WASHINGTON -- The discovery of an alleged Canadian terrorist cell represents as much a victory for the movement Osama bin Laden has spawned as it does for government counterterrorism campaigns, intelligence officials said yesterday.
The apparent proliferation of small, homegrown cells inspired by bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist group, they said, is heightening concerns among counterterrorism officials that the recruitment efforts of Islamic extremists are paying off - and that similar groups are likely to form in the United States, if they haven't already.
"It's probable that something similar is going to happen in the U.S.," said Henry "Hank" Crumpton, the State Department's counterterrorism chief. "And we can learn from the Canadians how to deal with it."
John Rollins, a former Homeland Security intelligence official, said "it's just a matter of time" before similar cells attempt to launch attacks in this country.
The message of the Canadian terrorist plot, he said, is: "Coming to a theater near you."
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police announced Saturday the arrests of 17 people for allegedly plotting to detonate a fertilizer bomb. The group was uncovered by a sting operation and is alleged to have trained together in a field north of Toronto.
Some of the Canadians are alleged to have met in Toronto with two U.S. citizens from Georgia to discuss locations for possible terrorist attacks. The two Americans were arrested in April by the FBI and charged with making false statements and giving material support to terrorism.
U.S. officials said they have uncovered no threat to the United States from the Canadian group.
The alleged cell appears similar to other homegrown groups that have attempted to attack Western countries over the past two years.
The Madrid, Spain, train bombings in 2004, which killed 191 people, awakened terrorism experts to the potential for local Islamic fundamentalists to carry out attacks, though some ties to al-Qaida were later uncovered.
Those attacks were followed by the killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh and the London bombings last July, which killed 56 people and were apparently conducted by a purely homegrown group.
In November, Australian authorities arrested 18 local men who had created a makeshift jihad camp and were allegedly plotting an attack on a nuclear reactor.
As the Canadians were preparing to arrest the latest terrorist suspects, British police were conducting a series of counterterrorism raids. British intelligence officials estimate there are 1,200 terrorists-in-waiting hiding throughout their country.
"It's the jihadi spring," warned Michael Scheuer, the former chief of the CIA's analysis unit that attempts to track bin Laden's activities.
Scheuer said the recent string of cell activity shows bin Laden's impact on the global jihad campaign. He called bin Laden "the Tom Paine of the Islamic revolution," referring to the author of Common Sense, which helped fuel the American Revolution.
Scheuer said the rise of such local jihadi elements is "a real disastrous situation" because the members are fluent in the local language and culture and blend easily into society.
Early last week, the deputy Canadian intelligence chief, Jack Hooper, issued a public warning about what he described as "the emergence of homegrown second- and third-generation terrorists."
John Brennan, a 23-year CIA veteran who headed the National Counterterrorism Center until late last year, said the Canadian case serves as a reminder that "there are a number of extremists who are in North America-both in the United States and Canada."
Killings in Iraq
The recent revelations about the U.S. Marines killing civilians in Iraq could further push extremists who are "on the fence" toward violence, Rollins said.
The discovery of the Canadian cell also will fuel the debate in the United States over domestic surveillance, several officials said.
The Toronto 17 reportedly made wide use of anti-Western Internet sites and communicated frequently on some password-protected sites.
"The ability of bin Laden, [Ayman al] Zawahiri, and [Abu Musab al] Zarqawi to inspire Muslims worldwide has exponentially increased as a result of the advances in technology," Brennan said.
The existence of terrorist sympathizers who are knowledgeable about technology, Brennan said, underscores the need for techniques such as the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program as part of "an appropriate and robust domestic intelligence collection effort to identify and uproot these terrorist elements that are already here."
However, he added that the U.S. government has not completely settled on where "that balance ought to be struck" between privacy and counterterrorism techniques that require information about American citizens.
Some Canadians drew a different conclusion.
Martin Rudner, director of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies at Carleton University, said the surveillance of the Toronto cell shows that it is possible to detect terrorist cells using a system that requires the equivalent of a search warrant.
Canadian officials had to obtain permission from a threat-review committee before investigating Canadian citizens, he said. As a result, he said, all the information collected should be usable in court.
"Democracies don't have to commit suicide," he said.
The State Department's Crumpton, a former CIA officer who led its operations in Afghanistan, said that, in addition to surveillance, the United States needs to improve its efforts to counter propaganda on the Internet and "contest this territory in cyberspace."
Bigger local role
He also emphasized the need to better integrate local officials into the anti-terrorism campaign at home.
"Counterterrorism is so local and even intimate," he said. "Overseas, it varies from village to village or valley to valley. The same thing applies in our homeland."
Meanwhile, Scheuer, who spent eight years carefully monitoring bin Laden, warned that the United States should not forget about al-Qaida. He said bin Laden's decision to release audiotapes more frequently in recent months indicates that al-Qaida may be readying a major attack.
He said there could be another attack - bigger than the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks - in as little as six months to a year. "The world has developed in their favor so much," Scheuer said.