On March 1, 2003, the Department of Homeland Security took its charge to protect the American people. In the years since, the threat landscape has expanded and evolved across cyberspace, critical infrastructure, biological threats, and more as a dedicated team of security professionals across various agencies and disciplines confronts new threat actors, worsening natural disasters, immigration challenges, global instability, threats to election security, drug and human trafficking, and more. Homeland Security Today asked our leaders and experts — many veterans of the department — to share their thoughts on security challenges in the year ahead.
Former FEMA Administrator
Moreover, it is an unsustainable moral hazard to continue rewarding dangerous behaviors that continue to stretch our nation’s disaster response and recovery mechanisms to the brink – rebuilding disaster-devastated communities ultimately costs much more than implementing stronger building codes, stricter land-use planning, and mitigation programs over time. While it is hard to predict when disasters will strike, it is possible to prepare and invest in resiliency to decrease future vulnerabilities, improve long-term recovery outcomes, and reduce overall disaster costs. Future laws and policies need to provide incentives to communities that implement proper insurance, building codes and land-use planning. Failure to act ensures that federal disaster costs will continue to rise, and poor behavior will continue despite the increasing frequency and magnitude of natural disasters.
Former Deputy Administrator, Transportation Security Administration
- Cyber threat to critical infrastructure. We’ve seen certain critical infrastructure operators and others question whether their industry or company is specifically targeted – and, if not, what that means for their, or their industry’s, level of risk. Russia and other actors have established and maintain persistent access to our nation’s infrastructure systems, from financial to energy. Critical infrastructure owners and operators must assume that Russia or other actors can rapidly reach their threshold for leveraging their access.
- Mal/Mis/Dis-information. Experts have repeatedly warned that Russia and other actors seek to destabilize democracies, decrease rule of law, and impair our collective willingness to take action in response to their actions. The tools and operators are already in place, and regularly used; it will figure prominently in efforts by Russia, and others, to affect how the U.S. and our allies respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as future aggression.
- Insider threat. Another longstanding threat, and one that can be greatly exacerbated by self-radicalization or influence from mal/mis/disinformation spread by Russia and other actors, as well as by traditional means. Insiders are also an important vector for cyber attacks, including attacks on critical infrastructure, such as transportation. Tensions from the current climate may decrease the time needed for an insider to go from recruitment or radicalization target to threat.
- Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). UAS have been of concern for some time, from nation-state exfiltration of information regarding critical infrastructure and their protections to uses by a variety of threat actors that threaten major public events or result in airport shutdowns. UAS misuse is an everyday occurrence, with the potential to cause significant economic and physical damage.
The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine leaves no doubt as to the urgency and immediacy of these threats and, I would hope, clarify our perceptions of how vulnerable and at risk we are. Now is the time to increase investment and effort to counter these threats, mitigating the harm that could otherwise occur.
Former Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection at DHS
Russia maintains a range of offensive cyber tools that it could deploy against Ukrainian networks — from low-level denials of service to destructive attacks targeting critical infrastructure.
A massive 2015 nation-state attack on Ukraine struck the utility’s control center, taking out 30 distribution substations and leaving 230,000 residents without power for about six hours. A similar attack took place about a year later, in 2016, so we have seen this tactic before.
Former Acting Assistant Administrator for the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) Office of Requirements and Capabilities Analysis
Because the U.S. transportation system is a highly interdependent structure, a single attack on one node ripples throughout the entire transportation enterprise. Terrorists try to exploit the weakest link within the system. Their weapons of choice are increasingly low cost and easily accessible, and their tactics are trending toward providing less risk to the perpetrator. While transportation security professionals still have to focus on longstanding dangers like explosives being smuggled aboard an airplane, train, or passenger ship, they now also face new physical threats like drones, as well as virtual threats such as cyber terrorism.
