When a suicide bomber in Manchester, England detonated a backpack full of explosives in May, killing 22 people at a concert venue, the National Counterterrorism Center took more than a passing interest.
Officials from NCTC, as it’s more often referred to, immediately began reaching out to their British counterparts via representatives in London, with the intention of making sure that every U.S. counterterrorism resource, from the FBI to the NSA, was available to assist in gathering information on the culprit and potential planners of the attack. That was mission number one. Mission number two hit a little closer to home.
“From a selfishly, narrowly U.S. perspective, we are of course at the same time trying to think about what links do those individuals potentially have to anybody who has traveled to the U.S. or who may be in the U.S.” said Nick Rasmussen, Director of NCTC.
Rasmussen was at NCTC in its earliest days. The Counterterrorism Center was established as a direct result of the 9/11 Commission Report, with the intention of making sure that information was more widely shared among federal, state, and local counterterrorism officials. In part, to ensure to the highest extent possible, that the intelligence mistakes leading up to 9/11 didn’t ever happen again.
In the Manchester case, U.S. officials did not find any direct linkages that made them believe there was an impending attack planned in the U.S., but that isn’t to say they weren’t worried about other kinds of attacks promoted by this one.
“One of the concerning things about London and Manchester is that these have not necessarily involved large cells with months and months or years and years of preparation,” says Rasmussen, “but individuals with relatively modest capability who are able to mount these kinds of terrible attacks on their own. We worry about the idea of a copy cat attack – someone jumping into a car and driving into a crowd or using a knife or a firearm in an indiscriminate way.”
Rasmussen took on the Director role at NCTC in 2014, following in the footsteps of prior Directors that include Matt Olsen, Mike Leiter, Vice Admiral John Scott Redd, and John Brennan. But the NCTC he leads today, as part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is a far different agency, mostly because of what he describes as an “endless array of new challenges.” Gone are the days of al-Qaeda being America’s top terror threat. Today, its multiple groups consistently pinging on NCTC’s radar, including ISIS and Hezbollah. If you rate the terrorist threats against the U.S. based on what’s reported in mainstream media, you’d think that ISIS and al Qaeda are the greatest challenges. And they are. But Rasmussen says the threat from Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which he describes as the Shia end of the terrorism spectrum, is real and must be taken seriously by counterterrorism officials.
“Much of it ties to Iranian sponsorship,” says Rasmussen. “It has always had very significant and very potent terrorism capability attached to it, so that should we ever enter into a phase where we were in more direct conflict with Iran as a state, or if Iranian interests and U.S. interests were somehow in conflict in some more direct way, we know that there is this capability out there that could be brought to bear against us.”
That capability involves multiple Hezbollah ‘sleeper cells’ that have been positioned in U.S. cities for more than a decade. Officials have said in the past that the groups are largely linked to criminal activity. Activity that they suspect helps to bankroll the larger organization.
Just last month, the Acting Assistant Attorney General for National Security, Dana Boente, announced the arrest of two men charged in connection with terrorist activities. Activities that prosecutors believe were carried out on behalf of Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad organization.
Rasmussen insists that the U.S. has significant capabilities to counter that threat and takes care to point out that it’s a very different kind of threat than that posed by ISIS or al- Qaeda.
Regardless of which group may be behind a future attack on a U.S. city, it’s local law enforcement and emergency responders who will need information the quickest. So NCTC’s mission is to make sure that state and local agencies are getting the intelligence they need to keep an attack from happening in the first place. NCTC shares the information it has on counterterrorism plots either through fusion centers or FBI-run joint terrorism task forces across the country. It shares both classified and unclassified information, which remains tricky in a time where the federal government still grossly overclassifies information, making it nearly impossible to share everything with those who could benefit the most from it.
“We increasingly try to write our products, the analytical work we produce, in an unclassified way when that’s possible so that it can be shared with not just leadership who may have a security clearance, but literally every officer and police department who may encounter something related to terrorism over the course of their duties,” says Rasmussen.
That means even when something like Manchester happens, NCTC is working to communicate what it knows down to every level of government.
“It is our responsibility,” says Rasmussen, “to try to explain what we’ve seen there and what we’ve learned by way of what terrorists are trying to do, and share that information with states and locals.”
One of the ways Rasmussen has tried to get the larger message about terrorism across in the past was as a policy writer, serving under both Republican and Democratic presidents. He admits that in that role, he’s been guilty of using words like “defeat” or “destroy” when in fact, he doesn’t really believe the terrorist threat will ever be defeated or destroyed.
“I tend to think of it in a more graduated way,” says Rasmussen. “Is there a way where we can affect al-Qaeda so that the threat it represents is much more contained – not necessarily eliminated, because I’m not sure you can ever truly eliminate an ideologically driven movement – but can you reduce it to the point where it is not a transnational threat?”
This is more his mindset as he thinks about the future. This, and the worry that the enemy may someday gain a far better grasp of how to leverage technology. It’s another way the threat is becoming more complicated.
“That puts a burden on us to be more adaptive than we’ve been in the past” says Rasmussen, “to come up with better tools, better techniques, and better technology to be able to counter them.”
There has been talk for years about terrorists possibly using cyber weapons to launch attacks against U.S. critical infrastructure. Rasmussen doesn’t count that as a serious risk today, but says it could be tomorrow.
“Most of the cyber threat that we feel as a country is tied to state actors, that’s no secret. With the terrorist part of that equation, right now terrorist groups are limited more to the lower end of that cyber spectrum – harassment activity, small-scale denial of service, something like that,” says Rasmussen.
But, he says, NCTC remains focused on terrorist groups that might be trying to acquire or develop that capability.
“We as a counterterrorism community are paying more attention now to particular individuals who pop up on the radar screen, who show an interest or an aptitude for that kind of work,” says Rasmussen. “It would be fair to say that they might find themselves higher up on our list of problems to be solved.”
It’s a growing list. And important for authorities and the public to stay vigilant, says Rasmussen. “The discipline of counterterrorism is literally evolving and changing under our feet every day,” says Rasmussen, who likens the idea of complete protection against terrorist attacks to a security blanket. “It feels like if the blanket is covering the bed, it’s not covering all four corners very well, so you end up tugging on the blanket to cover one part of the bed and then you worry about leaving something else exposed. What are we not paying attention to? What are we not worried about?”