Home » Counterterrorism

Category Archives: Counterterrorism

France and Counterterrorism: Recent developments

Since the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, French officials have been pushing to undercut ISIS and other militant groups on a number of fronts. These measures reflect continuing concern with the threat level, as underscored in the recent Europol report on the changing tactics, techniques and procedures of ISIS.

In response to prevailing circumstances, France is working to minimize the seams between its inward and outward facing intelligence agencies. By upping information flows, the idea is “`to deepen coordination between interior and exterior intelligence services in France as well as overseas…particularly from transit zones and sanctuaries where terrorists gather who want to commit acts on [French] territory’…”. France is also walking the talk vis-à-vis partner countries, such as in West Africa, and is reported to have warned Ivory Coast and Senegalabout Islamist plans to attack cities there.

In addition to sharing information with partners in Africa, France persists in its counterterrorism activities there including Special Forces operations in Mali, and surveillance flights over Libya. While there is a definite logic to confronting militants abroad in order to help blunt their momentum, inclination and ability to attack the French homeland, continued investment in these overseas efforts is notable given the “state of economic emergency” in France declared by the President at the outset of 2016.

Invigorating the French economy is itself partly an exercise in building societal cohesion and combating violent extremism, as young people in diaspora communities within France experience relatively high levels of unemployment.

But this segment of the population is not the only one that is restive. Media reports indicate that French Jews are leaving the country “in record numbers.” There is also discontent within the broader populace, where some have called for a national commission to investigate the Paris attacks of 2015 in both January (Charlie Hebdo, kosher supermarket) and November, to better understand “what went wrong and…avoid a repeat.” The idea has yet to gain much traction within political ranks, however. And just days ago, the country’s Justice Minister stepped downbecause she disagreed with the government’s plan to amend the French constitution to allow for the revocation of citizenship from convicted dual-national terrorists.

Next steps for the bilateral relationship between France and the United States will unfold soon. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve is scheduled to visit the United States in February to meet with Homeland Security Secretary Johnson and Attorney General Lynch, among others. Their discussion agenda is reported to include countering terrorist use of social media. The visit takes place in a broader context of challenge which French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has described as “a new era in defense strategy,” marked by “a resurgent Russia[,]…a lack of European solidarity and war in the Middle East.”

New Jersey publicly releases its annual terrorism threat assessment

Yesterday the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness (NJOHSP) publicly released a report entitled “Terrorism Threat Assessment 2016”, a detailed assessment of the current terrorism threat in the state of New Jersey. The report is a solid analysis of the different dimensions of the terrorist threat to the state; it concludes that homegrown violent extremists pose the greatest threat to the state in 2016, and also assesses that there is a “moderate” terrorism threat from other groups (ISIS, AQAP, white supremacists, militia groups, and sovereign citizens).

What is especially notable about the report is the fact that the state is releasing it publicly on its website, a contrast to the previous practice of marking such reports “For Official Use Only” (FOUO) and restricting their distribution narrowly to law enforcement officers, other public safety officials, executives at critical infrastructure companies, etc. This decision seems to reflect a deliberate recognition of the value in directly informing the American public about the terrorist threat, and appropriately enlisting them in efforts to detect and prevent terrorism, instead of treating them as passive bystanders. As the director of the NJOHSP notes in the foreword to the report, “Security is a collective responsibility and we are all in this fight together.”

The decision to release this report publicly warrants praise, and is a practice that the federal government and other states should emulate. For example, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation jointly release dozens of Unclassified/FOUO intelligence reports each year, the contents of which are rarely sensitive; in many instances, their findings are copied and pasted nearly verbatim from official statements about terror-related indictments. Given that these reports are already widely disseminated to state and local law enforcement and other stakeholders, there is little justification for not making them public at the outset, rather than allowing them to eventually leak to the news media, as they often do. The revised National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS), which I wrote about last month, may also provide a basis for such broader dissemination of threat information. Many state fusion centers also produce similar reports to New Jersey’s assessment, which could be publicly released.

