Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted while Joseph Maguire was still serving as the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center and shortly before he transitioned to his new role as Acting Director of National Intelligence.
Joseph Maguire was sworn in as the sixth director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) on December 27, 2018. In August 2019, he became the Acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI). Maguire previously served as NCTC’s Deputy Director for Strategic Operational Planning from 2007 to 2010, and represented the Center as a part of the National Security Council’s Counterterrorism Security Group.
Prior to his confirmation as the director of NCTC, Maguire served as president and CEO of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides college scholarships and educational counseling to the surviving children of fallen special operations personnel, and immediate financial grants to severely combat-wounded and hospitalized special operations personnel and their families. Prior to leading the foundation, he was a vice president with Booz Allen Hamilton. Maguire retired from the United States Navy in 2010 as a vice admiral, culminating a 36-year career as a naval special warfare officer. He commanded at every level, including the Naval Special Warfare Command.
NCTC leads and integrates the national counterterrorism (CT) effort by fusing foreign and domestic CT information, providing terrorism analysis, sharing information with partners across the counterterrorism enterprise, and driving whole-of-government action to secure national CT objectives.
CTC: Eighteen years on from 9/11, what is your assessment of the jihadi terrorist threat facing the U.S. homeland and U.S. interests overseas?
Maguire: The counterterrorism enterprise is the best example of integration that exists across our national security establishment. We built a comprehensive infrastructure to analyze, assess and minimize the terrorism threat. Since the catastrophic attacks on 9/11, we have significantly diminished the ability of jihadists to strike the U.S. by removing hundreds of leaders and operatives, disrupting dozens of networks and plots, and degrading safe havens. But some jihadist groups still have that intent, not only to target the homeland but also our interests overseas. They are continually adapting to setbacks by modifying their tactics, seeking out alternative safe havens, and using new and emerging technologies to communicate, recruit, and conduct attacks. This makes for an increasingly diverse and unpredictable threat, and one that has evolved over time. Eighteen years ago, we were primarily focused on al-Qa`ida, which was then headquartered in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan and along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border areas. Fast forward to now, and the global jihadist threat landscape still includes al-Qa‘ida, but also now its four affiliates as well as ISIS and its network of almost two dozen global branches and networks. In fact, we assess global jihadist groups have extended their reach into more countries than at any other point in the movement’s 40-year history. This growth has largely paralleled the deterioration of security, governance, and humanitarian conditions in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia. While this threat will continue to be a challenge for us, the U.S. and our partners continue to achieve significant successes applying kinetic pressure on top of the jihadist organizations—most recently demonstrated through the degradation of ISIS safe havens in Iraq and Syria—which has taken time away from them and diminished the luxury they had to plan and execute external attacks. Going forward, we will need to apply persistent pressure against these groups, but we also need to expand our tools in the toolbox to do much more than kinetic to address the permissive environments which they repeatedly exploit.
At home, our Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, and all of the interagency have done an excellent job of preventing global jihadists from traveling to the United States. While we remain concerned about the threat from groups overseas, the homeland threat has changed. The most persistent and frequent form of global jihadist terrorism in our country is homegrown violent extremists; individuals who are inspired by global jihadism and radicalize within our borders. Before 2014, we saw a few terrorist groups attempting to encourage supporters to attack. One of the most prominent examples of that was AQAP’s Inspire Magazine. Since 2014, we’ve seen ISIS demonstrate the ability to leverage social media, mobile messaging applications, and high-quality propaganda to maintain an image as the most prominent global jihadist group and convince individuals around the globe that it is worth fighting and even dying for their movement. So, within the U.S., the Federal Bureau of Investigation has worked hard over the last several years to diminish the HVE threat. This year, we have had one HVE attack. In 2018, we had four HVE attacks. And in 2017, we had five. But that said, the FBI, according to Director [Christopher] Wray, has about 1,000 active HVE cases that he’s following right now in all 50 states. These are all related to the jihadi threat and suggest this is a real threat that as of yet does not seem to be diminishing with the changes in the terrorism landscape overseas.
