By Pete Williams Justice correspondent
NBC News
updated 9/22/2010 4:26:58 PM ET 2010-09-22T20:26:58

As terror groups move away from planning complex 9/11-style attacks, involving months of planning and a large group of participants, it's more difficult to detect and disrupt plots against the United States, according to three of the nation's top counterterrorism officials.

The past year has brought the largest number and quickest pace of attempted attacks since 9/11, said Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, even though "al-Qaida in Pakistan is at one of its weakest points." U.S. and Pakistani offensives against al-Qaida have reduced the freedom of movement and sense of security of its leaders, he said.

But Leiter, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate Homeland Security Committee Wednesday that groups and individuals inspired by al-Qaida are switching to smaller scale attacks that are easier to plan and carry out, involving fewer people, and put together more quickly.

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Terror groups understand, Mueller said, "that launching a larger attack, perhaps a more devastating attack, is not worth the additional effort when you can get substantial coverage and impact with smaller attacks." Mueller cited the 2008 gunfire attacks in Mumbai, India and the shooting in 2009 at Fort Hood, Texas.

The past 12 months saw Najibullah Zazi's plot to bomb New York City subway stations, Faisal Shazad's abortive plan to set off a car bomb in Times Square, and the attempt to blow up a U.S. jetliner bound for Detroit on Christmas day.

Leiter also listed a shooting in Arkansas targeting military recruiters and other arrests in Texas, Alaska, and Illinois in failed plots. Though unrelated operationally, he said they are "indicative of a collective subculture and common cause that rallies independent extremists to want to attack the homeland."

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The Internet, the three officials agreed, is making it much easier for Islamic extremists to find people already in the U.S. who can be radicalized and persuaded to undergo training and carry out attacks here. One especially influential voice, they said, is Anwar al-Alawki. They cited his familiarity with the U.S. and his growing operational role in al-Qaida's affiliate group in Yemen.

But they also agreed that the Muslim community in the U.S. is becoming more willing to report potential trouble and to urge members of their families not to go to countries overseas where they could become terrorism recruits.

"What I would say is a silver lining, I hope is, that through greater awareness and engagement with these communities of the risks to their children of traveling overseas to Somalia or Yemen, that the community engagement will over time reduce the likelihood of radicalization," Leiter said.

FBI Director Mueller agreed. "My message to the Muslim community is, the worst thing that could happen to the Muslim community is another attack," he said.

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Video: Is the U.S. struggling to disrupt terror plots?

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    >>> washington digests bob woodward 's secrets, homeland security secretary janet napolitano told a senate committee the evolving terror threat is making it increasingly harder for the united states to detect and disrupt plots especially against the homeland. senator joe lieberman joins us now. senator, thanks so much. what is the level of threat to the homeland as it was described by janet napolitano ? what are your concerns and how well do you think they're doing to guard against it?

    >> right, good to be with you again.

    >> you, too.

    >> this was our third annual hearing on the evolving nature of the terrorist threat o our homeland, and what we're doing about it and we look back at the year past, it's clear from all the information we have that the pace of attacks against our homeland has increased that more of the attacks are coming from organizations that are loosely connected to al qaeda but are not al qaeda and that more and more american citizens are part of those attacks, so that the war with the islamic extremists and terrorists that is global is being brought by our enemy much more here at home and it's a warning to the american people , i'd say the agencies before us, homeland security , fbi, national counterterrorism center , and all of the people who work for them are doing an extraordinarily good job in trying to meet this changing threat. i say one more word about how it's changing. what we saw over the last year is more and more individual -- individuals, abdulmutallab, the christmas day bomber, shahzad, the bomber in times square , people coming in on their own, trying to do damage to us as opposed to the very sophisticated, organized and deadly 9/11 attack itself. so the threat changes and so do our defenses, and there's no alternative but to stay ahead of this enemy, which is real and at us every day.

    >> in staying ahealed of the enemy, do we have to have some concerns about the national security team as described in excruciating detail, if you're in the white house , by bob woodward ? we're talking about people who don't respect each other, who have harsh words for each other, who don't necessarily get along. what is your level of concern today?

    >> okay, well that's obviously a different topic. i read the news stories about bob woodward 's book. i guess i'd say two things. one is this is certainly not the first white house in which everybody has not gotten along perfectly but my impression is that the kind of debates that are being described here that occurred within the administration around the president's review of our policy in afghanistan last year and his ultimate decision to stick with it, to succeed, that they're over, and we've now got general david petraeus in charge. he's widely respected, and i think the team is functioning very effectively so i think a lot of the stories about afghanistan told in the book are really outdated, they're fascinating but they're outdated.

    >> one of the stories is the former head of national intelligence, dennis blair , admiral blair saying on the issue that you were discussing that with radicals, he's warning the president in one of his briefings that radicals with european passports, trained in pakistan to attack the homeland and rahm emanuel chastises him "you're trying to put this on us so it's not your fault." is there some sense between the political side of the white house and the intelligence side that the intelligence guys were trying to cover their rear ends?

    >> well, of course i don't know about the truthfulness of that exchange, but you know i have respect for both of those individuals. i thought admiral blair was a straight talker and did a good job and rahm emanuel is a friend of mine for a long time and a good person, but look the reality is they are coming at us from abroad, and from right here in the u.s., affected by the internet, which radicalizes them. so we've got to have our defenses up, and ultimately, of course, the president has to, and i'm confident this president does rely on the professionals, the people in the top national security positions, secretary gates, secretary clinton, people like the direct yore of national intelligence, to make the policy decisions he makes in our national interests .

    >> what about woodward reporting that hamid karzai is actually manic depressed and they worry about whether he's on or off his medicines. doesn't this make it more complicated to win a war in afghanistan when our ally is not reliable?

    >> you know, again, i don't know about the truthfulness of that. this kind of comment in public that really doesn't help anything. president karzai is a very able man. he is by far the most nationally unifying figure in afghanistan . he's got some interest to advocate on behalf of his people in his country. we don't always agree with him, but you know, in my own personal dealings with him, have i ever seen any indication of what's described here, no.

    >> quickly, senator, reports in woodward's book that we have as many as 3,000 cia agents or officers, men and women on the ground in afghanistan . that is a much larger covert force than the american people know. is it appropriate for us to have that kind of a covert war going on without any kind of oversight, public oversight?

    >> well i don't think i should say anything that either validates or invalidates what bob woodward said there. i will tell you this that to meet this enemy, the islamic extremist enemy to stop them from attacking us here at home, in homeland security our witnesses said we have to defeat them in afghanistan , yemen and somalia, we need the u.s. military , the intelligence community , and the department of state and they're working pretty well together now. we lost some cia employees not so long ago.

    >> indeed we did.

    >> over in afghanistan , and to me, whatever the number is, those there are putting their lives on the line for us, so we ought to honor them. i do.

    >> and we do as well, and that's a very good point indeed. well-taken, thank you very much, senator lieberman .

    >> thank you.

    >> 380 pages of bob woodward to digest, it's not out yet but we found our copy and i can tell you it's pretty interesting reading.

    >> i look forward to it.

    >> thanks, senator.

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