A shift toward issuing such analyses publicly could improve the American public’s understanding about the terrorism threat, leading to several tangible benefits. As noted earlier, well-informed citizens are more likely to play a role in detecting and reporting suspicious activity and potentially then preventing the next attack. Well-informed citizens are also less likely to make inappropriate reports about activity that should not be deemed suspicious, which wastes law enforcement agencies’ time with false leads. Finally, an American public that develops a sober, fact-based understanding of terrorism threats from professional non-partisan analysts (instead of from other filtered sources: cable news, social media, Hollywood, politicians, etc.) is more likely to react in a measured and resilient way to terrorist attacks and periods of elevated threat.

By no means is such public dissemination of threat information a panacea: but if such efforts lead to an improved public understanding of the terrorism threat even among a small percentage of the U.S. population, these efforts will be more than worthwhile.

The NYPD settlement: understanding the consequences

The New York Police Department has settled long-standing lawsuits pertaining to the surveillance of Muslims, as reported this afternoon by The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. Notably, under the settlement agreement, the NYPD will be required to make significant changes to its Guidelines for Investigations involving Political Activity (aka the Handschu guidelines), as listed within Exhibit 1 of this PDF containing the settlement documents. In addition, the NYPD will be removing its 2007 report “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat” from it website as part of the agreement. (It is still available on the NYPD site as of posting, but if this link doesn’t work, it means it has been removed from the site. We’ve saved it here on our site for if/when that happens).

It is disappointing that the Radicalization in the West report will be removed from the NYPD’s website as a result of this settlement. While the report has always had limitations due to its case-study methodology (as the authors would likely acknowledge), and it has become somewhat dated due to external developments in the past eight years (e.g. growth of social media, rise of new terrorist groups, increase in lone actor terrorism), many of its general findings on the radicalization process have stood the test of time, and still provide insight into terrorists’ activities today, including the Paris attackers and other recent plotters.

And even if I disagreed with the report’s analysis, I would still argue that removing it from the website is the wrong thing to do. The report’s critics should contest and challenges its findings, as they have often done, but should not cheer its suppression through a formal legal process.

More worrying are the proposed changes to the Handschu guidelines. The changes to the requirements for a “Checking of Leads” or “Preliminary Inquiry” as outlined in this document could inhibit the ability of the NYPD to uncover the initial tip or lead that would be the starting point for a broader FBI-led investigation. While the NYPD will retain strong investigative authorities when there is a known threat, the Department’s ability to detect the ‘unknowns’ could be reduced as a result of these policy changes. It is also possible that a culture of risk aversion develops gradually as a result of these and other proposed changes to the guidelines, such as the appointment of a ‘Civilian Representative’ in an ombudsman-like role.

These changes come a month after the ISIS-inspired terrorist attack in San Bernardino, and at a time when the number of terrorism cases within the U.S. has significantly increased, as noted in detail in the recent report on ISIS in America released by my colleagues in the Program on Extremism. While this settlement may be beneficial in the short-term from a civil liberties standpoint, it likely makes it harder for the officers and other employees of the NYPD to play their role in preventing acts of terrorism in New York City, as they have tirelessly worked to do in the years since September 11, 2001.

The Twilight Struggle With Radical Islam

The scenes from Paris after Saturday morning’s attacks are sickening, angering, and disheartening. They are also not totally unexpected and will likely occur again. We, the West, can lull ourselves into a feeling of safety narrowing the reasons and the regions of trouble. However, let me be clear – we must stop whistling through the graveyard regarding our worldwide war with ISIS, Al Qaeda (AQ) and other forms of radical Islam.

President John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address in 1961 something about a similar struggle with Communism and the Soviet Union. Kennedy was a realist who understood the burdens facing the West. He said, “now the trumpet summons us again, not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are – but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle…” It took another 30 years for us to win that war – already 20 years old. Make no mistake; we are in similar long, twilight struggle with ISIS and all other forms of radical Islam.