So, you take a look at all of the effort we put in here, job number one is protecting the homeland. And we’ve done a good job since our wake-up on the 11th of September 2001. Yet, the threat remains, and after all this time, much remains to be done to make sure the homeland, our citizens and our interests are safe.
CTC: In no small measure because of U.S.-led counterterrorism efforts, the Islamic State has been seriously degraded, losing all of its territory in Syria and Iraq. However, the group is still thought, according to the United Nations, to retain up to $300 million in financial reserves1 and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, earlier this year surfaced in a video2 and is still at large. What is your assessment of the threat that the Islamic State poses today?
Maguire: ISIS still remains a tremendous threat in spite of the loss of the caliphate. Since the rise of ISIS in about 2013, somewhere around 45,000 to 50,000 foreign terrorist fighters entered into that combat zone. The West has been effective in applying kinetic pressure and working with Syrian Democratic Forces as well as with the Iraqi government to reduce the physical caliphate, but that was not without great cost. That said, we have killed thousands of them and taken away their leadership. We have bought time and space for us and taken away time and space from ISIS. But now that the Syrian Democratic Forces have cleared the Middle Euphrates River Valley, they have over 2,000 foreign terrorist fighters in their internment camps. There are roughly 72,000 internally displaced people in the Al-Hawl camp. Many of them are, in fact, hardcore ISIS. And we estimate that tens of thousands more fighters remain unaccounted for in Syria and Iraq.
ISIS has tried to demonstrate that although they’ve lost the caliphate, they still remain a viable threat. Since March of this year, the group has identified additional branches and now has a network of approximately two dozen global branches and networks. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi remains at large—he remains as the titular head of the organization, and as you know, after the caliphate fell, he made a point of coming out and making sure that he was visible and was able to keep his leadership alive. The ISIS branch in Southeast Asia and others have sworn allegiance to al-Baghdadi to demonstrate that although ISIS lost the physical caliphate, they still have influence that is more than just in the Middle East. NCTC’s assessment is that al-Baghdadi and the core ISIS are somewhere still in Syria and Iraq. They are still able to move finances back and forth.
As for the threat going forward, I think the greatest threat we in the West have is the foreign terrorist fighters that have left that we did not know about and the 2,000-plus foreign terrorist fighters that are in the Syrian Democratic Forces camps. The U.S. military and our partners and allies are biometrically enrolling those foreign terrorist fighters so if they leave, we can track them. But we don’t necessarily have accurate information that the name that they provided [is] who they really are. We in the West really need to address this situation, especially given the pressure that the Syrian Democratic Forces are facing right now within Syria and the difficulty with these prisons. We must do our best to account for terrorists hiding in the refugee camps and to locate any other fighters still aligned with core ISIS, who altogether could still prompt a resurgence.
I also remained concerned about ISIS’ adaptability. They’ve certainly lost a lot of their leadership and capability, but they have learned a great deal as well. As I noted earlier, terrorist groups are constantly evolving and they are agile. We in the West, certainly we in the intelligence community, need to be every bit as agile as they are and do our level best to stay ahead of that.
The bottom line is [currently] ISIS remains a threat. There’s more of them in more places, than during their ascent in 2013. So with all the successes that the West has had—our partners, the intelligence community, and military—and the defeat of the physical caliphate, with the foreign terrorist fighters that remain in Syrian Democratic Forces custody as well as the thousands and thousands of foreign terrorist fighters that are unaccounted for and we assess have gone to ground in Syria and Iraq, they pose a tremendous threat. And the issue of repatriation is very difficult. We’ve got at least 8,000 foreign terrorist fighters that we know of who have departed the conflict zone, but they came from over 110 different countries. The threat of returnees is tremendous. And we also have a correlation [to] the amount of time they spent in combat: those in the conflict zone longer before they return home, tend to be more capable of providing a threat to the West.
