Homeland security leaders warned lawmakers that the current evolution of both domestic and international terrorism presents unique challenges as “terrorism today moves at the speed of social media,” in the words of the FBI director.
“ISIS, al-Qaeda, Lebanese Hezbollah, and their global networks represent significant and persistent security threats to the United States,” Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan said at the outset of Wednesday’s hearing on global threats at the House Homeland Security Committee.
“One of the most significant emerging threats over the past years has been domestic actors’ adoption of terrorist technique to inspire and direct individuals, often via the Internet, to carry out acts of terrorism and targeted violence,” he added. “Of specific concern has been an increase in racially and ethnically motivated violence, particularly the threat posed by violent white supremacist extremists.”
“The problem trend of Americans driven by violent extremist ideologies and personal grievances to commit acts of terrorism or targeted violence with little apparent warning creates a unique challenge to law enforcement investigation tools.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray stressed that “quite frankly, the threats out there aren’t the same from a decade ago.”
“They’re evolving in scale, in impact, in complexity and agility, and the FBI is moving forward to meet those threats head on. In fact, over just the past six or seven months the FBI has thwarted or disrupted terrorism-related plots, both domestic terrorism and international terrorism. Our joint terrorism task forces have made arrests in at least two-thirds of the states represented on this committee just since April, and that’s not including all of our hate-crime arrests and all the other kinds of important work that we do,” he said. “So preventing terrorist attacks continues to be the FBI’s top priority.”
He noted that ISIS “has started to take advantage of using women in operational planning and trying to recruit youth more and more,” including in Syrian displacement or detention camps, and “I know our European partners are very worried about this part of a plan by ISIS to try to launch kind of a multigenerational conflict, and that’s going to present all kinds of challenges for us and our partners.”
Wray said domestic terrorism threats posed by “everything from anarchist groups to racially-motivated violent extremist groups… begin mostly online.”
Domestic terrorism cases “present unique challenges in part because in this country we don’t investigate a person just because of his or her beliefs,” yet domestic terrorists “can also move very quickly with little warning from espousing radical views to attack,” he noted. “And I can tell you, after having personally walked through the crime scene at the Tree of Life synagogue and having visited the teams from the mass shootings both in El Paso and in Dayton, that this threat is never far from our minds and is a focus across the FBI.”
National Counterterrorism Center Acting Director Russell Travers acknowledged that “military operations have bought us time and space as we address the terrorist global threat,” but “the diverse, diffuse and expanding nature of that threat remains a significant concern.”
“After 9/11, we were primarily focused on the threat emanating from a single piece of real estate along the Afghan-Pak border. Eighteen years later, as Director Wray has indicated, we have a very diffuse threat. We have a homegrown violent extremist threat. We have 20 ISIS and branches and networks ranging from hundreds to thousands of individuals. We have al-Qaeda and its affiliates and branches affiliates,” he said. “We have foreign fighters that flock to Iraq and Syria from over 100 countries. We have Iran and its proxies, and there is a growing terrorist threat from racially and ethnically motivated extremists around the globe.”
“By any calculation there are far more radicalized individuals now than there were at the time of 9/11,” Travers continued. “This highlights the importance of terrorism prevention. While some aspects of a threat can be dealt with through kinetic operations, the residents of the ideology will not be dealt with by military or law enforcement operations alone. The world has a lot of work to do in the non-kinetic realm to deal with radicalization and underlying causes.”
Travers also highlighted as challenges “the terrorists’ ability to exploit technology and the attributes of globalization” in day-to-day ops — “they’re good at it, and they are very innovative” — and “complacency” to the threat here at home. “The threat itself continues to metastasize and will require very close attention in the years ahead,” he warned.
“In a crowded national security environment, it is completely understandable that terrorism may no longer be viewed as the No. 1 threat to the country, but that begs a host of questions,” he said. “What does the national risk equation look like as the country confronts a very complex international security environment? How do we optimize our CT resources in the best interest of the country? And if we’re going to reduce efforts against terrorism, how do we do so in a manner that doesn’t inadvertently reverse the gains of the past 18 years?”
DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis Under Secretary David Glawe told the committee that “one of the most pervasive threats we face in the homeland” is “the threat from targeted violence and mass attacks.”
“Regardless of whether it’s considered domestic terrorism or a hate crime, there is no moral ambiguity on this issue,” he said, adding that “the extremists are often motivated by violent ideologies or perceived grievances often targeting race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender and gender identity.”
“We are focused on identifying the behaviors and indicators that are indicative of an individual at risk of carrying out targeted violence or mass attacks so that we can appropriately identify and mitigate any violent act before it occurs.”
Foreign terrorists organizations, Glawe said, “remain a core priority of DHS’s counterterrorism efforts” as “ISIS, al-Qaeda and returning foreign fighters represent significant persistent and long-term national security threats.”
Wray told lawmakers there were “107 domestic terrorism arrests in Fiscal Year 2019, which is about the same number, a little less, but about the same number as our IT, our international terrorism arrests.”
“Certainly, the most lethality in terms of terrorist attacks over the recent years here in the homeland has been on the domestic terrorism side,” the FBI director noted.
“We are starting to see racially motivated violent extremists connecting with like-minded individuals overseas online, certainly. And in some instances we have seen some folks travel overseas to train [in] different parts of Eastern Europe,” he said.
“We have seen some connections between U.S.-based neo-Nazis and overseas analogs. And certainly, probably a more prevalent phenomenon that we see right now is racially motivated violent extremists here who are inspired by what they see overseas. So, for example, the Christchurch attack in New Zealand, we’ve had, you know, folks that we’ve arrested here who were motivated by what they saw happening over there. So they’re not working together, but they’re just fueled by each other.”
Travers said that “there’s no question that the losses over the weekend were significant to ISIS,” but “at the same time, it’s a deep bench.”
“We will see calls for attacks against western interests. Typically, that doesn’t amount to a great deal in the near-term. And then we will see requests for the branches and the affiliates to swear allegiance to the new leader. That’s what we’ll be watching very carefully to see how this individual consolidates control moving forward,” he said.
Within Syria and Iraq “there are at least 14,000 ISIS fighters,” Travers said, “and that’s an important number because five, six years ago when ISIS was at its low point, they were down under 1,000. So, to us, this tells us that the insurgency has a lot of options.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said she had spent the previous evening at a meeting “dealing with biologic threats, threats of smallpox or Ebola being used by terrorists,” and asked Wray what the FBI is doing to confront the potential of “this very difficult act of terrorism.”
“That is something that we are increasingly concerned about. We’re trying to go about it through a number of different lenses working with our partners,” Wray replied. “One, we’re of course working with the rest of the intelligence community to try to gain more information about the capabilities, plans, and intentions of different adversaries in terms of their designs on different kinds of biological weapons.”
“Second, we’re working more and more closely with what you might consider nontraditional partners, whether it’s labs, people in the medical industry, you know, research and development people to better understand kind of what the capabilities are. A lot of that work happens through our weapons of mass destruction division, which is really single-mindedly focused on this kind of stuff,” he continued.
“And then, of course, we have our joint terrorism task forces, which have investigated a number of attacks. And they are always on the lookout for information there where we see any indication that a particular subject is looking into that kind of weapon. We do think it’s something that’s going to become increasingly hard to chase just because the Internet, again, makes the — if you will — the recipes for these things more and more widely available to less and less sophisticated actors.”
Wray told the committee that “more and more the biggest threat we face here in the U.S. is these — whether it’s domestic terrorism like white supremacists, or international terrorism, people who are inspired by jihadist movements, we have these self-radicalized actors here.”
“And so the whole concept of going after organizations, which was a construct that was created about things like al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, etc., is still valid, but the threat that we face right now isn’t so much about organizations,” the FBI director said.