There are many reasons why this war – and it is a war because they think it is a war – will not go away soon. Fundamentally, radical Islam is based on the belief that the Westernization of the world has gone to far and offends the premises of Islam. The acceptance of women as social equals, the open social mores of the West, the separation of religion and state, and the existence of Israel are all a part of the witches’ brew of this anger.

We are also faced with a generation of young men in the Middle East (and some in the West) who are underemployed and disconnected with their society. One of my friends calls them “dude fighters.” In a previous generation, they would have been hanging on street corners, smoking weed, going to the gym, and chasing girls. Some still do.

However, the cause of jihad appeals to these “dudes” deeply. It is about them and their heritage and feelings of being dispossessed. And those who are 20 years old with nothing to live for are willing to die for causes because they think it will be their glory. For those in the West puzzled by this, think about Lee Harvey Oswald, John Wilkes Booth, and the Tsarnaev brothers among others. Dispossessed from their society, angry, and in their 20’s. A cause was all they needed to act. And they did.

Europe must also do some soul searching. Immigrants there are treated with the same lack of respect we inflicted upon African Americans in the south during the Jim Crow period. They are marginalized, stigmatized and ghetto-ized. The housing projects of Western Europe are petri dishes for the development of radicalism.

As for the United States, we are in this war whether we like it or not. The Presidential decree that the war on terrorism was over sent the wrong message. We looked like we were quitting the field and radicalism won a major victory. Setting red lines in Syria and stepping back also allowed a Petri dish of radicalism to develop and metastasize into an area that would allow the existence of an ISIS.

I have no fear that we will win the battle with radical Islam. I also believe it will be a long, drawn out affair taking place on battlefields worldwide. And it will increase focus on “soft” civilian targets. But, history is not on their side. The last 250 years have been about people looking for more freedom and less oppression. ISIS and AQ are an aberration. But to defeat them, we must show continued strength, resolve, and wisdom in dealing with a different culture. We are in a twilight struggle that can be won.

Terrorism — The Old Fashioned Way

Mark Twain once said the history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. So, when I heard about the Russian flight blown up over the Sinai, I immediately thought of Pan Am 103. Blow up over Scotland by Libyan bombers in 1988; I had friends who knew people killed on that flight. One acquaintance lost his son.

I suspect it will take less time to find out the perpetrators of this travesty thanks, in part, to the 21st century level of electronic surveillance available and the inability of people to stay off their 21st century cell phones. All evidence points to a group of Islamic State terrorists from the Sinai. In 1988, the identification of the Libyans took a lot longer and involved some great Scots police work and an inch-by-inch ground search – finally turning up a small piece of a circuit board that set off the bomb.

So what lessons are we to take from this most recent bombing? First of all, no matter what kind of physical and electronic security you introduce, there is no such thing as 100 percent security. People have decried the security at Sharm El Sheikh as they decried the security in Frankfurt for Pan Am 103. Granted in both cases, the security was not good. But as the IRA terrorist once said, you have to be right every time and we only have to be right once.

Second, for now, this attack does not appear to be a function of cyber. It is an old fashioned mass murder committed though the timing on any device; likely as simple as an alarm clock or, possibly, a cell phone. For those of us who live in cyber world, this provides little comfort. It is only a matter of time until the Internet of Things into which we are hurdling is used to cause mass murder. Let this event over Egypt not turn our eyes away from that ugly, soon to be, fact.

And, finally, the loss of the Russian plane is a reminder that we are in a long, dirty struggle with Islamic radicalism. Make no mistake that what happened in Egypt can and will be exported by “foreign fighters” returning to the West or “wannabes” here as well. History will rhyme and we need to gird ourselves for it.

Bored, Alienated And Islamic

There have been any number of scientific studies and anecdotal evidence to indicate that the most dangerous human beings by age are bored, drifting young males in their mid to late 20’s. A line from the Marlon Brando biker movie “The Wild Ones” best expresses it. When asked what he is revolting against the bored young biker Brando responds, “whaddya got?” The participants in the recent military recruitment attacks and the Boston Bombing seem to confirm the theories about young men. And the narrative of Islamic radicalism is what they’ve “got.”