The State Department and Department of Defense have worked very closely with our partners and allies. But repatriating these foreign terrorist fighters is an extremely difficult problem. Most of the nations do not have laws with which they can prosecute these individuals. And if they do, they are democracies, so they require battlefield evidence with a chain of custody that would hold up in court. Then, if they are convicted, the sentence would in many cases be three to five years, which is minimal. And then they wind up in prison with the other radicalized prisoners, so when they eventually do come out in their home countries, they feel like they’ve got a worse problem than they have today. So, this is extremely complicated. It needs to be addressed by all of us in the West. As I mentioned earlier, if we don’t do something about this now, they have all the recipes and the timing is right for the resurgence of this terrorist group, an ISIS 2.0.
CTC: The Easter 2019 Sri Lanka attacks caught the intelligence community by surprise. There had been very little jihadi activity in Sri Lanka up until that point.3 And then you had these major, coordinated suicide bombings, which killed a lot of people. What are the lessons learned given it did catch a lot of people by surprise?
Maguire: The intelligence community has learned a lot from the Sri Lanka attacks. The factors that led to the Easter Sunday attacks were a lack of coordination among Sri Lankan security services, the attackers’ access to and competence with explosive materials, the discipline of the attack cell members, and familial involvement that kept some of the plans insular. In addition to that, we have spent a lot of time following the money, tracking and interdicting foreign terrorist finance as it flows between and within groups. But the Sri Lanka attacks were financed by wealthy members of that terrorist cell. The Sri Lanka attackers also targeted public spaces, in this case, churches which often have no security measures in place and are vulnerable to this type of attack.
We have seen the use of family members in other attacks further afield than Sri Lanka. One example was in the Philippines earlier this year where an Indonesian couple went into a church in Jolo and conducted a suicide bombing.4 And in May 2018 in Indonesia, a family with their children conducted suicide attacks against three churches.5
The attacks in Sri Lanka, and other global ISIS attacks, demonstrate to us the need for all governments to evaluate their security and intelligence structures and reflect on whether they share information appropriately on counterterrorism matters internally and externally. Closer global cooperation in the post Syria and Iraq era will further help us all detect burgeoning ISIS branches and networks.
CTC: All this points to how critical information sharing is.
Maguire: 9/11 was in part a failure of information sharing. And we work very, very hard within the international community, particularly with our Five Eye partners,a in sharing as much information as we can. We’re all in this thing together. We have our Five Eye partners; we have our other allies that we work extremely closely with. And we are all managing more information than ever, so we all have to find ways to separate the signal from the noise.
Within the U.S. government, information sharing in the intelligence community has come a long, long way, and that’s probably one of the greatest successes that we’ve had since the beginning of this campaign. But I’m also seeing, since I’ve been back to NCTC, that information sharing across the board between and among agencies and partners is sliding a little bit back to the left, and that’s because of compartmentalization. But that’s a much larger issue than just the counterterrorism information sharing, and that is being addressed by the intelligence community.
CTC: What is your assessment, all these months later, of the Islamic State nexus to the Sri Lanka attacks? Did ISIS direct it to any degree? Or is it still quite cloudy in terms of figuring this out?
Maguire: It’s not cloudy. It’s our assessment that ISIS leaders in Syria and Iraq had no role in either the plotting or the execution. But clearly, ISIS inspired the attack as evidenced by the pledge video that the attackers made the day before. But we have no indication at all that ISIS was involved. This is an extremely insular group, so not only was the West surprised by the attack, but I think it’s safe to say that ISIS was also extremely surprised. But they’ll always claim what they view as a win.
CTC: Any firm idea of whether any of the Sri Lanka attackers actually trained in Syria with the Islamic State?
Maguire: We have no information to corroborate that any of the attackers trained in Syria. Most of the operation was likely planned in Sri Lanka. We view the ISIS threat throughout South and Southeast Asia as having been and still remaining a strong threat.
CTC: We spend a lot of time talking al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State, but the role of Shi`a militant groups over the years has not received as much public attention. From the perspective of the National Counterterrorism Center, how do you perceive that threat? Is it a threat that is growing, or is the general public just becoming increasingly aware of it? How is the trajectory of the Shi`a militancy threat looking?
