The good news is the influence of al-Qaida has diminished, and its powerful leader, Osama bin Laden is dead, Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Michael Downing told a crowd Wednesday at the Visalia Convention Center.
But the violent extremist organization has splintered, sprouting factions in various countries including the United States. And an increasing number of people involved with al-Qaida activities include "home-grown" members raised in the United States who have embraced to core organization's violent extremism, he said.
This has created new challenges to western law enforcement agencies trying to identify these people and stay ahead of terrorist acts, "and we are looking for that needle in a haystack that looks like you and I," said Downing, head of the LAPD's Counter-Terrorism Bureau.
Downing, a native of Hanford whose wife is a Visalia native, came here to speak to the first joint meeting of the five Visalia-area Kiwanis clubs.
About 450 people packed the Convention Center's Charter Oak ballroom, among them local politicians, business people and representatives from local law enforcement agencies.
"I'm not going to talk today about responses to terrorism, because I hope it doesn't happen again," Downing said, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers in New York and the Pentagon orchestrated by bin Laden.
But the fact is, the United States doesn't have sufficient intelligence to ensure another terrorist attack doesn't happen here again, and since 2001 there have been 46 incidents of domestic terrorism, most of which have been stopped or disrupted.
They include one by Nidal Malik Hasan - an American-born U.S. Army major and a Muslim of Palestinian descent - who killed 13 people in November 2009 during a shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas.
Downing also noted the case of Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan accused of parking a sport utility vehicle packed with explosives in New York's Times Square in May 2010. Fortunately, the explosives didn't go off.
"What we have to worry about more than anything is al-Qaida-inspired threats," Downing said.
Part of the reason is that these extremists groups are becoming more globally accessible via the Internet and al-Qaida also is changing its message to appeal to young people in the United States.
"Kill, kill, kill" the infidels used to be the message, Downing said.
Now the message is for young people to take care of their families, "and when the time is right, kill, kill, kill," he said.
Downing said his department is working with military and law enforcement agencies the Middle East to better understand extremists, their methods and the reasons for their actions. The LAPD also is trying to build ties with the city's Muslim community. "I hear from moderate Muslims every day, and they are just as patriotic as you and I," Downing said.
He showed a commercial featuring Muslims saying they are proud Americans who want to be valued for what they offer society, not feared. "Home is not where my grandparents are buried. It's where my grandchildren will be raised," said Downing, adding that is the sort of message he tries to deliver in Los Angeles, which has the second largest Muslim community in the U.S.
"Visalia has a large Yemeni population," he said, and asked the crowd if they were inviting people from that community into Rotary Clubs and other groups.
Certainly, the U.S. and its allies will have to target terrorists to prevent violence, but "the solution is going to come from the community, ultimately," Downing said.
"I thought it was terrific," Tulare County District Attorney Phil Kline said of the speech. "We have to engage with different communities and make them part of the process."
"I think in Visalia, we tend to live in an environment where we don't think terrorism will affect us," said Visalia police Lt. Steve Phillips. "And just because we don't live in a big city doesn't mean we don't have to be alert and prepared."