ATbar Prepared Remarks: World Summit on Counterterrorism

Prepared Remarks: World Summit on Counterterrorism

12/09/2016 | by Rasmussen, Nicholas J.  

International Institute for Counter-Terrorism

IDC Herzliya

September 12, 2016


Good afternoon.  Before I begin, I first want to say thank you to the leadership of the IDC here in Herzliya for inviting me to this year’s World Summit.

And especially to Boaz Ganor for his continued leadership in advancing the study of terrorism and terrorism-related topics.  The work done here by scholars and practitioners from all over the world is truly world class.

It’s an honor for me to be here.  Almost every year for the last decade, analysts of the National Counterterrorism Center have participated in the World Summit and this year is no different.   But I believe this is first time that NCTC’s leadership has had that opportunity.   And I am extremely grateful to be here.

I also know that on Sunday evening, the Summit began with a ceremony of remembrance for the victims of terrorism – both those who lost their lives on 9/11 and those who have lost their lives to terrorist attacks all across the globe.

Taking time to remember and to reflect is important.  For those of us engaged in the profession of counterterrorism, it reminds us why we do what we do.  And why it matters so much.  

And for many Americans who are involved in counterterrorism, that day also represented a pivot point – both personally and professionally.  After 9/11, most of us would never be quite the same as we were before that day.

Last Wednesday at my organization, NCTC, we held a remembrance event as well.  Several officers of our Center shared their personal stories of loss from that terrible day 15 years ago.  

But we also had a chance to hear from 3 individuals who were active participants that day - an NCTC officer who was on duty in the White House Situation Room, a senior FBI agent whose office was only a few short blocks from the World Trade Center and who took part personally in the first wave of law enforcement response at Ground Zero in New York, and a member of the Secretary of Defense’s personal support staff, who helped keep our Pentagon functioning and communicating while under attack.

Each of these men shared stories – sad and terrible, but also inspiring.   And though they themselves wouldn’t say this about themselves, each of them demonstrated enormous courage in carrying out their duty even as America was under attack in the Homeland, something that literally had seemed impossible, until it happened.

15 years after 9/11, it’s important that we continue to tell those stories.   As I looked around NCTC’s auditorium, it was easy to see that many of our younger officers – CT professionals in their 20s – probably have very little memory themselves of September 11.

And so it’s our solemn obligation to make sure that we share with them our memories and our experiences.  And that we continue to do so when we reach the 20th Anniversary, the 30th Anniversary, and someday the 50th Anniversary.  

But that’s not why I am here today.  I’m here today because I want to share with you some thoughts about the terrorism landscape that we all currently occupy.  

And I’m aware that this audience today that you are a part of is a special audience.  I realize I’m speaking to an audience of true terrorism and counterterrorism experts. This is a room full of partners and colleagues.

So, with that in mind, I wanted to do 3 things with you here this evening.

First, I will provide a quick survey of the threat landscape.   And I will do this from an admittedly narrow American perspective.   

In many ways, I suspect this will be the least interesting part of my remarks.   IT’s something I do all the time in sessions with the Congress, with the media and with the public at large in America.

I say this is the least interesting part of my talk because simple “problem identification” is easy.   

Talking about how challenging terrorism is during this new “ISIS or ISIL-dominated” age and how hard our job is as CT professionals -- that’s pretty easy.

But it’s nonetheless important to be clear about the challenges we are facing and how those challenges are evolving over time.

Hopefully, by speaking clearly and precisely about the threat we face, we help illuminate where we are pursuing useful, effective counterterrorism strategies.   

And maybe we just need to give those strategies more time to work the way we want them to.

But careful examination of the threat should also help us illuminate those areas where we really aren’t grappling with the problem successfully at all.  

And perhaps areas where we need a fundamentally new or different approach.

So forgive me for starting out in a pretty conventional way, with a somewhat tactical description of the problem that we are facing.

But after that, I promise to be more interesting and hopefully thought provoking.  

For the second part of my remarks, I’ll offer my views on what we in the United States are doing well after 15 years of serious investment in CT capabilities.   And what we are not doing so well, areas where we still need to perform better.