Maguire: It’s quite evident that people who aren’t steeped in counterterrorism issues have become much more sensitized to the threat since the sanctions that we’ve placed on Iran, and when they struck the oil tankers and everything that’s been going on there. But Iran has really expanded its footprint in the Middle East over the last decade: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and the Gaza Strip. They have, as you said, their Shi`a militia forces that they train, that they provide significant sophisticated weapons to, and of course, their greatest proxy is Lebanese Hezbollah. The only terrorist group that’s killed more Americans than them is al-Qa`ida. We have sanctioned Iran as being a state sponsor of terrorism. The IRGC-Quds Force are also a terrorist organization. The Iranians have been trying really hard over the last couple of months since the tensions have risen to be able to conduct operations with plausible deniability.
Our assessment is that they have provided the resources and guidance to the Shi`a militia and Hezbollah in the event of hostilities with the United States. This is nothing new to the American military over there; they’ve always viewed the Shi`a militia forces as something that’s a threat. As we all understand, back in Iraq around 2006, we lost about 600 of our U.S. military through the explosively formed penetrators. We anticipate that they’ve distributed these EFPs to the Shi`a militia. But as far as Hezbollah is concerned, they have thousands of rockets, missiles, and sophisticated weapons that they could use against Israel or us.
We assess that Iran will do everything they can not to go into a conventional conflict with the United States because they realize they cannot match the United States in its conventional capability. So, it is most likely that if something happens, they will encourage the Shi`a militia forces and Hezbollah to attack [the] U.S. and our interests. Hezbollah is spread out in many different countries. The intent would be to give Tehran plausible deniability. But I would anticipate we would respond to whatever that group is, and I do think our national policy would be that we would also hold Iran accountable for its proxy forces.
CTC: You mentioned the designation of the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization, which was a bit of a new step given its official status as an Iranian government agency. Could you comment on the rationale behind that designation, but more importantly, what impact this has had on the United States’ ability to counteract that threat?
Maguire: As far as the National Counterterrorism Center is concerned, designating the IRGC and the Quds Force as a foreign terrorist organization has meant that we have had to ingest that information into our data bank of known and suspected terrorists. So that has created a great deal of work for us. But it’s also complicated in that the IRGC also has business interests within Iran and a lot of our partners and allies also have relationships and business with them. So, it’s extremely complicated, but it has not to any great extent really impacted the work that we’ve done here or the counterterrorism community at large. But certainly it was a policy statement. They are the action arm. If we’ve identified Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism, then the IRGC-Quds Force is the action arm of that state that sponsors terrorism. So that’s the nexus there.
CTC: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo drew attention to a suicide bomb attack on May 31 in Kabul, which injured four American servicemen and which the U.S. government believes was instigated by Iran.6 To what degree do you assess Iran is preparing to put themselves in a position to harm U.S. interests and even the U.S. homeland in the case of conflict between the two countries?
Maguire: I was in Kabul on the 31st of May when that attack took place. It’s just a page out of their playbook, what they’re doing—again using proxies, paying financially for that organization to go ahead and do the attack, be able to put pressure on Americans and our interests, and make it uncomfortable for us to be in the area. But that’s the cost of doing business out there. I think they will do everything they can and take every opportunity they have in order to make life unpleasant for us, and to make the cost of being involved in that part of the world as high a cost as possible. But we have national interests there, and we will remain steadfast.
As to your question on the threat to the U.S. homeland, we know from the attempted attack on the Saudi ambassador years ago7 that they had Iranian assets here. There’s no saying that you have all of them identified. And if they can, once again, they’ll use their proxies. As for the threat to the homeland from Iranian proxies right now in the U.S., I do not view that as a grave threat thanks to the work of our law enforcement, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Homeland Security.
