The current terror threat landscape includes a growing threat from drone use — including in potential “swarm” attacks — and diverse extremist groups metastasizing in an online space impervious to military action, national security leaders told Congress.
FBI Director Christopher Wray reminded the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee at a Wednesday hearing on threats to the homeland that the landscape has changed “significantly” since 9/11, with not just the threat of al-Qaeda attacking a large city in “spectacular” traditional fashion but the ISIS method of using social media “to lure people in and inspire them remotely to attack whenever and wherever they can.”
“And we now face homegrown violent extremists, or HVEs, who self-radicalize at home and are prone to attack with very little warning. This HVE threat has created a whole new set of challenges with a much greater number, much greater volume of potential threats, and each one of them with far fewer dots to connect and much less time to prevent or disrupt an attack. These folks are largely radicalized online and they’re inspired by the global jihadist movement,” Wray said.
The director confirmed to lawmakers that “right now, as I sit here, we’re currently investigating about 5,000 terrorism cases across America and around the world,” with about 1,000 of those cases homegrown violent extremists spanning all 50 states.
Among the FBI’s recent successful disruptions of attack plots, Wray noted, have been the plan of Everitt Aaron Jameson, 27, of Modesto, Calif., to attack Christmas tourists on San Francisco’s Pier 39 and the June arrest of Cudahy, Wis., resident Waheba Issa Dais, 45, for maintaining a virtual library for jihadists of instructions on how to make bombs, biological weapons, poisons and suicide vests.
“In the cyber arena, the threat continues to grow, and the more we shift to the internet as the conduit and the repository for everything we use and share and manage, the more danger we’re in,” Wray added.
Russell Travers, acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said that despite “a lot of good news” when it comes to strengthening America’s defenses, including aviation security measures and border control initiatives, “we need to be cautious, because challenges remain.”
“Military operations have bought us time and space as we address a global terrorist threat, but the diverse, diffuse and expanding nature of that threat remains a significant concern,” he told the committee. “…The world has a lot of work to do in the non-kinetic realm to deal with radicalization and underlying causes.”
Terrorists have also proven “innovative” when it comes to their “ability to exploit technology and the attributes of globalization” for planning and disseminating propaganda.
“We’re in the early stages of seeing terrorist use of drones and UASs for swarm attacks, explosive delivery means and even assassination attempts. High-quality fraudulent travel documents will increasingly undermine the namespace, screening and vetting system, and threaten border security. We will see greater use of crypto currencies to fund operations. And the potential terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons has moved from a low-probability eventuality to something that is considered far more likely,” Travers said. “In many cases, terrorist exploitation of technologies outpaced the associated legal and policy framework needed to deal with that threat.”
The U.S. also faces a challenge in analyzing mass amounts of data to uncover threats, he added.
“Since 2009, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit, we have seen an explosion of information: encrypted social media, publicly available information and captured electronic media from investigations in the battlefield,” Travers continued. “As the haystack has gotten bigger and the needles more subtle, prioritization becomes extremely difficult. Determining which information is relevant and addressing the competing legal, privacy, policy, operational and technical equities remains a work in progress.”
He stressed that while “in a crowded national security environment, it is completely understandable that terrorism may no longer be viewed as the number one threat to the country,” the U.S. “will need to guard against complacency.”
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen similarly warned about unmanned aerial systems as an example that “emerging threats are outpacing our defenses.”
“Terrorists and criminals are already using drones to surveil, smuggle, kill and destroy, and our country is in the crosshairs,” Nielsen testified.
“At DHS, we are also concerned about weapons of mass destruction. Terrorists and nation-states continue to pursue the development of chemical and biological weapons to conduct attacks,” she said.
Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ga.) asked Wray what the FBI is doing about domestic terrorism threats from neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists. “I don’t want those kind of threats to get overlooked because there are threats on mosques, there’s threats on Jewish community centers, bomb threats,” he said.
Wray said there are about a thousand active domestic terrorism investigations that “cover the waterfront of the full range of extremist ideologies from right to left, and everything in between.”
“We have assessed that that’s a steady, very serious threat. And I think we’ve had a hundred-some-odd arrests just of domestic terrorism subjects, you know, over the last year or so,” Wray said. “So it’s something we take very seriously. And every JTTF, every Joint Terrorism Task Force structure that you would be well familiar with from your past, is very active in the domestic terrorism space as well and something we take very seriously.”
Of the current array of terror threats, Travers said, “I do worry about taking our eye off the ball a little bit. There are much more really hard national security challenges we have to address, and they have supplanted terrorism to a degree, but we need to be careful.”
The NCTC director noted that “the private sector, the social media companies are much more willing to work with us than they were” even as there’s no agreed-upon definition of “terrorist content.”
“It’s going to be a large challenge for us going forward because as the terrorists get younger, they’re getting at this, and it poses massive issues for the intelligence community and law enforcement,” Travers said.
Nielsen said it’s important to realize “we don’t want to get to the point where a threshold has been crossed — we need to have a holistic approach to counter those narratives so that no one is radicalized.”