And then third, and finally, I’ll offer up some ways to perhaps change the way we think about terrorism and threat terrorism represents to our societies.

I will also apologize in advance if my remarks are excessively US-centric. We Americans are often accused of being self-absorbed, but never more so than during an election year.

But let me first start at the beginning, with some thoughts on the threat landscape, at least as seen from the National Counterterrorism Center.  

In the current environment, I assess that the threat we in the United States face today is broader, wider and deeper than at any point since 9/11.

Simply put, there exists a greater number of potential terrorist actors who aspire to do us harm than ever before.  And it does not yet appear as if we stopped the rate of increase in that extremist population globally.

And yes, state sponsorship of terror by Iran and Syria continues to be a staple of the terrorism landscape.

One other indicator of a “wider, deeper, broader” threat picture is the fact that the number of ISIL-related threats that we are managing is simply additive on top of everything we were already dealing with in managing the threat from al-Qa’ida and its affiliated organizations.  

Despite the sometimes all-encompassing focus on ISIL, al-Qa‘ida and Lebanese Hizballah continue to present formidable challenges to our security.

That threat landscape is also more geographically expansive than it has ever been.  We don’t have the luxury of focusing on a select few overseas hot spots when we are trying to mitigate and disrupt potential threats to the US, to Israel, and to our partners across the Middle East and Europe.

That person who aims to do to the harm to the United States could be found in Afghanistan or Pakistan, in Somalia or Yemen, in Iraq or Syria, in Libya or Mali or Nigeria.  In Indonesia or the Philippines.

Or that person could be found in France or Germany or the United Kingdom or Mexico or Canada.  

Or to be sure, even inside the United States, in any of our 50 States.

The innovations in the “terrorist playbook” that we tend to associate with ISIS or ISIL also contribute to this more challenging threat environment.  I’ll cite just a few of them, and they are well known to this audience.

  • The aggressive effort by ISIL to use modern communication tools and technologies to identify, recruit and mobilize potential terrorist operatives.

  • The ability of ISIL or ISIS to align their objectives with the local agenda of extremist populations all over the world, thereby gaining access to an ever larger pool of potential adherents.

  • The willingness of individuals inspired by ISIL ideology to act alone or in very small groupings, using whatever tools and capabilities are available to that person.

  • The growing capacity of terrorists to use secure modes of communication to advance their plotting, thereby narrowing the qualitative technological edge that we have always enjoyed over our terrorist enemies.

  • The increasingly rapid maturation of plotting, and in some cases, the shortening of the timeline between the time a potential plot is conceived and when it becomes reality.   What we call the shortened flash to bang ratio.

  • And, lastly, ISIL’s ability to sustain a narrative of success and victory, even when things go badly for the group on the battlefield or they suffer serious setbacks.

All of the factors I’ve described combine to make the threat landscape more unpredictable, more unstable and more volatile than we have ever experienced in the United States.

  • And it is not only ISIL that is proving to be adaptive and innovative. Al-Qa‘ida and its affiliates continue to evolve and find new ways to threaten the US.

The result is that our law enforcement and intelligence professionals, particularly those with direct responsibility for protecting the Homeland, are under greater pressure than ever.

Another result is that our population finds itself more focused on terrorism related concerns than many of our foreign partners would expect.  

And we Americans are probably focused on terrorism in ways that are still hard for others to understand, when you look objectively at the relatively small number of American who are killed in terror-related events each year.

So that’s the threat environment in a nutshell.  More challenging, more unpredictable, and therefore in many ways, more difficult to respond to than at any time since 9/11.

But as I move on to the next part of my presentation, I hope I can provide some balance and perspective to what might seem like an excessively gloomy and dark threat assessment.

Because I do in fact think that we enjoy significant advantages over our terrorist adversaries and that we aren’t in fact incapable of responding effectively to this threat landscape.

When I think back over the last 15 years, I can identify numerous ways in which we have dramatically improved our performance and our capacity to counter terrorism.

The things we do well, I would argue that we do increasingly well, and some cases exceptionally well.  Let me just briefly run through a couple of different categories where I think that is undeniable.