CTC: When it comes to the terror threat, technologies are continuing to evolve. We’ve seen that through unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), 3D printing, bio engineering, cyber, and so on. And there’s naturally concern they can be exploited by terrorist groups. In testimony8 before your confirmation, you said, “In order to stay ahead of our adversaries, NCTC must find ways to appropriately acquire and adapt new technologies while mitigating the threat of terrorist use of technology.” Could you elaborate a bit on that and speak to what NCTC is doing in this sphere?
Maguire: At one point in time, you had to be a sovereign nation to have this kind of technology, but with the proliferation of technology and with the global economy, much of it is now easy to acquire and simple to use. ISIS and Hezbollah in particular, have been developing additional, sophisticated technologies, whether it is UASs [unmanned aircraft systems] or quad-copter drones with munitions on them. NCTC’s Technical Evaluation Program (NTEP) works to assess the threats posed by terrorist use of novel and disruptive emerging technologies including their viability and lethality. In this program, for example, we have people who will read information terrorists might publish in [al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s] Inspire [magazine] that talks about “this is a great formula to use for the explosive, this is what you do with the UASs” and where we will also process information from sensitive intelligence reporting. Then, our analysts will conduct evaluations on whether this can be replicated using the instructions, and the most effective counter measures.
Another area in which terrorists have exploited technology is in communications. They use the internet and encryption to a great extent. They understand technology. We are a technological nation, and we have to make sure we understand the problem set and not be reactive but be anticipatory to what they’re going to do.
We spend a great deal of effort here not just at National Counterterrorism Center but working with American industry and all of our partners here to try to understand the threat, not only as it exists today but based on the technology and what’s developing, and what can we anticipate that our adversaries might use tomorrow. Terrorists have exploited technology in communications, using the internet and encryption to a great extent, making it a critical need for us to work closely with industry. There was just a conference out in Palo Alto in July 2019 for the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism—led by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube—focused on how the tech industry is combating terrorist use of the internet. Industry has been extremely supportive. We routinely share strategic insights to help them identify terrorist activity online and understand the context of what’s out there in a way that informs of the terrorist threat, like what was promulgated in the case of Christchurch attacks in New Zealand, without narrowing their capability. We want to help quickly identify nefarious content and help to prevent others from downloading and republishing. So we’ve provided terrorist data and contextual information for them to see [to show them what to look out for], and we partner with industry that doesn’t always get the credit due for contributions to counterterrorism efforts.
CTC: How do you see a balance between the competing pressures that some of these companies are under? Because on the one hand, for many of these companies, ensuring the privacy of their users is a big part of their marketing and their appeal to consumers. On the other hand, if something bad happens where their platform played a significant role, that’s also bad from a PR perspective for them. So how do you see these companies thinking through those competing forces? For a while, there was significant concern, articulated by the FBI among others, about ‘going dark’ when it came to the use of encryption. Have we seen a shift? Or are we still in a precarious balance between these pressures?
Maguire: Well, encryption’s a whole different thing. But as far as just Facebook and the like are concerned, they have been extremely supportive, just trying to do the right thing. What happened in Christchurch, what happened in the Poway, California, synagogue,10 and what happened in the Pittsburgh synagogue, they understand the damage that can result from these social media posts. And they also understand full well copycats and people just taking this information, so they are, in my estimation, extremely responsible industry partners in this fight. And they have not been given enough credit for that. When it comes to technology and Facebook, they are light years ahead of us, and we think offering unique insights on what could be done allows them to prioritize and execute how they see best. They’re capable of doing all of these things without having government getting in the way.
CTC: If we could pivot to the mission set at NCTC. This has been an incredibly key organization for improving coordination between the different agencies here, becoming a key hub for information and analysis for the community of people working in counterterrorism in the United States. What do you see as the key value added of NCTC’s work here? And how do you feel that it needs to evolve as the landscape shifts?
