If you were to ask a sampling of American security and intelligence officials for their pick as the gravest threat to face the United States from global jihadists, you might be surprised by the answer you would hear. If you listen to official Washington, or the establishment media, for your answer, you might hear: a spectacular, 9/11-style attack, involving perhaps Ebola-infected suicide bombers flying Dreamliner aircraft into the Golden Gate Bridge, while dropping illegal immigrants along the way, to spread Enterovirus among America’s helpless school children.  Does that about cover all of our boogeymen?

When I worked in the national security establishment, in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center—admittedly, half a decade ago—tracking groups like al-Qa’ida central, al-Qa’ida in Iraq, Ansar al-Sunna, al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, and others, the threat that kept me up at night was not the spectacular, 9/11-style, once-in-a-decade plot.

No, I was pretty confident in our ability, post-9/11, to uncover and foil large-scale plots. We did it. A lot. Those kinds of plots—9/11 notwithstanding—are hard to carry out. Rather, the threat that nagged daily at my subconscious, and caused fear for my family, was the possibility that any one of the above groups, or today, the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra, might adopt a successful, widespread sabotage-terror campaign in the continental United States.

Pandemonium unleashed

Think back 12 years ago this month, to October 2002, and try to remember the fear inspired by, at least regionally, the D.C. Sniper Attacks (also called the Beltway Sniper Attacks).  Two men, both non-jihadists, drove around in a sedan and shot dead, with a sniper rifle fired from a hole drilled in the trunk of a car, 10 people. The greater Washington, D.C. metropolitan area was seized with fear. Children were kept home from school and adults were afraid to pump gas for fear of being shot.

Keep in mind, this was two men, shooting 10 people, in one city. Granted, they had killed other victims in other states before launching their spree in the D.C. area, but really, it was the October attacks that fostered such fear. Now, imagine if a similar scenario played out in three American cities, simultaneously, accompanied by random beheadings and attacks on power stations, reservoirs, cell towers, and financial centers.

Can you picture the pandemonium? I can, and I did, and so did others. We worked damn hard to track potential infiltrators into the United States who might be sent to carry out such plots. To this day, I keep waiting for a wave of such attacks, and wonder to myself why various jihadist groups have not tried to carry them out. Or maybe they have, and our intelligence and security officials are successfully thwarting them.

It is not like there have not been calls to “individualize” terror cells, making them more diffuse and thus more difficult to stop. These types of cells would carry out such self-directed, smaller-scale attacks, and would not rely on a central leadership to approve their actions. One need only read the writings of Abu Musab al-Suri to get an idea of this strategy.