Insider threats also pose a great risk. Security professionals must be vigilant against terrorists who try to recruit individuals who work in a transportation system that employs millions of people. These bad actors target transportation workers, pipeline workers, airline and airport workers, vendors, and subcontractors, and attempt to use them to carry out attacks against the system. Identifying these threats is a daunting task due to the sheer number of people involved and the many forms that these attacks take. The most obvious is the malicious insider who unintentionally provides physical or virtual access to a bad actor or shares information about security policies and procedures, as well as vulnerabilities. The most common threat is also the hardest to detect: a careless insider who unintentionally makes a mistake, such as not following security protocols, that exposes the system to outside threats.
Former FBI Special Agent, Joint Terrorism Task Force, and former president of the FBI Agents Association
The continued polarization of the American people and communities around the globe is pushing more to extremes. As extremist ideologies become more mainstream the potential for lone offender small cell violence is very real. The impact of disinformation and misinformation being pushed by foreign adversaries is real. As we watch Russia invade Ukraine, we hear some cable TV hosts supporting Russia. This is echoed by some political figures both active and former. History has shown that the UNITED States has bonded together during times of conflict. As we watch and read the news, we see that is not the case today. Political power appears to be more important than holding a United front against evil.
In 2021 many topics have added to the anti-government following. The war in Afghanistan, which ended very badly, along with the continued rhetoric surrounding the 2020 elections and the perception of government overreach related to pandemic vaccinations and masking is pushing an increase in anti-government/anti-authority beliefs. Political figures are capitalizing on these issues to bolster their followers. As we move closer to the 2022 midterm elections, and the rhetoric continues, the potential for violence is very real.
The counterterrorism community needs to have an eye on both domestic terrorism and international terrorism as the world quickly becomes very unstable.
Sandra L. Stosz
U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral (ret.), former Deputy Commandant for Mission Support and Superintendent of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy
Despite that dire outlook, my biggest concern is a more subtle one that I believe is the root cause of bigger problems: it’s the state of education in our country. Inequality starts in the classroom, in grades K-12. To a great extent, the social unrest and division wracking the U.S. stems from the effects of that inequality. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the performance gap between the highest performing and lowest performing students is increasing. That’s bad for society. People who are not equally prepared to participate are never going to achieve equal outcomes, regardless of social engineering that often serves to further divide.
I believe there are three problems with our education system that we must solve if we are to continue our role as a world leader and live up to the promise of our national motto, e pluribus unum or “out of many, one.” Those problems are the politicizing of our education system, the lack of technology solutions for learning in our classrooms, and the seemingly universal push for K-12 students to aspire to college over other equally viable options.
Politicizing our Education System
The highest priority should be to take politics out of the classroom and put students first. We need governing entities at the state and local level to implement programs and policies that set standards and hold both teachers and students accountable for performing to meet or exceed those standards. We need to broaden our perspective and support innovative charter schools and private schools that better meet the needs of many students and their families, particularly in areas where public schools underperform. To improve our public schools across the board, we need teachers who have the training, motivation, tools, and compensation to best serve their students’ needs and make America’s school system the gold standard of learning.
The COVID disruptions have grievously affected students, particularly those in K-12. Those who will suffer the worst are the ones who most need the classroom time for both education and socialization. They are often the students denied access to classrooms by powerful teachers’ unions whose foremost mission is to serve their members’ interests. We need to change that dynamic, because teaching is arguably the most important job in America. We as a society should provide our teachers the pay and training commensurate with their critical roles.
The COVID crisis has brought the U.S. to an inflection point in education. Students from the U.S. are performing at a lower level than many of their peers in other industrialized nations on an international assessment developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. We can’t afford to slip further behind. Instead of focusing on divisive social issues, our schools must double down on teaching children the academic fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic.
Lack of Technology Solutions for Learning
A second problem is the lack of and/or disparity of technology solutions to enable learning. More innovation is necessary to cope during challenging times like we’re experiencing with COVID, and to best prepare students for the technology-based future that awaits them. Access to broadband is critical, and it’s a positive development that the recently-passed infrastructure bill contains approximately $65 billion to improve internet access to underserved areas. But it’s not enough to provide technology solutions that will benefit students. Teachers need to be trained on new technology and be comfortable using it in the classroom. Otherwise, no level of resources thrown at the problem will be effective. Teachers need the skills and tools to embrace technology and excite their students to yearn to learn.
