U.S. intelligence needs have evolved significantly since 9/11, an event that galvanized and united the American people in confronting a common enemy: al-Qaeda. The U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) expanded its ability to confront Islamic extremists, building capabilities across the Middle East and Central Asia while developing new collection methods and strategies better able to support U.S. efforts to confront terrorist threats.
As the U.S. has confronted these threats in recent years, other domestic-focused threats have evolved and emerged. We have seen a rise in the activities of extremist groups opposed to the U.S. government, which have been fueled, at least in part, by disinformation campaigns waged by near-peer competitors such as Russia and others. This increase in violent extremism, driven by these disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories, has led to serious incidents of violence in places such as Charlottesville, Va., Portland, Ore., and at the U.S. Capitol. The combination of disinformation campaigns and domestic extremism present a new, broader threat to American society, threatening to undermine key American institutions, such as the electoral process, while further fanning the flames of domestic extremism.
The U.S. IC has become nimbler in response to these emerging threats, allowing it to address both longstanding foreign threats as well as domestic ones. It must resist attempts at intimidation that have, at times, stymied its response. Existing authorities provide the community with the legal and resource base needed to address today’s threats — we simply need to make better use of the tools we have at hand.
Despite these emergent domestic threats, foreign terror threats to the U.S. remain dangerous. America’s disorganized and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan has both highlighted the continued threat posed by foreign terrorist organizations, as evidenced by the terror attack on the Kabul airport by ISIS’s Afghanistan affiliate, which killed 13 American service members. The complete withdrawal of U.S. military and intelligence personnel will pose new intelligence challenges for the U.S. – to include the collection of intelligence in the region. Furthermore, the new Taliban government includes several well-known terrorists, which creates new challenges while regional partners and sometime-partners, such as Pakistan, have been unnerved by the potential impact of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal.
Even as the threat of foreign terror changes, the IC must confront emerging domestic terror threats. In the days after the 9/11 attacks, the IC shifted its focus to the threat posed by al-Qaeda and domestic actors who sympathized with its violent ideology and those of similarly inspired terrorist organizations. There was a greater focus on threats from outside the United States, be it from explosive devices planted in foreign cargo or instructions for shoe or underwear bombs being shared by foreign terror organizations.
“There is a significant need to reorient domestic intelligence activities, and accompanying law enforcement activities, to align with the emergent domestic terror threat”
Today’s newly emergent threats are more homegrown, requiring enhanced domestic intelligence and law enforcement capabilities. Today, domestic threats come from right- wing extremist groups that have fed off rampant conspiracy theories, misinformation campaigns, and a fringe media and internet community that has become self-sustaining and detached from the broader American society. The groups, which include so-called sovereign citizen organizations, citizen militias, and hate groups such as the Oath Keepers, have engaged in violent protests that ultimately culminated in the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. That attack, which the FBI has found showed some signs of coordination among right-wing groups, should be of particular concern. Not only did the attack demonstrate the breadth of the threat, but significant domestic intelligence failures meant law enforcement on the ground was provided with no meaningful warning of what was coming. The FBI, with the exception of the Norfolk field office, along with DHS intelligence failed in their most fundamental responsibility to warn of the grave threat to orderly federal governance.
In addition, leftist extremists, including hardcore Marxists, anarchists, and criminal gangs, have been active in major cities such as Portland, where they have clashed with law enforcement, right-wing groups and destroyed property. Although some in the media have focused on “Antifa” (shorthand for anti-fascist groups) as a driver behind left-wing violence, the reality is that Antifa is not an organized group but instead a banner under which both nonviolent and violent groups, such as those seen in Portland, operate.
These groups have been fueled, in part, by increasingly sophisticated and effective disinformation campaigns that have managed to affect both U.S. elections and the domestic response to COVID-19. In both instances, foreign entities, largely Russian in origin, have leveraged social media platforms, alternative media, and individuals sympathetic to their messages to plant and amplify misinformation, creating a genuine national security threat. Not only do these campaigns help fuel domestic extremist groups, they also undermine trust in U.S. institutions, most notably the 2016 presidential election. Russian-backed campaigns have sought to sow as much discord in American society as possible, undermining the U.S. government and its ability to address other issues. These groups have been joined by less-capable state-backed actors from countries such as Iran and North Korea, which focus their efforts on specific geographies and issues relevant to them and their leaders. While their motivations may vary, these nation-states seek to leverage the power of social media, conspiracy theory sites, and similar online communities to fuel violence and undermine trust in key institutions. Although they are not solely responsible for such movements, their ability to amplify extremist messages and conspiracy theories is a powerful weapon.
Given these current and emergent threats, what is next? First, there is a significant need to reorient domestic intelligence activities, and accompanying law enforcement activities, to align with the emergent domestic terror threat and the disinformation campaigns fueling accompanying movements. The IC needs to focus on the monitoring of social media and other channels for evidence of planned attacks as well as longer-term investigations of extremist groups. We also need to work with social media companies to better identify and address extremist content and the foreign disinformation campaigns helping to spread it. Further, we need to enhance the ability of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to conduct investigations into domestic extremist groups, leveraging not only digital surveillance, but traditional methods like undercover operations. These efforts will allow the FBI and law enforcement in general to provide more immediate warning of extremist threats.
In addition to these efforts, federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies must also build stronger relationships with state and local authorities to help address domestic extremism. The FBI cannot monitor every extremist group. State and local authorities, especially through the operation of fusion centers, are better positioned to know which groups pose the greatest threat and conduct investigations into organizations focused in a narrow geographic area. DHS also has a role and a responsibility to train the personnel at these fusion centers on the latest methods in intelligence analysis. Federal officials also need to make better use of existing legal authorities to lawfully monitor social media channels and conduct investigations into domestic terrorism, leaning forward to ensure the needed capabilities are in place. This will require resisting attempts by some to intimidate federal authorities into limiting their investigations into domestic extremist groups, but resist we must. The failures of January 6 demonstrate just how far the intelligence and law enforcement communities must go to adequately address this threat. It also reinforces the need for all to understand warning is a process, which is ideally a series of warnings not a singleton event.
The state of U.S. intelligence response to terrorism has changed dramatically since 9/11 and requires authorities to retool and refocus their efforts to address adequately the threats posed by right-wing and left-wing domestic extremists, while rebuilding the capabilities needed to address radical Islamic terror threats like those that have faced the United States during its withdraw from Afghanistan. It is our duty to prevent an attack like the ones that occurred on September 11 or January 6 from happening again, but this will require us to commit to the rule of law and resisting political pressure to downplay the threats posed by an increasingly active domestic extremist element.