First, the intelligence field, and by that I mean both collecting intelligence and sharing it with those who need it in order to prevent terrorists from succeeding.

Here, our success can be seen across multiple dimensions.   

First, we continue to be aggressive and creative in collecting intelligence, using every available tool.  

And we share that intelligence across our various national security organizations in a very structured way that enables both analysis and operations. We learned from our mistakes before 9/11 and we operate very differently today.

Second, I would argue that our willingness and capacity to share intelligence with partners – and not just our close allies like the Five Eyes arrangement or Israel –continues to expand rapidly.

We collect more, we share more, and we do it more rapidly and with fewer impediments, than any of us would have thought possible 15 years ago, or even 5 years ago.

Our intelligence partnerships with countries like Israel are deeper and more productive than at any point in history.

Third, we do more to share that intelligence outside the federal government with the full array of state, municipal and local law enforcement professionals who serve as our first line of defense against terrorism in the Homeland.

Not a day goes by where there isn’t some sort substantive exchange of terrorism related information between NCTC, FBI or the Department of Homeland Security with our non-federal partners.   

And this includes intelligence of the greatest sensitivity, as well as material that is tailored specifically for our partners who operate in the UNCLASSIFIED environment.

So, all of this means that even if the intelligence environment is in fact getting more challenging given encryption and other technological challenges, I still believe we hold the upper hand over our terrorist enemies.

The Second Area where I would argue that our success is undeniable is in the “hard power” part of counterterrorism work.

Here I am talking about the effort to find, fix and potentially finish those terrorist actors who are most directly engaged in efforts to target Americans.

Through years of experience in difficult operating environments around the world, we’ve developed quite an impressive suite of capabilities. And our reach extends potentially to almost every corner of the earth.

Our success and capability in this area is testament to the lessons we’ve learned since 9/11 about how to work in a more integrated fashion—blending intelligence, military, diplomatic and law enforcement capabilities into a single, unitary tool kit.

And partnerships with key countries – many of them represented in this room – are also central to this effort.

Now, I would be the first to admit that hard power by itself is not a fully sufficient response to our terrorist challenges.   Killing or disabling terrorists is not a strategy unto itself.

And there is an argument to be had about whether there are costs associated with treating the symptoms of the disease even as you struggle to develop a lasting “cure.”

But it cannot be denied that we have saved literally thousands of lives over the last 15 years with the efforts we have made to disrupt terrorists operating in their safe havens.

And given that any President’s first and most solemn responsibility is to protect the safety and security of American citizens, particularly from terrorist attack, the continued development of our capacity to do just that is a source of pride for our CT Community.

The Third Area I would cite as an area where we have achieved significant success over the last 15 years is in developing an extremely robust Homeland Security enterprise across all levels of government.

I won’t tick through all of the different ways in which that is so, other than to say that I believe we have succeeded in presenting ourselves as an extremely hard target to most terrorist groups operating around the world.

We certainly know that al-Qa’ida and ISIL continue to aspire to carry out significant attacks on US soil.  But we also know that they are challenged to do so and that the obstacles to their success are formidable.   

Indeed, the very fact that both groups call upon lone actors to act on their behalf speaks to the difficulty they perceive is tied to the project of using a traditional terrorist group cell structure to carry out a Homeland attack

That’s not surprising, given the level of investment in Homeland Security and border security that we’ve engaged in as a country over the last 15 years.

But as we look back on how unprepared we were as a country to respond to 9/11, this Homeland Security apparatus is something in which Americans can take great pride.

Now, having identified some areas where we have proven quite successful in our counterterrorism work, let me quickly highlight some areas where still face real problems or challenges, or where we haven’t yet performed as well as we need to.

The first area is something I would call Identity Management.

As everybody in this room knows, our collective counterterrorism efforts rest on a massive platform of data that we have acquired about who exactly the terrorist actors are.

It’s the most tactically important thing that we do in the CT world.  Figuring out who the bad guys are, with whom they are connected, and tracking their movement.

We collect their names and their identifying information so that we can prevent them from entering our country, or prevent them from getting on an airplane, or if necessary, so that we can target them.

And we’ve invested huge sums and enormous effort in doing this, but as one my key advisers at NCTC tells me, we’re doing this in a way that is on the wrong side of history.  