Emphasis on College over Vocational Training and Certificate Programs
Finally, we need to change our narrative about preparing children to be productive members of society. Higher education is extolled, whereas vocational training and certificate programs are given short shrift. Yet there are many students who are gifted with skills, personalities, and perspectives that make them well-suited for a trade or vocation. Imagine the talent, creativity, and discipline it takes to be a carpenter, an information technology specialist, a stone mason, or a dental assistant, to name just a few. Those fields offer interesting, rewarding work.
Unfortunately, many young people are steered toward a college degree program, when they may be better suited for something else. To accommodate these students, colleges come up with a wide range of degrees to suit most any desire. Those degrees, however, may not translate to post-graduation employment, while leaving the student crushed with debt.
In some countries, students in high school are evaluated based on their potential and desire, and are tracked into either college or vocational training. I’m not sure that’s the right answer for the U.S., but we certainly need to give equal consideration to each option. That’s a necessary shift that will help students achieve their full potential, and produce the workforce needed to move America forward.
Unfortunately, the problems with education in our country are enormous. But we can’t ignore them. Knowledge is power, and education is the great equalizer. We need to get this right for our children, and for our future.
Former DHS Chief Security Officer
First, a dramatic change in U.S. immigration policies have allowed an estimated 2 million foreign nationals from multiple countries to enter our nation via the southwest border. A large portion of the 2 million who entered illegally are estimated by Border Patrol officials to have entered the United States undetected. Known as “got-aways,” common sense dictates that potential terrorists and common criminals are among those who eluded capture. By any measure, this is a clear threat to national security.
One associated issue related to the border crisis is the importation of illegal drugs and fentanyl by foreign criminal organizations. “Provisional data from CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics indicate that there were an estimated 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the United States during 12-month period ending in April 2021, an increase of 28.5% from the 78,056 deaths during the same period the year before,” reported CDC. Increases in overdose deaths from opioids, synthetic opioids (primarily fentanyl) and methamphetamine, and cocaine were cited by the CDC. These facts add to a clear threat to national security.
“Defunding the police” and bail reform efforts across the nation have caused rapid spikes in violent crimes and offender recidivism, specifically related to shootings, aggravated assaults, murders, and carjackings. Criminals commit crimes, are apprehended, charged, and almost most immediately released back into the community without bond to continue committing crimes. This problem is exacerbated by major city district attorneys who are unwilling to prosecute crimes. Citizens no longer feel safe.
Police officers are being ambushed and killed in numbers not seen in many years. This has led to severe shortages in law enforcement staffing across agencies, which means fewer officers to force-multiply with federal agencies to protect the nation. This fact illustrates an obvious threat to national security and a degradation to our overall quality of life.
Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, approximately 124,000 people have been evacuated to the U.S. According to a GOP Senate memo on the issue and multiple media reports, roughly 82,000 Afghans who were evacuated to the United States from Kabul in August were not properly vetted before they entered our country. Instead of conducting traditional in-person interviews as part of the vetting process, government officials chose instead to rely solely on criminal and terrorist databases to identify potential threats. The GOP memo described the process around these screenings as “reckless.” In the weeks following the evacuation, the Department of Homeland Security flagged 44 Afghan evacuees as potential national security risks, according to the Washington Post.
In the fall of 2021, law enforcement agencies in northern Virginia increased police presence around congested public areas after an Afghan-refugee related ISIS threat was made against malls and shopping centers in the Metro D.C. area. Since that time, reports indicate a number of Afghan refugees have disappeared within the country, posing a potential threat.
Externally, I see China, Russia, and Iran remaining as our most pre-eminent adversaries, especially on the cyber front. The war between Ukraine and Russia will negatively affect the world economy, especially as it relates to the supply and costs of energy. There is a common belief among many national security experts that China will move on Taiwan in the near term, further exacerbating the world economy and negatively affecting the United States.
Cyber threats (internally and externally) to the U.S. will likely continue and grow, especially when you consider national events combined with the internal climate of unrest we face in this country.