The perpetrators of these violent are young men with Islamic backgrounds who lived in the United States for extended periods. They seem to fit in somewhat with their new country. Still, they also hang out with friends, play modern music – yet they feel alienated from society by upbringing and first generation communities that often do not understand their problems. And they also often have strong issues with US authorities on policy regarding the Middle East and Islam writ large. Thus, the appeal of fighting for Islam is strong and ISIS presents a tempting thing in which to believe.

There was an old radio show that opened with the line “who knows what evil lurks in the mind of man?” Psychologists will give you varying answers from alienation to the society to a desire to belong to something bigger than them. But no one can give you the exact moment and person that will step over the line to violent action. But violent action is on fertile ground when young men are bored and alienated.

As we try to deal with these young men, US officials are knee deep into areas where the US government and America itself has grown uncomfortable since the end of the Cold War. We seem to lack an appealing narrative about who we are.

Oh, we’ve got the against terrorism business – and we arrest and kill on a daily basis to emphasize that point. And, I know we’ll never get 100 percent of these young men with us. But, we are heading into deeper waters as ISIS recruits these “dudes” aggressively online and trains those that make it to the Holy War. They have no problem with their narrative.

So what does that mean for us? It means we have to do things with which we are most uncomfortable. First, we must say who we are and what we believe in. Clearly, distinctly and repeatedly. And we need to do it through the social media that is being used every day. A few thousand twitters from State Department are simply not enough. We need to respond in the millions that our freedoms are their freedoms. That all humans have rights. And that disagreement cannot end with a belt bomb or a beheading. This is against the fundamentals of all societies – Islam, Christian, Jews, or any others.

In this effort, we need to reach out and embrace the social media in the United States and elsewhere. This is difficult given the libertarian streak of the cyber world and the stiff-necked approach of the Feds to them, but it is mutually beneficial to both sides. The Feds need the outlets, and the outlets need credibility that they are not transfer mechanisms of hate and destruction that can be pointed at them as well as the rest of the society.

Second, we also need to work more openly and closely with the Muslim community in the U.S. The latter have been concerned but relatively quiet about this behavior. First generation settlers in the past have also had problems criticizing their misbehavers. Anarchist movements, Nazi sympathizers, and Communist agents some time found the support of silence in their communities. However, in each case, brave people began to stand up and counter their narratives and changed and took away their base of support.

And finally, we need to integrate these young people into our society. This also requires working with local communities to find these young men a purpose whether helping their communities or serving their religion through mosque-guided efforts. Their efforts and energies need to be focused as Muslim-Americans socially and politically active here in the 21st century in America — not pursuing some 16th century violent chimera of a Caliphate.

None of this is easy nor is it short term. But, we face a clear and present danger in a radicalization of young people that is going unchecked. We have pledged in our Constitution to “ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense.” This now requires more than the necessary law enforcement and military action. We have provided successful narratives and have integrated immigrants in the past. We need to do it again.

Testimony this week by CCHS Program on Extremism expert

Yesterday the Deputy Director of CCHS’ Program on Extremism Seamus Hughes testified before the House Homeland Security Committee on “The Rise of Radicalization:  Is the U.S. Government Failing to Counter International and Domestic Terrorism?”  Acknowledging that combating violent extremism (CVE) is “a delicate exercise”, Hughes emphasized that “governments and communities have a moral responsibility to try” nevertheless.  Noting that the U.S. government does have a CVE strategy, Hughes observed that “the U.S. effort is disjointed and underfunded.”  Strikingly, he pointed out that “more Americans have died in Syria fighting with ISIS than have been assigned to work on CVE.”

You can read the entire written testimony at this link.

