In July, the Department of Homeland Security Committee convened to examine ongoing threats to the US. What follows is a summary of their testimony and findings, along with our analyst comments. (Analyst Comment: For the purposes of uniformity and accuracy, all references to the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant, or any other variation, will simply be abbreviated using IS. It is the Islamic State.)
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Remarks from DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson:
- Distinguished between terrorist-directed attacks and terrorist-inspired attacks. [AC: 9/11 was a terrorist-directed attack with command and control from abroad. The Orlando shooting was a terrorist-inspired attack with no command and control or input from abroad. Beginning in the mid-2000’s, al Qaida (AQ) shifted their global strategy from training recruits in terrorist training camps and sending them abroad, to a strategy of inspiring attacks abroad without providing command or control. Coordinated efforts — directed attacks — means communication, most often electronically transmited over the phone or internet. NSA, GCHQ, and other signals intelligence services are adept at finding and listening into these communications. In order to adapt, AQ began sending out information to radicalize Muslims already living in the West. In 2010, al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula began publishing an English language online/digital magazine entitled Inspire, which helped to motivate Western Muslims to commit terror attacks. The magazine regularly points out vulnerabilities and recommends targets in the US. The Islamic State (IS) adopted the same strategy of radicalizing Western Muslims, which is how IS most greatly threatens the US.]
- Even though the US security apparatus keeps constant tabs on known terrorists across the globe, there is simply no effective way to predict or combat domestic attacks from those who self-radicalize, inspired largely by online contact with radical Islamist propaganda.
- Johnson urged the Committee to improve relationships with existing Muslim communities within the US, explaining that “we must respond” to encourage assimilation, just as “[AQ] and [IS] are targeting Muslim communities in this country.”
- As territory is re-claimed in Syria and Iraq, IS will become more desperate to show strength through engaging in and encouraging asymmetric attacks like those seen in Paris and Orlando.
- Johnson detailed the most thorough plan to improve security for US citizens, describing programs currently underway to create “biometric exit” at US airports. These programs would take fingerprints (or other biometric information) from every individual exiting or entering the country.
- Current plans call for the nation’s highest-volume airports to roll out biometric entry / exit in 2018. This measure comes alongside new guidelines for airport security, driven largely by a leaked document last May that revealed what Johnson called “a dismal failure rate” of basic TSA screening at eight major US airports.
Remarks from FBI Director James Comey:
- Comey compared the FBI’s job in identifying potential homegrown terrorist as more than just finding “needles in a nationwide haystack.” According to Comey, the Bureau has the substantially more difficult job of figuring out “which pieces of hay might someday become needles.”
- More are likely, as ISIS continues to leverage social media more effectively than any previous terror organization, leveraging a sense of community to call for more lone-wolf attacks against symbols of Western law and order: soldiers, law enforcement, and government personnel.
- Comey reiterated his position from last year, that he had “concerns” about the risks of allowing Syrian refugees into the US, primarily stemming from the lack of solid intelligence and data for refugees from the war-torn country.
- Mark Walker (R-NC) revealed that ISIS actors have been forging travel documents to allow those potential terrorists to infiltrate Western European countries–and, from there, potentially the United States. Comey confirmed knowledge of this trend, but would not discuss in detail, and recommended a closed session to discuss Walker’s concerns.
Remarks from Nicholas Rasmussen, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center:
- There are approximately 1,000 current investigations on potential Home-grown Violent Extremists (HVEs), in all 50 states.
- Rasmussen also confirmed that ISIS had leveraged Western sympathy for refugees, inserting at least two of the Paris attackers into the flow of refugees fleeing Turkey for Greece in 2015.