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Today's Threat Environment

Our Nation faces complex and dynamic threats from terrorism. In addition, other threats from catastrophic events – including natural disasters, accidents, and other hazards – exist and must be addressed. We will continue to advance our understanding of these threats so we are better able to safeguard the American people.


Despite concerted worldwide efforts in the aftermath of September 11 that have disrupted terrorist plots and constrained al-Qaida's ability to strike the Homeland, the United States faces a persistent and evolving terrorist threat, primarily from violent Islamic terrorist groups and cells.

Currently, the most serious and dangerous manifestation of this threat remains al-Qaida, which is driven by an undiminished strategic intent to attack our Homeland. Although earlier efforts in the War on Terror deprived al-Qaida of its safe haven in Afghanistan and degraded its network by capturing or killing most of those responsible for September 11, the group has protected its top leadership, replenished operational lieutenants, and regenerated a safe haven in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas – core capabilities that would help facilitate another attack on the Homeland.

Al-Qaida likely will continue to enhance its ability to attack America through greater cooperation with regional terrorist groups, particularly al-Qaida in Iraq – currently the group's most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack us here. Moreover, although we have discovered only a handful of individuals in the United States with ties to al-Qaida senior leadership, the group likely will intensify its efforts to place operatives here in the Homeland. We also must never lose sight of al-Qaida's persistent desire for weapons of mass destruction, as the group continues to try to acquire and use chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear material.

In addition to al-Qaida, a host of other groups and individuals also use terror and violence against the innocent in pursuit of their objectives and pose potential threats to the security of the United States. These include Lebanese Hizballah, which has conducted anti-U.S. attacks outside the United States and, prior to September 11, was responsible for more American deaths than any other terrorist organization. Hizballah may increasingly consider attacking the Homeland if it perceives the United States as posing a direct threat to the group or Iran, its principal sponsor.

The United States also is not immune to the emergence of homegrown radicalization and violent Islamic extremism within its borders. The arrest and prosecution inside the United States of a small number of violent Islamic extremists points to the possibility that others in the Homeland may become sufficiently radicalized to view the use of violence within the United States as legitimate. While our constitutional protection of freedom of religion, history of welcoming and assimilating new immigrants, strong economic opportunities, and equal-opportunity protections may help to mitigate the threat, drivers of radicalization still exist. We will continue efforts to defeat this threat by working with Muslim American communities that stand at the forefront of this fight.

The terrorist threat to the Homeland is not restricted to violent Islamic extremist groups. We also confront an ongoing threat posed by domestic terrorists based and operating strictly within the United States. Often referred to as "single-issue" groups, they include white supremacist groups, animal rights extremists, and eco-terrorist groups, among others.

Catastrophic Natural Disasters

Our National Strategy for Homeland Security recognizes that the lives and livelihoods of the American people also are at risk from natural catastrophes. Our vast Nation, with its varied population, geography, and landscape, will continue to endure a range of natural hazards and disasters.

Naturally occurring infectious diseases pose a significant and ongoing hazard. Increasing human contact with domesticated and wild animals (from which many human diseases emerge), the growing speed and volume of global travel and commerce, and a decline in the development of new infectious disease therapeutics complicate this challenge. In 2003, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) demonstrated the potential for a global impact of a novel infectious disease. Originating in rural China, SARS resulted in more than 8,000 infections and 800 deaths worldwide and significant economic and social disruptions. The emergence of another novel disease without a known countermeasure, or a new influenza pandemic, could have dramatically greater consequences. Influenza pandemics have occurred intermittently over the centuries. The last three pandemics – in 1918, 1957, and 1968 – killed approximately 40 million, two million, and one million people worldwide, respectively. Although the timing cannot be predicted, history and science suggest that we will face one or more pandemics in this century.

Natural disasters also encompass a variety of meteorological and geological hazards. Hurricanes, for example, account for seven of the ten most costly disasters in U.S. history, including Hurricane Katrina – the Nation's most destructive natural disaster. While experts differ on the predicted intensity and frequency of future storms, history suggests the question is not if, but when, a devastating hurricane will reach our shores again. Earthquakes also will continue to be part of the hazard landscape. Although major advances have been achieved in understanding and mitigating earthquake hazards, Americans in 39 States face significant risk from earthquakes. Additionally, although each incident is often less significant than major hurricanes and earthquakes, floods are the most frequently occurring natural disaster and the leading cause of property damage and death from natural disasters in the Homeland over the past century. In an average year, more than 800 tornadoes are reported nationwide, resulting in 80 deaths and more than 1,500 injuries. In addition, wildfires remain a persistent hazard throughout many regions of the country.

Catastrophic Accidents and Other Hazards

We also remain vulnerable to catastrophic domestic accidents involving industrial hazards and infrastructure failures. These include the thousands of chemical spills that occur each year with the potential for significant public health and environmental impacts. In addition, incidents that pose potential threats to our Nation's critical infrastructure can lead to significant cascading effects across multiple systems. For example, an estimated 50 million people across eight States and the Canadian province of Ontario were left without electrical power in August 2003 when a utility in Ohio experienced problems that began a chain reaction of events leading to power outages lasting, in some places, several days. This incident, known as the "Northeast Blackout of 2003," cost roughly $6 billion and caused at least 265 power plants to shut down.

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