Last week the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Christine Abizaid delivered testimony at the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs annual hearing on threats to the Homeland, alongside FBI Director Christopher Wray and DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. She cited the recent attacks and war in Israel as evidence for the reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which provides key indications and warning on terrorist plans and intentions. Abizaid’s testimony is below:
“This hearing is especially timely as we continue to monitor the response of global terrorist actors in the wake of HAMAS’ tragic and brutal 7 October terrorist attack inside Israel.
The deadliest day in Israeli history resulted in the deaths of over 1400 people, including more than 32 Americans, thousands injured, and over 240 civilians and soldiers taken into Gaza as hostages. At least a handful of which are Americans. Now entering the fourth week of the conflict, we have seen reactions from terrorists and violent extremists across the ideological spectrum who are exploiting the renewed salience of the Israeli Palestinian issue for their own causes, often threatening attacks against particularly U.S., Israeli and Jewish interests worldwide.
Now this comes at a time when the intelligence community had been tracking an overall reduced threat emanating from terrorist actors in the Middle East and was focused on a more discrete, though geographically dispersed terrorist threat. How this conflict unfolds in the coming days, weeks, and months, and the degree to which it helps renew otherwise declining terrorist actors across the globe will require careful monitoring.
Let me review the terrorist actors of most concern in the current environment and those who are most likely to shape the future of the threat to the United States. In the United States Homeland, Jewish, Arab, and Muslim communities are facing a heightened threat environment.
Here we remain concerned about lone actors mobilizing to violence against innocent civilians, inspired by HAMAS’ attacks or by other groups calls for terrorism. This is consistent with our years long assessment that the individual or small cells of violent extremists, whether inspired by Al Qaeda, by ISIS, by a racial or ethnic animus or other causes, are the most likely to carry out a successful attack in the United States or Europe.
In addition to lone actors, hierarchically organized groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS remain of concern, they are seeking to capitalize on this moment to galvanize supporters and organize for attacks. Their ability to do so from their core operating arenas is much diminished after years of counterterrorism pressure.
But we are monitoring closely any attempts to leverage this crisis to rebuild or refocus against the United States. Of particular concern are the ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliates in West and East Africa, the Al Qaeda branch in Yemen, and the ISIS branch that is operating out of Afghanistan. More regionally, Iran and its proxies are a significant concern, principally for their ability to generate attacks in the Middle East that could have significant escalatory consequences.
While we have no intelligence to indicate that Iran or its proxies had foreign knowledge of HAMAS’ 7 October attack, we remain focused on Iranian and Iranian linked activity in support of HAMAS and directed against the United States since the conflicts outbreak.
Already, Iranian aligned militant groups have conducted over 24 attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria using rockets and unmanned aerial systems. This is in addition to the daily attacks on Israel by Lebanese, Hezbollah, and at least three instances of Israel focused missile and UAS attacks by the Yemen based Houthis.
While these groups have the capability to conduct more sophisticated attacks than they have thus far demonstrated, we assess Iran, Hezbollah and their linked proxies are trying to calibrate their activity. Avoiding actions that would open up a concerted second front with the United States or Israel, while still exacting costs in the midst of the current conflict.
This is a very fine line to walk, and in the present regional context, their actions carry the potential for miscalculation, thus requiring heightened scrutiny in the region as we monitor for signs that the conflict could spread. Now, Iran’s calibrations today come in contrast to its more aggressive posture globally over the last several years.
This includes its plotting in the United States where, for example, it attempted several times to intact an anti Iran activists, and it has sought to retaliate against former U.S. Government officials that it deems responsible for the 2020 death of Quds Force Commander, Qasem Soleimani.
And for its part, in addition to being a regional political and paramilitary organization, Lebanese Hezbollah is a globally capable terrorist organization. Its last successful extra regional attack was in 2012 when it attacked Israeli tourists in Bulgaria killing seven and wounding at least 30.
Now, it is clear that over the years, significant CT pressure brought to bear against terrorist groups along with investment in effective CT defenses here at home has resulted in an overall diminished threat to the United States Homeland. This is true even in the current context of a heightened environment that’s tied to the Israel HAMAS conflict.
However, as evidenced by the events of the past month, the terrorist threat landscape is highly dynamic and our country must preserve CT fundamentals to ensure constant vigilance. Among these fundamentals is the intelligence collection enabled by Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which provides key indications and warning on terrorist plans and intentions, supports international terrorist disruptions, enables critical intelligence support to, for instance, border security, and gives us strategic insight into foreign terrorists and their networks overseas.
I respectfully urge Congress to reauthorize this vital authority not only for its CT benefits, but for the value it brings across a range of national security challenges. Another of the United States fundamental CT pillars is found at the National Counterterrorism Center, which I am fortunate to lead. NCTC serves as the primary organization in the United States government to analyze and integrate international terrorism information.
We conduct strategic operational planning for CT activities. We ensure all agencies have access to and receive needed support to execute CT plans, and we serve as the central and shared knowledge bank on known and suspected international terrorism and terrorist groups.
My organization is part of a whole of government CT architecture that must work across a spectrum of the threat landscape to quickly identify new threats and overcome enduring challenges that might allow space for terrorists to advance attacks.
The United States must be careful to preserve this CT architecture to address an inherently unpredictable range of terrorist adversaries, even as we confront a myriad of other national security challenges that play out both overseas and here in the United States.
Let me end with the thanks to the CT professionals of the intelligence, diplomatic, military, and law enforcement communities whose dedication to the CT mission has done so much to protect this country from terrorism. It is a community that the United States has relied upon time and again, and today is no different.”