There is one truth in terrorism that intelligence officials and national security experts have seen proven over the past few years: terrorist tactics are continuously evolving.
The Washington Post reported last month that the TSA is now adjusting its own tactics as terrorists turn toward more lone wolf attacks.
On the heels of last weekend’s deadly lone wolf terror attacks in France and Indonesia, The Cipher Brief talked with Carol Rollie Flynn, former Associate Director of the CIA’s National Counterterrorism Center, about how the terrorism landscape continues to evolve and how to think about the future threat posed by lone wolf attackers here in the U.S..
Flynn: We must continue to be concerned about terrorism and new emerging terrorist groups and modus operandi. Historically, when a terrorist movement wanes, another group or groups often emerge(s). For example, as the U.S. and its allies were increasingly successful against AQ and its strength diminished, we witnessed the emergence of ISIS, which grew rapidly not only because of its compelling message and battlefield successes, but because of its innovative approach, such as the use of social media to amplify its message and recruit new followers.
The threat posed to the U.S. homeland by terrorists may seem of lesser import in terms of numbers of persons affected than other threats such as the opioid epidemic or even infectious disease. However, the possibility that a terrorist group or individual could gain access to WMD or the means to trigger a widespread cyber attack that cripples our major financial systems and critical infrastructure continues to be a major concern. That alone merits continued focus on monitoring and defeating terrorism wherever it emerges.
The Cipher Brief: France and the U.K. have struggled with the issue of lone wolf attackers for a while. Are there lessons learned in how to predict, prevent and when necessary, respond to those attacks?
Yes, we are heeding lessons from France and the UK. However, in contrast to Europe, the U.S. has fortunately not had to deal with the large number of ISIS returnees. ISIS has found France, in particular, to be a fruitful recruiting ground because of the large Muslim French-speaking diaspora, many of whom are French citizens but still not fully integrated into the French society and economy.
The Cipher Brief: You mentioned in The Cipher Brief Threat Report that working to prevent lone wolf attacks is something of a calculated risk. How do you ever really know if you’re allocating enough resources or prioritizing the lone wolf threat in the right way?
Flynn: Preventing these types of attacks is very, very hard because the tools of law enforcement and the IC to detect and pre-empt attacks don’t work if the terrorist is not connected in any detectible way to a known terrorist or terrorist group.
Open information networks, such as the Internet and the Dark Web, also enable lone individuals or small groups to gain greater access to weapons and know-how to perpetrate attacks, including WMD or cyber attacks. This could become a greater threat as these lone individuals are able to develop increasingly more sophisticated capabilities and approaches….and to do so without detection by intelligence or law enforcement.
It’s very difficult to know whether we’re prioritizing correctly. The absence of major attacks is one indicator that we’re probably allocating resources appropriately. However, one major attack will send us right back to the drawing board to reassess our resource allocation.