In testimony on September 27 before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, I shared my assessment that the array of terrorist actors around the globe is broader, wider and deeper than it has been at any time since September 11, 2001. Simply put, a greater number of potential terrorist actors aspire to do us harm than ever before. This is certainly a sobering state of affairs.
Even so, I have great confidence in the U.S. counterterrorism architecture we have built in the fifteen years since the September 11 attacks. The vast efforts we have taken to organize ourselves effectively, and to share information with stakeholders at all levels of intelligence and law enforcement, have resulted in a homeland security apparatus that can capably respond to terrorist threats for years to come.
In the current environment, terrorist threats to the homeland typically take one of two forms. On one end of the spectrum, we face complex plots driven by known terrorist groups—including ISIS—that can take months or years to materialize. In my view, we are well postured to defend against these kinds of attacks given the capability, skill and dedication of our nation’s counterterrorism professionals.
On the other end of the spectrum, we face a growing number of potential attacks by what we call homegrown violent extremists. These individuals are frequently lone actors with no direct or significant connection to ISIS or any other terrorist group. Inspired by ISIS or some other group and an array of other motivating factors that are often deeply personal, they are harder to detect and more challenging to disrupt. ISIS leaders believe they can advance their cause by motivating these individuals to carry out attacks around the globe even if such attacks do not generate as much death and destruction as we suffered on 9/11.
ISIS clearly poses a serious terrorist threat to our interests around the world. For that reason, we are focused on shrinking the size of the territory that ISIS controls in Iraq and Syria and on denying the group’s access to additional manpower in the form of foreign fighters and trained operatives. Success in these areas will ultimately be essential to our efforts to prevent the group from operating as a terrorist organization with global reach, and we are making significant progress in both of these areas.
However, ISIS’s capability to conduct attacks beyond the Middle East has been growing during the past two years, and battlefield losses alone will not be sufficient to eliminate the group’s terrorism capabilities. As the so-called “caliphate” crumbles, we expect that militants will stream out of the region and may create new security threats in areas where they resettle. As a result, we expect there to be a lag between the time where we achieve territorial success on the battlefield and the time at which we ultimately succeed in constraining ISIS’s ability to attack overseas.
While the large focus on ISIS is absolutely warranted, I also stressed to the Senate in my testimony that we still view al-Qaeda and its affiliates as a significant counterterrorism priority. When we look at the terrorism threats we face as a nation, including to the homeland, al-Qaeda still figures prominently in that equation.
Whatever terrorism-related challenge we face—whether from ISIS, al-Qaeda or its affiliates—our strongest defense is a whole-of-government approach where federal, state and local intelligence and law enforcement agencies work together to protect the homeland. That collaboration, which includes extensive sharing of intelligence from the federal government with state and local authorities, who are the first line of defense against attacks here in the U.S., is expanding and improving every day.
We have also made tremendous strides since 9/11 in identifying potential terrorists and preventing them from entering the U.S. through effective use of terrorism watchlists. Given the skill and agility that terrorists have shown in adapting to security efforts around the globe, we are ultimately looking to move beyond a primarily name-based watchlisting system to one that is increasingly biometrically-based, effectively using such things as facial recognition, fingerprints, iris scans and DNA. This system will offer us the best possible chance to keep terrorists away from our borders.
Ultimately, our greatest hope for enduring security against terrorism and defeating groups like ISIS rests in our ability to counter their appeal and dissuade individuals from joining them in the first place. Working with the Department of Homeland Security and other organizations, NCTC continues to refine and expand the preventive side of counterterrorism. We have seen a steady expansion of more active and engaged community awareness efforts across the U.S., with the goal of giving communities the information and tools they need to see violent extremism in their midst and do something about it before it manifests itself.
Every community is unique, and we seek to equip communities with a range of options that they are able to tailor to meet their specific challenges. The more informed and resilient the community, the less likely its members are to join a terrorist group or carry out an attack.
Fifteen years after 9/11, the array of terrorism-related challenges we face as a nation is formidable. I see that in the intelligence reports I receive every single day. At the same time, our homeland security and counterterrorism professionals bring enormous dedication, skill and courage to our efforts to keep Americans safe from terrorist attacks. It is those factors, when combined with the strength and resilience I see in communities across the U.S., which give us the decisive advantage over our terrorist adversaries.
Nicholas Rasmussen is the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center.