We continue to invest in a largely name-based identity management system.  While names will always be a point of departure when it comes to establishing identity, we need to focus increasingly on biometric information.  

Given the skill and agility that terrorists have shown in adapting to border security efforts around the globe, the only choice we have is to move in the direction of a biometrically based system – effectively using such things as facial recognition, fingerprints, iris scans and DNA.

Doing this will require a huge investment in collecting, sharing and integrating biometric information – both internally  in the US Government and with hundreds of countries around the world.  

Clearly, we’re going to have to do this in close cooperation with partners all over the world.

And unfortunately, we are nowhere close to that point yet.    And as a result, we will likely live with an increasing sense of vulnerability as terrorists grow more adept at “fooling” our name based systems.

The second area where I would argue that we are playing “catch up” in counterterrorism is related, but it’s more directly connected to the kinds of data that are increasingly being called upon to collect, analyze, and share.

It used to be that the most relevant pieces of information needed to thwart a terrorist plot came from human intelligence reports, or signals intelligence reports, or other kinds of clandestinely acquired intelligence.

And yes, these categories of information are still critical to our success,  Probably now more than ever.   

But they are clearly not enough.  

It may be difficult for some long time counterterrorism veterans to imagine, but in the current environment, we’re increasingly finding that terrorism related information is to be found in the open source domain, on social media platforms, and with other forms of publically available information.

The volume of information available to us in these domains that might require analysis or exploitation is simply massive. Moreover, the pace of technological change has vastly outpaced the associated development of law and policy.  This poses significant challenges as we attempt to get the security/privacy balance right.  

These challenges impact everything we do: what information we collect, how we process that information, with whom do we share it, how we hire, train and equip our counterterrorism analysts, and potentially what legal authorities we seek from our Congress.  

I daresay that our counterterrorism efforts are a Petri dish for every hard question our governments face as we confront transnational threats and the downsides of globalizations – perhaps to include the role of intelligence in a free society.  

So suffice it to say that we still have a lot of work to do -- especially as the terrorist landscape continues to evolve.

The third and final area that I would cite as an area of underdeveloped capability or performance involves our efforts to Counter Violent Extremism, particularly inside the United States.

The good news here is that we have invested a great deal in studying and understanding the processes of radicalization and mobilization to violence.  

And we have also benefitted from the exceptional work done by our partners in Europe and the Middle East in terms of understanding how these processes play out.

The bad news is that we’ve had to acknowledge that there are a number of factors at play when an individual becomes a terrorist, that these factors are often highly individualized, and that there probably aren’t simple “antidotes” or “vaccinations” that can be applied at scale.  

I would argue that this shortfall is particularly troubling as we see the dramatic increase in the population of Homegrown Violent Extremists inside the United States.

As a federal government, we’ve recently taken steps to organize and resource more effectively our CVE efforts, under the leadership of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice.

And my own view is that we have been successful in some very specific cases at helping provide communities with the information and tools they need to identify potential extremists and to engage with them before they reach the point of becoming an actual terrorist.

  • This engagement can hopefully provide an “off-ramp” that takes an individual off the pathway to becoming a terrorist.

But the scale on which we undertake these efforts is still too limited and it’s certainly not sized to tackle the kind of problem we are experiencing with individuals inspired by ISIS or ISIL to possible take action in the Homeland.

  • And there is still much that we in the US can learn from the experts and practitioners all over the world – including those of you in this room.

Speaking personally, I only wish we had addressed these issues more aggressively at an earlier stage, so that we would be further along in the process of building capacity and CVE programs across the country.

For that, I certainly own my share of the blame as I was in a position at both the White House and at NCTC to have done more.  

And I wish I had exercised more leadership and demonstrated more creativity in this area.

So, that’s a quick run through of some areas of strength and weakness in our national CT efforts, at least as seen from a narrowly American perspective.

I’d like to finish now by talking a bit about how we think and talk about terrorism in the United States, particularly as it relates to our own national strategies for countering terrorism.

And here, I’d like to make my own modest contribution to try and shift the policy conversation in a new direction.

