Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said the counterterrorism challenge that keeps him up at night is “known threats exploited” in terms of terrorist operatives blending in with normal migration flows or utilizing human smugglers to gain entry, along with the “pressure on border agencies” to keep travelers moving while accounting for and screening for evolving security risks.
In an interview with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point’s Sentinel, McAleenan categorized CBP’s counterterrorism role as inspecting travelers at points of entry, detecting and interdicting illegal activity between ports of entry, and “on the cargo side, we’re trying to identify risk and prevent it from even heading into the global supply chain to the U.S. borders.”
“Starting after 9/11, we implemented the Container Security Initiative where we partner with 58 seaports around the world from where the vast majority of cargo heads to the U.S., working with foreign partners to assess cargo for risk and make inspection decisions before it’s even leaving on a vessel destined to the U.S,” he said. “And then, from lessons learned from the Yemen air cargo plot, we developed a similar capability, an air cargo assessment system, which we’ve just formalized in regulation this year, to do that for parcels headed to the U.S. using advanced data targeting partnerships with the air cargo industry, to examine those for risk before they board aircraft.”
In the October 2010 al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula plot, two printer cartridge bombs were placed on cargo planes bound for the United States; the explosives were discovered during stops in Dubai and the UK.
A year ago, Australian police revealed that ISIS planned to bring down an Etihad Airways flight by planting an IED using parts of a meat grinder in the checked baggage of the unwitting brother of a terror operative.
McAleenan said the Australia plot “galvanized international attention in partner agencies in Europe and elsewhere to focus on this threat.”
“From my perspective, it starts with getting good data, what’s entering the supply chain, and having those partnerships with foreign governments on the intel exchange so that we’re seeing the risk in the same way and we can together make good decisions about what should be leaving on aircraft, what should be inspected before it goes, and making sure that we have the highest common denominator on our aviation security standards as well,” he said.
Asked about the challenge of identifying veteran jihadists who fought in Syria and Iraq from entering the United States, McAleenan emphasized that “we can’t have a situation where one government has information on a potential foreign terrorist fighter, has shared it with a partner government, and the ball is dropped because they haven’t built a capacity to check at their border or upon international air travelers entry to their country and actually interdict and address that threat.”
“So we’ve tried to really offer our lessons learned since 9/11, not only our own Automated Targeting System Global, which is a system that we’ve offered to support partners around the world — we have over two dozen partnerships right now with ATSG — but also an open-source cloud protocol called the Global Travel Assessment System that we’ve created to really support capacity-building with any interested partners that want to augment the source code or really get in depth,” he said. “It’s cloud-enabled. It’s something that we want to continue to improve and integrate with partners.”
“…The challenge we face going forward is how can we share information while respecting privacy and civil rights and civil liberties, and distinctions in partner countries’ domestic law? I think technology is the answer there as well, with anonymized data sharing that’s going to allow watchlists to interact with transactional data in a way that professionals can make decisions while protecting the privacy of their citizens. That’s the next frontier that we really need to work on.”
McAleenan said he believes the U.S. knows “who most of the foreign fighters are” “but “it’s a matter of working together to make sure we understand their movements, what risks that additional training and battle-hardening produces for Western governments.”
CBP’s National Targeting Center, which was established in 2001, has evolved since 9/11 as “partner agencies take advantage of it for their related mission sets,” including Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations doing visa assessment and the Coast Guard assessing the risk presented by a cargo vessel or a cruise ship. “If someone’s added to the watchlist after they’ve been issued their visa, the National Targeting Center helps identify that risk and ensures that that visa could, if necessary, be revoked and any necessary action can be undertaken by Department of State,” he said.
The Tactical Terrorism Response Team, the commissioner said, has “been a real way to galvanize our counterterrorism mission and ensure field officers remain engaged,” delivering “hard data on individuals that were not watchlisted that were determined to be security risks during a border interview or inspection and were denied entry” as well as “watchlist nominations that devolve from a good interview at the border.”
McAleenan said the current “strong regime” must be “maintained” to keep out chemical weapons such as the Russian Novichok nerve agent used for an assassination attempt in the UK this year.
“Many of our radiation portal monitors are coming up on their end of life. We’ve been able to extend their effective life with advanced algorithms that are giving us an even better sense of reducing both the false alarms and ensuring that we identify potential threat material. So that’s something we need to maintain and continue to invest in,” he said. “When it comes to chem-bio threat detection, recent experiences abroad and just the ongoing threat where we’ve learned from ISIS’ development of this kind of capability on the battlefield and potentially other terrorist groups’ interest in it as well, means we need to stay out in front of it.”
He added that CBP is “getting a kind of live test with the high-potency synthetic opioids that we’re currently seeing,” such as with highly potent fentanyl that poses a risk to emergency personnel responding to overdoses or drug interdiction officials.
“Even on the air cargo side, we’ve seen the imperative of intelligence. That’s how the Yemen air cargo plot was disrupted — good intelligence partnered with friendly services working together,” McAleenan stressed. “…From my perspective, we always go back to the operative. Operatives need to move generally in commercial flows. If we build global capacity to identify high-risk travel and work together to share information, we’re going to be able to address multiple types of threats through that process.”