Daily News: With Al Qaeda going rogue, U.S.-based ‘lone wolves’ may step up terror strikes

BY Alison Gendar, Joseph Straw and Larry Mcshane
Sunday, May 8th 2011

For the last decade, the elusive Osama Bin Laden was the face of terror for New Yorkers – even as he spent his final years hidden halfway around the world.

The next generation of terrorists could live much closer to home.

The death of the bearded World Trade Center mastermind won't produce an Osama clone as his successor, experts said, and could create more lone-wolf types operating locally rather than from overseas.

"New York has always been concerned with this prospect," said Don Borelli, former head of the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.

"With the emergence of English-speaking leaders pushing a more leaderless jihad, telling recruits to 'do what you can do,' you don't have to go to Pakistan for training," said Borelli, now with the Soufan Group, a consulting firm.

Two recent New York terror plots – Faisal Shahzad's botched Times Square bombing and college student Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari's foiled bombing campaign – were both planned as solo efforts.

The Fort Hood massacre of 13 was done alone by Maj. Nidal Hasan, while a lone suspect in Portland, Ore., was busted for a planned bombing at a Portland Christmas tree lighting celebration.

Shahzad, unlike the other three, received training and financing from abroad. But they still had plenty in common.

"You get people who are off the radar screen, and they're self-radicalized," said Rep. Peter King (R-Nassau), head of the House Homeland Security committee. "They can download things. And they have some sort of loose connection to Al Qaeda."

Still, experts say, the one-man jihads likely won't fill the void left by Bin Laden's slaying. That's because Bin Laden played twin roles in Al Qaeda: its taunting public spokesman, and its charismatic commander in chief.

Finding someone to handle one role, much less both, is daunting.

"Osama had an appearance of invincibility, and that's certainly changed forever," King said. "He had the almost messianic ability to hold the various elements together. I'm not aware of anyone in Al Qaeda with that type of ability."

The pool of potential successors is smaller than in years past. Seth Jones, a former U.S. Army adviser in Afghanistan, estimated that CIA drone strikes in 2009-10 left less than 400 hardcore Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In the days after 9/11, they numbered about 1,000.

The likeliest high-profile candidates for Bin Laden's job come from a small cabal.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama's longtime right-hand man, was once the likeliest successor – but he's old at 58, lacks a fighting background, and is considered uninspiring.

Abu Yahya al-Libi, born in Libya and believed to be in his late 30s, is renowned for his daring escape from a U.S. prison in Afghanistan six years ago.

There's also Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born Muslim cleric believed to be hiding in Yemen – and the target of a failed U.S. drone attack this weekend. Al-Awlaki was hailed as an inspiration by Times Square bomber Shahzad.

Regardless of how it plays out, one thing remains certain: New York City and its suburbs will remain a magnet for terrorist plots.

"I can't emphasize that enough," King said. "Unfortunately, we are still going to be the No. 1 target in the country."