One way to shift the conversation might be to ask “How do we deny success to the terrorist?”  rather than asking “How do we defeat terrorism or defeat terrorist groups?”

I say that for a couple of different reasons.

First, I would argue that asking the question in this way puts us in a much better position to control outcomes and to deliver the results we want for our citizens.

When we talk about “defeating” our terrorist enemies in the current CT environment, we may in fact be talking about something that is not achievable at a level of cost, effort and investment that any of us would find acceptable.

And that’s because terrorism is not a problem or a national security challenge that stands on its own.

The terrorism problem that we face is fed by a complex set of social and political conditions that exist across the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.

While conditions vary widely across such huge swaths of territory, the list of factors contributing to the terrorism problem generally includes sectarian rivalry and conflict, inadequate governance, economic underdevelopment, political instability tied to shifting demographics, and in some cases, an unhelpful overlay of classic state competition by both regional powers and great powers.

Taken as an analytic proposition, the idea that a single unified strategy could deliver a positive outcome or end state across each of these dimensions in a region like the Levant or South Asia or North Africa certainly seems like a stretch.

And yet, we as Americans sometimes set out to do just that.  

We articulate strategies that purport to transform the regions from which the terrorist threat emanates.

To create good governance and representative government where it doesn’t currently exist.

To create willing, capable state partners through whom we can work to address the terrorism problem.   Partners who will act in ways consistent with our laws and values.

And in the hardest cases, we articulate strategies whose success hinges on our ability to deliver just and lasting outcomes to conflicts that have persisted for decades if not centuries.

And even more unhelpfully, we sometimes attach timelines and expected measures of success to these strategies that are measured in months or in just a few years, when we could not possibly expect to achieve results in that time frame.

My argument here is not that we shouldn’t work as a country and as an international community to address the underlying conditions that generate support for terrorist movements.   We certainly can and we should.

Rather, I’m arguing that our definition of success in CT Strategy needs to change, driven by a more sober and realistic sense of what is achievable in the near, medium and even the long term.

And to my mind, the simplest way to do that is to flip the question so that we focus on denying terrorist groups what they seek, rather than focusing on eliminating terrorism in all its forms.  Or seeking to re-make in a fundamental way the societies within which they operate.

And I would argue that denying terrorists what they seek is tied directly to the concept of resilience.

I’ve occasionally talked about resilience but it was only in preparation for this speech that I actually took the time to look up the definition.

And one of the definitions I found in Webster’s dictionary proved particularly appealing to me.

Webster defines resilience as “the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.”

It’s a definition that is simple and elegant.

And defined this way, I would argue that resilience is certainly something that is within our control.  

The greater our degree of resilience, the more obvious it is that we are able to respond and recover and rebound from terrorist attack, the more likely it is that we will render our terrorist enemies incapable of achieving their objectives. 

As a governing principle, that certainly sounds simple.  And yet we as Americans, I would argue, still have a long way to go in terms of our own capacity to project true resilience. 

As someone who spends most of my time focused on preventing the next attack, I feel like I probably need to do more to shape and influence how we respond and recover, when those attacks invariably occur.

For those of us in government and academia, this might mean changing the way we talk about terrorism or particular terrorist threats—because our publics clearly follow our lead.

If we overreact, they are likely to follow suit.

I’d be the first to admit that saying this out loud is not easy, especially in an environment where we are expected to have a zero tolerance for failure.   And that’s certainly the standard to which we hold ourselves in the Counterterrorism Community. 

It’s also difficult to be a champion for resilience, given the sometimes toxic political climate that exists in the United States. Calling for a resilient response could sound like pre-emptive excuse-making by those who failed at their job of keeping us safe.  But in reality terrorism is only an existential threat if we let it become one. 

In the end, how we respond when attacked is probably what matters most. 

As President Obama has said time and time again, we must respond always by being true to our values and to our laws. 

So I will close by stating what I hope by now is quite obvious.    

With all of the experience that we as Americans have in dealing with terrorism, there is still much we can learn from others, all around the world. 

That’s what makes this World Summit so important and why I’m so glad that I could make a small contribution to this year’s conversation at IDC. 

Thank you.