inevitable," he said. "I, for one, do not subscribe to that belief."