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Monday, June 5, 2023

Mayorkas: Islamist Terror Threat Has ‘Not Disappeared’ as Domestic Extremism Becomes Chief Concern

Department is "as dynamic as the threat landscape we confront" 20 years after 9/11, says Homeland Security secretary.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said it’s important to remember that the “prior iteration” of terrorism responsible for the attacks 20 years ago is still a concern even as domestic extremism takes the forefront as the “prominent” threat in this country.

“We think, of course, of the lives that were lost on 9/11, 2001, as a result of the tragedy, and we really doubled down on our commitment to ensure that this country, our American way of life, our principles are everlasting and we dedicate ourselves to that,” Mayorkas said Thursday in an address at the National Press Club.

DHS is “facing extraordinary challenges now that grip our country” including unprecedented extreme weather events, the COVID-19 pandemic, huge increases in the number and severity of ransomware attacks, “the significant challenge at our southern border,” and the rise in domestic violent extremism — “the most significant terrorism-related threat that we face in our homeland.”

“I am asked often how we do it all. Do we have the resources to manage through the challenges that our nation faces in the service of the mission, to which we are dedicated to keep the American public safe and secure?” he said. “And the answer is a very straightforward one: We do, because of the people that comprise the Department of Homeland Security. We do, because of the extraordinary talent, dedication, and efforts of the men and women of our department.”

Mayorkas noted that at the founding of the department after 9/11 the counterterrorism focus was on “the individual who was a resident abroad who sought to penetrate our defenses and do us harm here on the homeland.”

“And we’ve built, of course, a system and processes to address that threat,” he added. “Over the years that threat evolved and it became the homegrown violent extremists that was our most prominent threat on the homeland, with respect to the terrorist threat writ large. It was the individual already resident in the United States, who was radicalized by a foreign terrorist organization’s ideology, and sought to do us harm here on the homeland.”

Now, over the past few years, the secretary said, DHS has seen the threat “once again evolve” to “the domestic terrorist, the domestic violent extremists — the individual who is radicalized to violence by reason of an ideology of hate or false narratives that are propagated on social media or other online platforms.”

“And one thing is very important to remember as we have observed the terrorism-related threat evolve throughout the years, and that is that its prior iteration has not disappeared from our threat landscape,” Mayorkas stressed. “The fact that one threat becomes more prominent — the threat evolves and a particular brand of that threat becomes most prominent — does not mean that its prior iteration has disappeared. We remain focused on the foreign terrorist, we remain focused on the homegrown violent extremists, but we also must adapt our systems and processes, as we do to the new threat that has emerged or has increased in prominence.”

“And so when people speak of the situation in Afghanistan and ask questions about what that means for the threat landscape, and do we have to build new processes and systems, should the threat of al-Qaeda rise in prominence. Once again, the answer is no, because we have never dismantled or weakened the systems that we built then, we have only added to them so that we are as dynamic as the threat landscape we confront and that we are dedicated to address in the safety and security of our homeland.”

In addressing the threat, Mayorkas said the Countering Violent Extremism program developed to confront the threat of homegrown violent extremism “had challenges in overcoming issues of trust and really building a partnership as vibrant and strong as what was needed.”

“And so as we tackle the threat of domestic terrorism, our model is a bit different,” he continued. “What we are doing — and this is because fundamentally the department is an organization of partnerships — what we are doing is focusing on equipping and empowering the local communities to identify the threat before it materializes and prevent it from ever occurring or ever being realized. And if, sadly, the threat does materialize, to be resilient in withstanding it.”

“And so, how has that manifested itself? Let me give two brief examples. Number one, for the first time ever, our FEMA grant programs to local jurisdictions have included the requirement that a certain percentage of those funds that a community receives — 7.5 percent — be dedicated to the fight against domestic violent extremism. Number one,” he said. “And number two, we have created the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnership to really build on that concept of partnership to disseminate information to state, local, tribal, and territorial officials so that they are equipped with real-time actionable information to address the threat as it emerges. And so we’re focused on empowering and equipping, we’re focused on partnership.”

On the “scourge of ransomware,” Mayorkas called recent attacks “extraordinarily significant, quite acute, and is something that we are treating with tremendous urgency.”

“As a matter of fact, before the Colonial Pipeline attack that galvanized the American public’s attention, we began a 60-day sprint of focus on ransomware to raise awareness of it, to communicate practices that anyone can employ to guard against it, and we have launched, a very innovative and novel one-stop shop for information for the American public to best defend against it,” he said. “This again, I think, is reflective of a core principle of partnership and an all-of-community effort to address one of the significant challenges we face on the homeland.”

Mayorkas said his vision “is a department that is nimble to address the dynamism of the threat landscape that we confront.”

“To not only be prepared to address the threat that is before us, but to be nimble and dynamic, to be ready for the threat that might come one day that we do not yet see. To reestablish, also, the security of our values as well as to strengthen the security of our homeland,” he said. “And let me then, in this regard, end on a note of generosity and hope because the challenges that we in the department confront are, quite frankly, at the epicenter of the divide that this country is suffering and the divisiveness that we are enduring.”

DHS is lead federal agency in Operation Allies Welcome to resettle vulnerable Afghan nationals in the United States, and Mayorkas said he has seen “an extraordinary outpouring of generosity regardless of political party affiliation, and regardless of what one thinks of many of the issues I have discussed — it is not unanimity, by any means, but it is a united effort to extend this nation’s generosity in its proud tradition of being a place of refuge.”

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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