America’s leading homeland security professionals believe the terror threat from international extremist groups – and inspired domestic terrorists alike – is higher than it was at the time of the devastating attacks on America 16 years ago.
“Right now, the terror threat to our country equals and in many ways exceeds that in the period around 9/11,” said Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke at a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on Wednesday.
There has been a “significant uptick in attacks inspired by ISIS… against Western interests across the world in the last year,” said National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) Director Nick Rasmussen. Moreover, there has been this year a “resurgence of aviation threats, reaching a level of concern that we in the intelligence community have not faced since al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s ‘printer package’ plot in 2010.”
The ‘printer package’ plot was when two packages containing printer cartridges rigged with bombs were found on separate cargo planes bound for the United States. They were discovered at enroute stop-overs after a tip from the Saudis. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the plot.
Al Qaeda remains a top security concern for U.S. officials. “As focused as we are on addressing ISIS, al Qaeda has never stopped being a primary counterterrorism priority for the CT community here in the United States,” said Rasmussen. “The various al Qaeda groups have also managed to sustain recruitment, maintain relationships, and derive sufficient resources to enable their operations. This is a strikingly resilient organization, and we’re well aware of that.”
But as Rasmussen noted in an interview with Cipher Brief Expert and former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell on the Intelligence Matters podcast, “I would be a bit surprised if we found that an attack that took place here in the United States actually had demonstrable, tangible links to AQ operating overseas.” This is because “we have done more to diminish the capabilities of AQ with respect to the homeland,” than we have done vis-à-vis ISIS.
The problem with ISIS is that although the U.S. and its anti-ISIS coalition allies are reducing the amount of territory that the group holds in Iraq and Syria – Rasmussen told Morell ISIS controls “far less than half of the territory” than it once did in those countries – the ISIS ideology continues to spread, and along with it, ISIS-inspired terror attacks across the Western world.
In August, a van driver in Barcelona plowed down several pedestrians, killing at least 13 people and injuring more than 100. In June, a van ran over pedestrians in London, killing eight people and injuring many others. A lone suicide bomber detonated explosives at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in May, killing at least 22 people. And in April, a gunman in Paris shot and killed two people. ISIS claimed responsibility for all of these attacks.
In the United States, ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack last year at Ohio State University that injured 11 people, as well as the June 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting that left at least 59 people dead. And the 2015 San Bernardino shooting that left 14 people dead and 22 injured also had ties to ISIS.
FBI Director Christopher Wray told Senators at the Homeland Security Committee hearing that the U.S. currently has “about 1,000 open ISIS-related investigations.”
“ISIS-inspired adherents haven’t relied on ISIS capabilities or leadership. Rather, they have been driven by ISIS’s message and that message is not extinguished as quickly as the eradication of its foot soldiers capturing of its territory,” former NCTC Director Michael Leiter told The Cipher Brief.
Therefore, “we need to be patient in terms of expecting return on the investment we are making with our campaign against ISIS,” said current NCTC Director Rasmussen at Wednesday’s hearing.
The upside is that the anti-ISIS coalition is making significant headway in Iraq and Syria, which helps to somewhat discredit the ISIS messaging campaign. However, Rasmussen told Morell that ISIS has “developed a narrative that seems to deal equally adeptly with both success and failure,” making their territorial losses in Iraq and Syria less damaging than one may assume.
Still, Mitch Silber, who is the former Director of Intelligence Analysis for the New York Police Department, said, “the type of threat from coordinated ISIS attacks, like what we saw in Paris with multiple coordinated attackers, is likely to decline in the immediate term. Those plots generally need some type of safe haven from which command and control can be exerted.” That safe haven would be Iraq and Syria.
There are some cases of ISIS fighters leaving Iraq and Syria to go to other safe havens, such as Afghanistan and Libya, but Rasmussen said it’s “not in large volumes.”
Similarly, large numbers of foreign fighters are not leaving Iraq and Syria – at least not as many as U.S. national security leaders once thought. Rasmussen said that with the large inflow of foreign fighters, there was the expectation of an equally large outflow of fighters returning to their homelands.
“We’re finding that more of these individuals are staying to fight and potentially die on the battlefield than we anticipated,” Rasmussen told Morell. That means the concern becomes “quality rather than quantity” – so if the wrong set of people leave Iraq and Syria to head to the U.S. or Europe, that could pose a significant threat.
In this case, Silber told The Cipher Brief that Europe has more cause for concern. “Because of the significant and very different number of European foreign fighters who will be returning to Western Europe versus the very small number of foreign fighters who will successfully return to the U.S., this threat of ‘blowback’ is disproportionately targeted towards Western Europe,” he said.
The U.S. and its European allies have been working toward better intelligence-sharing and collaboration to thwart terrorist plots. And changes to the Department of Homeland Security’s screening methods this past summer, along with the new U.S. travel restrictions that ban some if not all citizens from eight countries from entering the United States, are aimed at dealing with the threat from extremist terror groups.
Acting DHS Secretary Duke said that as soon as a country starts vetting individuals properly, using U.S. criteria, the travel ban will be lifted.
FBI Director Wray noted that getting sufficient information from foreign countries that allows the U.S. to properly identify individuals is a top priority for the homeland security community.
Kaitlin Lavinder is a reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KaitLavinder.