Lieutenant (Retired), Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department; Instructor, Safe Communities Institute, University of Southern California
All of these situations are amplified by the use of hybrid conflict — including hybrid warfare and threats — covert action, and information warfare. The use of hybrid means — including intelligence and influence operations to sow internal division among its competitors — is a hallmark of contemporary hybrid warfare. Hybrid warfare involves the interaction between conventional and irregular means. The use of proxies: both state and non-state actors — such as transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) and criminal armed groups (CAGs) — challenges the seams between conflict and crime. Money laundering, terrorism, criminal insurgency, disinformation, and election tampering become ‘unrestricted warfare’ means eroding public trust and the perceived legitimacy of state institutions. Global, networked extremists sow division across traditional ideological lines. These include right-wing, left-wing, single-issue, and criminal actors serving as proxies or seeking their own advantage. The traditional left-right divide is now better characterized as the divide between authoritarian and democratic actors. Finally, the divide between physical and cyber space is bridged by the rise of the ‘metaverse’ and other technological developments. Artificial intelligence, drone swarms (including the use of artisanal improvised aerial bombs), and cyberattacks yielding kinetic physical effects are now part of our adversaries’ armamentarium.
This converging threat envelope requires developing new, integrated national and homeland security capabilities. Foreign and domestic threats are converging in ways that challenge the distinctions between foreign and domestic intelligence, crime and war, as well as physical and cyber. This yields a complexity that is exacerbated by bureaucratic and political competition. Climate stress leads to migration offering opportunities for adversarial exploitation of xenophobic fear and racism. New approaches are needed to negotiate the metastasizing threat and conflict landscape. These approaches should bridge gaps between the federal government and states, the police and military, and foreign and domestic intelligence while tolerating dissent, respecting liberties, and strengthening democratic values. Finally, we must recognize the paradox of complexity: our adversaries will present us with several challenges. We don’t have the luxury of handling one threat at a time. Intelligence revitalization and reform is a necessary first step toward recognizing and managing these dynamics. Threat convergence demands an agile, adaptive, whole-of-nation approach.
Ajit Maan, Ph.D.
Founder and CEO, Narrative Strategies LLC,
All levels of our citizenry should be aware not only of who our adversaries are, but also be able to recognize adversarial narratives in action, and their incongruity with our own national narrative as embodied in our founding documents. We ought to recognize, for example, the emerging national identity narrative of Ukraine (which has already won the narrative space) as consistent with our own and recognize opposition to it as a threat to our own values as Americans.
By defending itself the way it has so far (kinetically and otherwise), Ukraine has not only strengthened its national fiber but has also managed to put the “Mother Russia” narrative out of its misery. But let’s be clear, Ukraine’s dominance of the narrative space is not rhetorical; it is not a based on “themes and messages.” It is based on meaning and identity. That is what makes it a foundational narrative victory.
In defending our own homeland against those who sow seeds of distrust in our institutions of governance, it is the narrative space that we need to protect and project.
Vice President, Narrative Strategies
Currently, within the Department of Homeland Security, it is CISA’s MDM team that is charged with building resilience from mis-, dis-, and malformation, or MDM, and foreign influence activities.
This cannot be done by solely CYBER means nor by sharing printed or digital products with partners. What’s required is a narrative-centric messaging to defeat malign influence, which is all tied to adversarial narratives.
The U.S. must adopt narratives based on our national values. Narratives deliver meaning, not simply facts. Narratives are successful because audiences are delivered the meaning of facts. Narratives require narrators. Narrators are key to delivering meaning to all U.S. audiences. We cannot expect a handful of key leaders to be the only narrators. This is the responsibility of leadership, in and outside government and, most importantly, in a sustained campaign.
Counter-narratives alone do not work. A narrative strategy requires a compelling set of voices in the narrative space and includes, at a minimum, proactive and counter-narratives. This is likely the most critical vulnerability in the entire U.S. national security community.
