Over the weekend, the Washington Post and The New York Times reported pieces about the increasing threat to America from home-grown terrorists given to extremism. These threats, including the arrest of five Muslim-Americans in Pakistan who allegedly sought to “wage jihad,” and the incident involving Mohammed Zazi, the Denver-area man who returned from Pakistan (allegedly under the supervision of Al Qaeda) to build bombs for domestic terror attacks, have been cited as a primary reason for escalating the war in Afghanistan.

But a reported piece from Spencer Ackerman casts some doubt on the intensity of the threat to domestic attacks.

But current and former counterterrorism officials and al-Qaeda experts warn that while the Pakistani tribal areas represent the center of international Islamic terrorist extremism, its connections to recent domestic terror threats are more ambiguous than the administration has recently portrayed. And they add that the recent arrests indicate a silver lining: intelligence and law enforcement are increasingly equipped to intercept domestic terror threats, particularly if they have some tie to al-Qaeda in Pakistan, raising questions about how potent a threat al-Qaeda remains.

Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership, according to senior U.S. intelligence officials who have testified before Congress this year, is under significant threat in the Pakistani tribal areas. Pakistan’s Army has reinvaded those areas and forcibly confronted its allies in the Pakistani Taliban, constricting al-Qaeda’s freedom of action. The CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command have harassed al-Qaeda and its allies for the past two years, primarily through missiles fired from unmanned aerial vehicles. Most recently, a strike Tuesday may have killed al-Qaeda’s chief liaison to its affiliate in Yemen.

If so, the targeting will have highlighted a revealing fact about al-Qaeda eight years after 9/11: boxed into the tribal areas, the organization seeks less to pull off major terrorist attacks than to inspire and in some cases fund them. It has inspired a multiplicity of extremist websites, allowing people worldwide — including in the U.S. — access to its propaganda. And it also seeks to establish a presence in Muslim countries like Yemen and Somalia, often by offering financial or training support to existing extremist groups outside Pakistan. While those two approaches offer al-Qaeda a continued lease on life, analysts say they also dilute al-Qaeda’s brand and raise questions about the actual degree of danger it still poses.

“The tendency to lump all threats in to one big bin” ultimately “hurts the policy and strategy decision process,” said one U.S. counterterrorism official who requested anonymity because he was not cleared to talk to the media. Instead, “We need to better understand the motivation, goals, and links — where they exist– of the disparate groups from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to [the Somali group] al-Shabab and criminal networks in [the Horn of Africa] to Pakistani opposition/terrorist groups and to the various Taliban in Afghanistan.”

This is an extremely important piece. The President has sought to narrow the goals in Afghanistan to dismantling Al Qaeda, and he used these recent terror threats to amplify his case that escalation was necessary. When I cited skepticism that the threat from Al Qaeda matched the need to escalate, I was pointed by senior Administration officials back to the part of Obama’s speech where he referenced potential domestic attacks. And yet security experts are saying that law enforcement and intelligence procedures are well-positioned to stop these threats, and that the need for Al Qaeda’s safe haven in Pakistan to direct and carry out these attacks is completely overstated.

If you accept the words of these security experts, you can no longer make a credible case for escalation.

There are various extremist threats around the world – but not all of them emanate from Al Qaeda, whose leadership is under a certain amount of stress; and out efforts to stop terrorist attacks should not be weighted against one potential actor at the expense of other threats or other procedures to stop those threats.

The fact that the successful attacks in recent years have not been Al Qaeda-directed (perhaps Al Qaeda-inspired, but certainly not directed or funded), and that those attacks which Al Qaeda did have involvement in were stopped well before the plans were put into effect, really cuts against the case for escalating the war. The Al Qaeda boogeyman is alive and well in the Obama Administration.

David Dayen

David Dayen