The Cipher Brief sat down with Matthew Olsen, former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, to discuss the terrorist threat in the coming year. According to Olsen, the most pressing concern is the “potential uptick in the number of small-scale attacks” carried out by radicalized individuals, and that as ISIS continues to lose ground in its self-declared caliphate, it will “increase the tempo and intensity of the external attacks.”
The Cipher Brief: Under President Barack Obama, we’ve seen the decline of al Qaeda, the rise of ISIS, the decline of ISIS, and more recently the rise of al Qaeda. What should we expect moving forward in the next year?
Matt Olsen: The most significant concern looking forward from a counterterrorism threat perspective is the potential uptick in the number of small-scale attacks carried out by individuals inspired by ISIS. We’ve certainly seen this in 2016. And there’s every reason to expect that trend to continue, and to intensify, as additional pressure is brought to bear on ISIS in its safe haven in Iraq and Syria.
Beyond the small-scale attacks that we have seen, we also need to focus on the potential for a more a sophisticated attack in the U.S. on the scale of what ISIS carried out in Europe, in Paris and Brussels. Even as ISIS has been degraded and even as it loses on the battlefield, it still retains a very lethal external operations capability and the intention to carry out such operations.
At a tactical level, we are going to have to focus both the smaller-scale as well as the more sophisticated attacks from going into the next year. More strategically, the next year is likely to continue to be marked by the increasing diversity and adaptation of violent jihadist groups. If large swaths of the Middle East and North Africa remain ungoverned or poorly secured, jihadist groups will find safe haven and seek to develop the capacity to carry out external attacks.
TCB: As ISIS is pushed out of its stronghold in Mosul and possibly its headquarters in Raqqa, will it focus its attention on its external operations and social media campaigns?
MO: We’ve already seen this focus on external operations over the past several months. As ISIS has lost territory, it has increased the tempo and intensity of the external attacks. ISIS is really putting a focus on inspiring individuals who consume their propaganda on social media to carry out attacks in whatever location they choose and with whatever means they have at hand. This is all part of an effort, in my view, by ISIS to retain a degree of relevance, as its claim to a geographic caliphate is revealed to be hollow.
TCB: Could there be an uptick in lone wolf style attacks here in the U.S? How can we combat these attacks?
MO: Clearly we will face additional attacks by individuals who have been inspired by ISIS and other violent jihadist groups. There are several things we can do to give us a better opportunity to prevent those types of attacks.
One is to ensure that we have strong intelligence collection, both abroad and within the U.S., consistent with civil liberties and privacy. That means when we have a reason to suspect an individual of engaging in criminal or terrorist activities, we should be in a position to collect information, whether through surveillance or human sources, and we need to make sure that those capabilities remain in place.
We also need to go after foreign fighters, the individuals who have traveled whether it’s from Europe to Syria and Iraq or from the U.S. to those areas, because those are the individuals who are most likely to come back radicalized and battle-hardened. We need to identify and monitor these individuals appropriately, in coordination with our European allies.
Next, we need to really put the resources behind our countering violent extremism efforts. That means working with Muslim communities in the U.S. to help educate and inform these communities about the nature of the threat and to enlist their support in the effort to identify individuals who may be going down the path of radicalization.
The final point is working to ensure that when we have information that we’ve collected at the federal level, that that information gets into the hands of state and local law enforcement officers, who are often on the frontlines of any effort to identify a lone-offender before that person has the opportunity to carry out an attack.
TCB: Are there any issues that current U.S. counterterrorism has failed to address or dealt with inadequately?
MO: What we’re going to face going forward is the need to further develop, through resources, innovation, and commitment, an effort to support countering violent extremism, as we face an increasing threat from self-directed individuals who are following ISIS’ propaganda. This is a very difficult challenge, but we need to make sure that we are dedicating the resources that are necessary to support those efforts on the scale that is appropriate, along with our effort to take on ISIS militarily.
TCB: How has the U.S. performed on the counter-messaging front?
MO: Certainly, we need to consider how we can counter ISIS propaganda and there’s more work to do. This is going to require the U.S. government working in partnership with the private sector, including civil society groups and our technology community, to develop innovative ways to develop and hone the message so that it resonates. There’s also work to do to disseminate these counter-ISIS messages to those individuals who are most susceptible to the group’s propaganda.
TCB: How might the incoming Trump Administration approach CT differently than the Obama Administration?
MO: It’s hard to predict how the next administration will approach counterterrorism. In some ways, one would expect there to be a high degree of continuity from one administration to the next. In fact, that was my experience serving as an official at the Department of Justice under President George Bush’s Administration to President Obama’s Administration. While there were important changes that President Obama put in place, there was also a significant amount of operational continuity from one administration to the next when President Obama took office.
That said, with the next administration, there is real reason to be concerned about the approach that the White House may take given the statements that have been made so far on many these issues. These include statements, for example, on the proposal that the U.S. bring back torture, that the U.S. kill the family members of suspected terrorists, that the U.S. bar Muslims from entering the country, and that the U.S. should not support some of our most important and longstanding alliances.
Those proposals are the wrong approach. They would tend to further radicalize individuals who may be susceptible to following ISIS, alienate Muslim-American citizens who are so important to our efforts, and only serve to offend our allies around the world.
So, I have real concerns about how the next administration will approach counterterrorism, given the divisive rhetoric and the indications that the next administration will be dismissive of the rule of law. From my perspective, that approach is wrong, not just because it’s contrary to our values as Americans, but also because it would be wrong strategically, as it would only make us less safe.