Maguire: NCTC was established through the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which was established as a result of the 9/11 failure. So this center is the result of failure in communication, trust, and imagination. We’ve been around for 15 years now, and our value proposition is the authorities that we have allow us to possess and acquire all terrorism information that the United States either possesses or acquires. Our most important value-add, though, is the workforce that is here, with 15 years of focused counterterrorism intelligence. Part of our strength is we have 20 different governmental organizations that are also represented here at the National Counterterrorism Center. So, it is a culture of sharing this information and to ensure all stakeholders who have equities in this information receive this. We don’t wait for an inquiry. We push it out. The 20 different representatives from their governmental agencies come from FBI, Justice, Treasury, CIA, DoD, and others, with the strengths that each department or agency has. But while they’re here, if there ever is an issue that we don’t have the requisite talent or information [for], all they have to do is go back to their parent organization and reinforce what we need here.
Our counterterrorism effort is really much more of a coalition of the willing than an enterprise. I think NCTC as the mission manager of counterterrorism is without a doubt the best example within the interagency of the United States government for sharing information. And I think to a large degree, the fact that we have that culture—understanding why we’re here, where we came from—just reinforces the need to be able to share. As I mentioned before, we’ve done a good job of keeping terrorists from coming across the border. But right now, the greatest threat we have against the homeland is the homegrown violent extremist.
We’ve talked about Islamist terrorism, but domestic terrorism is also a great threat to the homeland. Recent high-profile attacks internationally like Christchurch, New Zealand, and domestically, with Pittsburgh, San Diego, and El Paso in particular have amplified conversations about the significance of the threat and the role of the U.S. government’s response.
So, in as much as we’ve lost more Americans from homegrown violent extremists and domestic terrorism threats than we have from Islamists from outside [since 9/11], we at NCTC are building our in-house capacity to support the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security efforts to combat the threat of domestic terrorism. As we continue to support our partners in this, we are training analysts in understanding how to tackle domestic terrorism within the guidelines and rules that protect privacy and civil liberties, with oversight to ensure adherence to the law.
The threat is evolving, and unfortunately, domestic terrorism is a threat that the nation is facing right now. When I look at this as the National Counterterrorism Center, I know there are significant things we can do to support the national effort and aid the fight. We are hosting a two-day conference in September with invited members from government, academia and think tanks to discuss these issues and the whole-of-government response. As the threat continues to expand, we need to be mindful that we cannot sit back and be comfortable with what we’re doing today. We need to continuously be seeking ways to do more, be more effective, and more efficient in this space. The nation expects us to keep them safe, and we have to make sure that we live up to that. It is a no-fail mission.
CTC: Some, including your predecessor as director of NCTC, have suggested a more formal change in NCTC’s mission to encompass some of the domestic terrorism issues may be warranted.9 Do you feel that’s necessary, or do you feel under your existing construct, you can do the things you’re talking about?
Maguire: I’ve had discussions with FBI Director Christopher Wray about this as well as Special Agent Mike McGarrity, who runs the counterterrorism directorate for the FBI, and the FBI is extremely supportive. I don’t want to rush into anything—we need to be sure we are value added and do no harm to the current process. The FBI is doing a wonderful job, but the domestic terrorism threat is evolving and we are seeing an international connection with that, so that is where NCTC is best positioned to get involved. We are not rushing into this. Our role is clearly a support role for FBI and for the Department of Homeland Security.
CTC: You served for 36 years as a naval special warfare officer, commanding at every level, including the Naval Special Warfare Command. How did this help prepare you to fulfill your duties as NCTC director?
Maguire: Having spent my time in Naval Special Warfare and having had an opportunity to command—I spent 39 months as the commander of Naval Special Warfare while my forces were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan—I can honestly tell you it was very difficult time for the force. And so, there were a lot of lessons learned and it made me fully aware how significant the stakes are.
I first came to NCTC as director of strategic operational planning from 2007 to 2010. But now that I am back, the relationships I have with the special operations community, my understanding of the fight has been a significant help to me. A bit earlier this year, just with my relationships with the special operations community, I was able to travel to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and see firsthand the conditions on the ground, talk to our special operations forces, our intelligence professionals out there, our political leaders out there, the Chiefs of Mission, and the deputy Chiefs of Mission, as well as those who were negotiating with the Taliban. I don’t think I would have access to be able to go there, especially into Iraq, with the conditions that were taking place with the Iranians, I don’t think the CENTCOM commander would have given me the permission to go in there had I not had that special operator background.