House Intelligence bill seeks to constrain PCLOB on covert action

A story in the Washington Post today by Ellen Nakashima looks at a provision in the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) mark of the FY 2016 intelligence authorization bill that would inhibit the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) from receiving information that is “related to covert action.” The relevant bill language is as follows:

‘‘(5) LIMITATIONS.—Nothing in this section shall be construed to authorize the Board, or any agent thereof, to gain access to information that an executive branch agency deems related to covert action, as such term is defined in section 503(e) of the National Security Act of 1947 (50 U.S.C. 3093(e)).’’.

Nakashima’s story notes that this provision was drafted in response to a recent opinion piece by PCLOB chairman David Medine, arguing for a new “Drone Board” that would provide independent oversight of the use of UAVs for counterterrorism purposes, and suggesting that the PCLOB could take on this responsibility as an additional duty.

I have mixed feelings about HPSCI’s new legislative proposal. On the one hand, I think that the PCLOB should not be focusing on covert action, given that such a focus would be contrary to the intent of Congress when the PCLOB authorities were established in 2004 and modified in 2007. The policy and legislative debate leading to the PCLOB (including in Chapter 12 of the 9/11 Commission Report) was focused almost exclusively on terrorism-related information sharing and collection issues, and not on counterterrorism operations. It would be outside the scope of the PCLOB’s current authorities for the Board to undertake a direct review of a foreign counterterrorism operations program or activity, whether covert or non-covert.

In addition, there is an existing system in place for the review of covert action programs, as described in this 2013 CRS report. If this system is being utilized appropriately by the executive branch and the Congressional intelligence committees, then creating an additional layer of review by the PCLOB is unnecessary in my opinion, particularly given the longstanding statutory language that a covert action finding “may not authorize any action which violates the Constitution of the United States or any statutes of the United States.”

On the other hand, I worry that this legislative proposal as it is currently drafted would create the basis for executive branch agencies to deny information to the PCLOB that the Board should legitimately be entitled to receive. Note the language in the proposal: “information that an executive branch agency deems related to covert action.” The language gives executive branch agencies an unchecked right to define what information is related to covert action, and the inclusion of the words “related to” creates an opportunity for IC lawyers to try to define this exception broadly.

For example, a covert action may rely on a particular intelligence collection or analytic activity that is within the scope of the PCLOB’s remit. This bill language, as currently drafted, could allow the agency responsible for that collection or analysis activity to deny the PCLOB necessary access to information about this activity, on the basis of its “relation” to the covert action. Such an outcome would undermine the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, in a way that is harmful to its clear statutory role as a balancer of privacy and civil liberties concerns within the broader national policy debate on terrorism issues.

The article in the Post notes that this matter will continue to be debated as the bill moves to the floor of the House and is then reconciled with the Senate’s FY 2016 intelligence authorization bill (which has not yet been introduced) later this year. It is also likely that other committees will have a stake in this issue, since the PCLOB’s founding statute is also within the jurisdiction of the Senate and House Judiciary, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and House Oversight committees. I would suggest that an appropriate resolution to this issue would be modifying this provision into “sense of Congress” language that states that the PCLOB should not place a primary, direct focus on covert action programs, but does not impair the Board’s access to information that is within the scope of its current authorities, even if such information is tangentially related to covert action.

TSA airport worker vetting: a “failure” or media hype?

The DHS Office of Inspector General released a redacted version of a report yesterday entitled “TSA Can Improve Aviation Worker Vetting.” The report examines TSA’s performance of its responsibility to conduct background checks on the two million workers (beyond its own employees) that have access to secure areas of airports. One of the findings of the report has been the basis for some disturbing media headlines last night and today, a sampling of which are linked below:

“IG Report: TSA failed to identify 73 workers ‘linked to terrorism’.” (Fox News)
“TSA Missed 73 Workers on Terror Watchlist” (The Daily Beast)
“Investigation Finds the TSA Didn’t Catch 73 Terrorism-Linked Employees.” (Slate)

The general impression that one gets from the media stories to date is that terrorism suspects have slipped through the cracks and are working at U.S. airports, posing a significant threat to the U.S. aviation system. But that is not what the IG report actually says.