Steven M. Crimando
Founder and principal, Behavioral Science Applications
People are worked up and worn down; they are already on edge due to a mixture of psychological whiplash, pandemic fatigue, and uncertainty about almost everything in the near-term. Social and political tensions are running high, and it seems everyone from school board members to flight attendants are at risk of being punched out by someone consumed by frustration and anger. The American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America survey reports that nearly 50 percent of adults reported significant deterioration in their mental health since the beginning of the pandemic. This is playing out in a range of adverse behaviors, including violence to self and others.
Research on post-pandemic mental health effects suggests a dramatic increase in the need for mental health services even well after the disease is controlled. For example, research in the UK by the National Health Service and Centre for Mental Health predicts that levels of demand for mental health help will likely reach two to three times that of current capacity within the 3- to 5-year post-pandemic window. Follow-up studies of other public health emergencies have typically arrived at the same result: the impact on mental health continues long after the physical threat has passed, and in many cases continues to grow worse for several years after. It is foreseeable that the mental health impact of the pandemic may linger for years, even decades after the medical risk abates.
Whether the risk comes from someone spiraling up with anger and frustration related to the political climate, their employer’s or school’s position on vaccines and masks, or slowly reaching their breaking point due to the seemingly never-ending pandemic, there is no shortage of grievances that may propel an individual on their way down the pathway to violence. The risk of “grievance-based” violence has been articulated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in the most recent summary of homeland security risks, noting that the current environment is flush with potential grievances. Some of those will likely be directed at the workplace and educational settings.
In its past mission statement, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science & Technology Directorate set a goal to “know our enemies, understand ourselves; put the human in the equation.” Leaders must keep their eyes on the horizon since the convergence of these factors is likely to play an important role in the threat landscape for 2022 and beyond. A focus on the human element in security and emergency management will be critical to meeting the challenges ahead.
Co-founder and Director, American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute
While censorship and other regulatory-centered restrictions aimed at targeting extremist content and dis- and misinformation online remain noble and complementary to other CT-P/CVE efforts, the somewhat exclusive focus on such efforts in recent years may have been misplaced and misleading. Additionally, the trending political and media discourse on regulating extremist content on social media seems to have disproportionately been centered on mainstream social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, largely ignoring small- to mid-sized alternative social media platforms. Put differently, tracing extremist content and mis- and disinformation may require a better understanding of the entire social media ecosystem, a cross-platform probing and analyses namely, to discern signaling behavior among users and the tracing of the content flow across the ecosystem as a whole.
Lastly, technological accidental, inadvertent impact on the spread of hateful and violent rhetoric online will likely warrant further attention. Given the rampant social media consumption in recent years due in part to COVID-19 related movement restrictions — likely trends to persist into 2022 — targeted and often aggressive advertising practices by social media organizations may likely continue to aggravate the already politically divisive masses. Careful assessments on the part of social media companies are needed to discern the extent to which their algorithmic composition may potentially intensify or reinforce user engagement, often leading to radicalization, profoundly polarized discourse, or user migration toward extreme content at a pace they are unlikely to sustain long-term.
Jeffrey D. Simon
President of Political Risk Assessment Company, Inc., Visiting Lecturer in the UCLA Department of Political Science, Author of ‘Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the the Growing Threat’
Terrorists, and particularly lone wolves who often fly under the radar, can strike anytime, anywhere and it is impossible to provide security everywhere, all the time. The terrorist threat also has never been just about numbers. Whether statistics on terrorism show things are improving or getting worst, a single, major terrorist attack can have repercussions throughout government and society. That is what separates terrorism from all other types of conflicts.
Since lone wolf attacks can be perpetrated by a wide range of actors cutting across the political, social, and religious spectrum, it is always risky to focus on just one type of movement or cause as presenting the greatest threat. Security officials will also face a new problem this year, namely, how to overcome complacency on the part of the public. In addition to the lull in attacks that is making people feel the worst is over, there is also a sense of invulnerability in the post-COVID environment. Having survived the pandemic and finally being able to resume normal life, the last thing the public wants to think about or worry about is being a victim of terrorism. Security alerts or advice on what people can do to remain safe from attack may therefore fall upon deaf ears. Dealing with that problem will be part of the security challenges facing officials in the coming year.
The views expressed here are the writers’ and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email email@example.com.