While being in Washington is critically important to work in the interagency and the national security enterprise, being able to get out there and see things firsthand, hear it from the individuals who are actually implementing national security at the grassroots level, talk to men who were in firefights the day before, be in Kabul when two attacks go off and people are killed makes it all very real. It brings it home. I’m no longer a SEAL; I’m no longer in special operations. But one of our main customers at the National Counterterrorism Center is the special operations community. We provide national intelligence to them, but we are also on the receiving end from the work that they’re doing out there. We have many of our analysts that are deployed with the forces, and we also have special operation forces who are embedded with us here at the National Counterterrorism Center. So, I think my background is helping me more than I even would have thought before I came back into this job. Not that you need to be a special operations individual to effectively do this job, but having that experience in the past has been helpful to me. Most things in life are about relationships and trust, and I have the relationships and trust with the special operations forces, many of whom I trained because I had the training command from 1997 to 1999, and I pinned the trident on a lot of these young guys when they were E-4s and ensigns, and they’re now captains and master chiefs.
One of my officers in the wardroom when I had command of SEAL Team 2. When I was in Baghdad, I had an opportunity to see him and how high he’s risen through the ranks since then. It’s God’s way of telling me I’m getting old. So, this whole thing is very real to me. But now where I am, I have to play my role, stay in my space, and do what I can to support them there. I also have an understanding of the sacrifice they’re making, and we back here need to be worthy of what they’re sacrificing. The kinetic pressure that they’ve been applying has really been a tremendous help to us, but we need to do more. We just can’t kill our way out of this.
CTC: Russ Travers, the deputy director of NCTC [acting director as of August 2019], in a recent Q&A with former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell [currently a senior fellow at CTC] talked about a certain amount of fatigue in this country about the terrorism threat.11 Given there is this palpable sense of exhaustion and the risk this could lead to complacency and parts of the counterterrorism effort being de-prioritized, what are the things that most concern you and what are the things that make you the most hopeful?
Maguire: In spite of our successes, they’re still trying to strike the homeland and knock down our airliners and attack our interests abroad. But after 18 years, and I understand this, the American people have changed the channel. The counterterrorism enterprise is really, I think as Russ said, victims of our own success, in that the nation has not been hit by a terrorist attack externally directed by a foreign terrorist organization since September 11, 2001. And because of that, people don’t understand all the efforts that have gone into keeping the homeland safe. The view according to some is because we haven’t been hit, well, “what’s the problem?” Well, the problem still persists.
But in addition to that big picture, Russia and China and North Korea and Iran are significant threats, and at the national level, we now we have the additional priorities of great power competition and I support the policy. Not too long ago, it was all things counterterrorism all the time. And that is no longer the case. So with those other four threats—I just call them additional threats, other people refer to them as priorities—my job as the director of the National Counterterrorism Center is to ensure that counterterrorism does not become the number-one threat again because we blew it and we missed it. It is a no-fail mission.
I want to make sure that we support the national policy. But great power competitions are going on right now. When I was in Syria, the Russians were in Syria in Manbij. We’ve got our forces in Yemen, and Iran is present all through there. The Chinese are present all through Africa in areas [where] our forces are also present. With counterterrorism no longer being the number-one priority, my job is to make sure that the counterterrorism enterprise is resourced properly to support and protect the homeland. The country has invested a tremendous amount of money in our counterterrorism efforts and I fully endorse a hard look at how our money is being spent and the comparative risks posed by other threats. But we need to be careful. While the country is faced with a complex national security environment and must address other threats, I worry that there is an unwarranted degree of complacency setting in when it comes to terrorism.
I come to work every single day to make sure that counterterrorism does not become the number-one issue here again. The American people expect us to keep them safe. And the folks here at the Center, the intelligence community, the interagency, and our foreign partners work tirelessly in this effort. CTC