As the terrorist watchlisting system is currently implemented, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) manages the detailed, classified repository of watchlisting-related identity information in its TIDE database, which is then exported to the unclassified Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), run by the FBI, subsets of which are then used by various screening agencies (e.g. Department of State for visas, CBP for border screening, TSA for domestic aviation). There are very clear rules in place as to what types of identities in TIDE and the TSDB can be used for which screening and vetting purposes, based on factors such as the relevant threat and the impact on civil liberties.

This IG report examines TSA’s responsibility to carry out background screening of airport workers, and notes that it doesn’t carry out such screening by checking against all TIDE records:

TSA did not identify these [73] individuals through its vetting operations because it is not authorized to receive all terrorism-related categories under current interagency watchlisting policy.

The report notes that the excluded TIDE records were for certain categories of terrorism-linked individuals that TSA has not been allowed to screen against to date (details of which are redacted from the report), and that more than a year ago then-TSA Administrator John Pistole formally requested that it be able to conduct vetting against such records, a request that has yet to be approved by the interagency group that oversees watchlisting policies. Such a decision to change current policy would need to be made judiciously, weighing the threat posed by individuals that fall in these TIDE categories (who presumably present a lower relative threat than individuals in other TIDE categories that are currently used for vetting) versus the civil liberties-related impact of conducting vetting that could cause individuals to lose their jobs based on a weak or unproven association.

As a result of such a review, and taking into account current threat-related intelligence, it may be warranted to expand the scope of TSA’s airport worker vetting. But let’s be clear: the current situation is not a “failure” or “omission” on TSA’s part, but the result of a deliberate policy decision. The media coverage of this IG report to date unfortunately lacks such nuance, and is instead hyping the implications of this report in a way that unfairly foments public mistrust of TSA and could lead to rash policy decisions on this issue.

First-ever Interior Ministers meeting on foreign fighters at UN

In a first, the United Nations convened Interior Ministers last week to discuss a UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee report on foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs), focusing on the state of play in terms of both threat and international response.

Here’s the key paragraph in the report that encapsulates the threat:

More than half the countries in the world are currently generating foreign terrorist fighters. Among the various Al-Qaida…associates around the world, including the splinter group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)…, there are more than 25,000 foreign terrorist fighters involved, travelling from more than 100 Member States. The rate of flow is higher than ever and mainly focused on movement into the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq, with a growing problem also evident in Libya.

The report goes on to state that UN member states need to do more to meet the threat; and it prioritizes specific actions that can and should be taken:

The full implementation of preventive measures under Security Council resolution 2178 (2014) would be a major step forward. Intensified efforts with regard to prevention and returnee policies, including further work in relation to the Internet and social media, are crucial. So too is accelerating the establishment of operational information links between Member States, including in relation to persons of interest and passenger data.

Various speakers addressed the assembled group, reinforcing the point that more must be done to combat the FTF challenge. Among them, INTERPOL Secretary General Jurgen Stock, and US Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson; for their remarks (plus video) see here, here and here.

INTERPOL’s Secretary General noted the heightened risk of “‘cross-pollination’ among conflicts beyond Syria and Iraq” as more extremists “from Africa to southeast Asia are shifting their allegiance to the Islamic State group…”.

In turn, Secretary Johnson identified several FTF-related priorities for the United States: “improving border and aviation security, bolstering legal and prosecutorial capacity, improving information sharing, and addressing the underlying conditions conducive to terrorism and preventing the problem by countering violent extremism.“

He also referenced a new “screening and analysis system” that the United States plans to share worldwide, free of charge, with both government and private sector entities, to help further interdiction efforts:

Within the next twelve months, DHS, through our Customs and Border Protection component, will be developing a new passenger data screening and analysis system. This Global Travel Assessment System, or GTAS, will be made available at no cost to the international community – for both commercial and government organizations, to use, maintain, customize, and enhance as needed.

For additional analysis of the UN report and the associated meeting, see these pieces in Voice of America and the Daily Star.