NRB: What do you see as the biggest threat today?
Townsend: Recruiting Americans. As Al Qaeda increases its priority they are more successful in recruiting within the US. Couple that with this guy from New Jersey, (Sharif Mobley,) who worked at a nuclear power plant and you understand the potential magnitude of that threat. People who can be recruited or are self-radicalized are problems if they become American operatives for Al Qaeda.
NRB: Do you think there is an insider threat that can fall under the radar with critical infrastructures such as hospitals or nuclear power plants?
Townsend: This is very scary. You can do a very comprehensive screening yet somebody gets past it. Typically there is no follow-up program. You want an ongoing program that looks at the workers access: their contacts, their philosophy, and their travel. Companies can enlist the FBI which has partnership programs with the private sector. The companies can ask for training, access information, and raise concerns.
NRB: How can we identify the “American Al Qaeda operative?”
Townsend: One of the biggest impediments in identifying them is ending the political correctness. Look at Hasan (the Major who murdered fellow soldiers at Fort Hood,) there were a number of signs that this guy self-radicalized and was prepared to act. Yet the system was not triggered. Everyone was afraid of accusing him because he was one of the few Muslim doctors in the service. I am a great believer in following the facts regardless of where they take you. We have to get over that the facts might lead us in an uncomfortable direction.
NRB: I know in the past you have talked about having outreach programs with the American Muslim community – why?
Townsend: I recognize that the majority of Muslims in this country are peaceful people. In any religion and population there will be some small fraction that is willing to resort to violent acts. By having a dialogue we can combat the internet propaganda of hatred.
NRB: Are you worried that the terrorists might try to change their tactics?
Townsend: I have always worried that they are willing to adjust their tactics. It may be only a matter of time before they decide to do smaller operations. In the past, Al Qaeda has gone for the big spectacular hit. Looking at the Christmas Day bomber, in the past they would have launched 5 guys on 5 different planes but they only launched one. What we learned from 9/11 is that just because they haven’t done something before doesn’t mean they will never do it.
NRB: Do you think we must worry about a WMD attack?
Townsend: We know the terrorists have an anthrax capability. They have a capability with chemical and biological weapons. A nuclear threat is harder for them to pull off but will have a much larger consequence. Intelligence collection must remain a top priority since that is our only warning system.
NRB: Do you think the terrorists will enter our country by using the paths of illegal immigrants?
Townsend: We know Al Qaeda is contingent on the flow of illegal immigrants. What we have seen is that they don’t have to follow that path since they seem to be able to get people inside here legally.
NRB: There is talk that the Obama administration wants to have an immigration bill. Where do you stand on the issue?
Townsend: I believe in comprehensive immigration reform. That said, I think we have to deal with escalating, unchecked violence on our southwest border. Last year we had 2600 murders in Juarez, Mexico. We should not ask the American people and Congress to have comprehensive immigration reform until Americans can be ensured that the violence on our southwest border isn’t going to threaten people within the US. I don’t think we are there yet.
NRB: What are your final thoughts?
Al Qaeda has been weakened and we have made it much more difficult for them. However, we should not presume they are any less determined. We should not stop investing in our security; we should not stop investing in our intelligence community; we should not under invest in our military capability. This will give them a chance to strike again.