(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)
By Bernd Debusmann
WASHINGTON, April 2 (Reuters) - To hear top American officials tell it, the next terrorist attack on the United States may well be carried out by blond, blue-eyed terrorists trained in camps in the lawless region straddling the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The spectre of the terrorist who blends perfectly into his surroundings before striking has long haunted the international counter-terrorism community. But warnings have sounded increasingly dire since the arrest in Germany last September of three men suspected of plotting to blow up U.S. targets, including a military air base. Two of the suspects were ethnic Germans, converts to Islam.
German authorities said the men had trained at camps run by an off-shoot of al Qaeda. Was this evidence of an emerging trend to bolster the ranks of Islamic militants with converts of non-Middle Eastern origin?
This week, General Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, said in a television interview that al Qaeda had stepped up its activities along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border over the past 18 months and established new safe havens for training "operatives that ... wouldn’t attract attention if they were going through the customs line at (Washington) Dulles airport."
Beyond saying that such operatives would "look western", Hayden did not elaborate.
But one of his predecessors, James Woolsey, said after the German arrests that al Qaeda and affiliated groups were making efforts to attract "even blond-haired, blue-eyed" recruits.
"We are going to see more and more of this," he said.
According to Mike McConnell, who is in overall charge of the 16 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community, Islamic extremists are focusing their recruitment efforts on the 29 countries, mostly in Europe, that do not require visas for the United States. Citizens of these countries do not have to report to U.S. consulates for face-to-face interviews. These were introduced after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
Most of the terrorist strikes in the past few decades have been carried out by extremists of Middle Eastern or South Asian origin. The September 11 attackers were from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. The 2004 Madrid train bombing that killed almost 200 people involved Moroccans, Syrians and Algerians inspired by al-Qaeda. The men involved in the 2005 London bus and underground bombings were British citizens of Pakistani and Jamaican descent who converted to Islam.
There are exceptions. Al Qaeda’s English-language propaganda mouthpiece, Adam Gadahn, is a white American who was born Adam Pearlman, grew up in California and converted to Islam. Another all-American convert, John Walker Lindh, fought for the Taliban. And in 2005, a 38-year-old Belgian woman of entirely European background, Muriel Degauque, died in a failed suicide car bomb attack on American troops in Iraq.
How serious is the threat from white converts to Islam, the world’s fastest-growing religion, who are seduced by the violent ideas of global jihad? There have been no known arrests of would-be suicide bombers who could pass for California surfers or Texas cowboys. That doesn’t mean there are no plots involving just such people.
But in the polarised political atmosphere of the United States, there are suspicions that officials are talking up potential new threats to win support for wider powers of surveillance.
In the wake of September 11, President George W. Bush gave the National Security Agency (NSA) the green light to eavesdrop on telephone conversations and read e-mails between suspected terrorists. The secret programme circumvented a 1978 law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which required the approval of a special intelligence court to eavesdrop on communications of U.S. citizens.
When the secret programme was uncovered by media reports, Bush administration officials argued that FISA — enacted after the Watergate scandal — had not kept up with advances in technology or with the fact that a large proportion of telephone calls and e-mail exchanges originating outside the U.S. are routed through privately owned American networks.
Last August, after prolonged wrangling, Congress passed a temporary law, the Protect America Act, which addressed some of the administration’s concerns but did not include a clause that would have provided immunity for companies that have been sued for invasion of privacy as a result of cooperating with the NSA.
That law expired on February 16. Rival Senate and House bills now pending differ over the question of retroactive immunity for companies such as AT&T, Verizon and Sprint Nextel.
Administration officials say the absence of new legislation endangers national security. Democratic critics accuse Bush of whipping up fears to get his way. (You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com) (Editing by Sean Maguire)