• Panelists discuss strategic intelligence at the 2021 Intelligence and National Security Summit. Photo by Herman Farrer
     Panelists discuss strategic intelligence at the 2021 Intelligence and National Security Summit. Photo by Herman Farrer

Evolving Domestic and International Terrorism Threats

September 14, 2021
By Kimberly Underwood
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U.S. intelligence leaders sharpen their focus on the challenging environment.

The terrorism threat to the United States from international sources as well as domestic actors is evolving, officials say. On the international side, with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the fall of the Afghan government and the Taliban takeover of that country last month, intelligence leaders fully expect Al-Qaeda to gain strength and capabilities in Afghanistan to be able to threaten the United States in the next one-to-two years.

“The current assessment, conservatively, is one-to-two years for Al Qaeda to build some capability to threaten the United States,” said Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, USA, director, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).

Gen. Berrier stated that the Defense Counterterrorism Center “is well partnered” with the fellow intelligence community partners that look at counterterrorism analysis. “We are thinking about ways to gain access back into Afghanistan,” he said. “We are prioritizing that effort and we’ll continue to prioritize it.”

For the FBI, which has the role of protecting U.S. citizens, their counterterrorism efforts involve the examination of both domestic and international actors. “For us in the FBI, counterterrorism is our number one priority,” said Paul Abbate, deputy director, FBI. “It has been for a long time and continues to be. It is all about protecting lives and keeping people safe from physical harm, particularly with everything that we're seeing going on around the world today.”

The military intelligence leaders presented their views September 14 during AFCEA International and INSA’s 2021 Intelligence and National Security Summit in National Harbor, Maryland.

The deputy director of the nation’s federal law enforcement agency confirmed the rising trend of domestic actors organizing, seeking or conducting nefarious activities. “There is a wide spectrum of ideological motivators there as well,” Abbate noted. “We've seen individuals motivated by racial and ethnic bias commit acts of harm, anti-government, anti-authority motivated individuals have come to the forefront as well in recent times. Again, it is the work that we do. We are out there every day along with our partners represented here and beyond, coming together, collaborating in the task force environment, working to spot those threats up front, and then working against them to keep people safe and prevent harm from happening.”

Of the possible threat from an organized protest on Saturday in Washington of the pro-Trump “Justice for J6” group supporting rioters arrested in the January 6 attack on Capitol Hill, Abbate said they are seeing “a lot of talk and chatter online,” but that the bureau does not at this time have “any specific credible threat information about violence that may occur there.”

Law enforcement leaders and the “frontline agencies” have conducted “lots of planning and preparation,” about the event, including enhancing the physical security at the Capitol.

“We put international terrorism and domestic terrorism equally at the top,” Abbate confirmed.

The U.S. leaders noted that they have to handle what might develop in Afghanistan while they turn to focus on near-peer competition. “We have to be careful to balance these very scarce resources with this pivot to China and to Russia,” Gen. Berrier acknowledged. “We are all taking a very careful look at that. For the time being, our defense analysis for counterterrorism will remain what it is right now.”

David Cohen, deputy director, CIA, confirmed that the agency also is watching Afghanistan closely. “We are beginning to see some indications of some potential movement of Al Qaeda to Afghanistan, but it's early days,” he stated. “To be sure, our current capability in Afghanistan is not what it was six months ago. That said, the problem that we are facing is not one that is new to this group [referencing the fellow intelligence leaders]. Our partners have experience in collecting intelligence in areas that are non permissive and doing so without a physical presence on the ground.”

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), meanwhile, is positioning its space-related intelligence role for the future threat environment as defined by China, reported Chris Scolese, NRO’s director. “China clearly wants to be the leader in space,” Scolese stressed. “They recognize the advantage that it provides militarily and diplomatically, showing that you are a technological leader. And they want to make sure that they erode our capabilities up there.”

The country has developed anti-satellite capabilities that can be launched from the ground as well as having systems in space that could either disarm U.S. satellites or at least hamper their ability to operate. “Our job is to stay technologically ahead, in being able to detect those threats and responding to those threats in ways that will render them ineffective,” he said.

The NRO is working closely with the Space Force’s recently elevated U.S. Space Command to develop tactics and procedures for space-based activities, “establishing norms of operation in space, so that we can operate in an effective way,” the NRO director offered. In addition, the office is consulting with Space Force to develop space domain awareness capabilities, as well as engaging with foreign partners about the operational standards.

“We have been working with our international partners beyond the Five Eyes and through the State Department with the United Nations to go off and do that.” Scolese said. “Space Force is the lead for that, in articulating those norms. We're making a lot of progress there.”

The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, or NGA, is refocusing its human capital from its encompassing terrorism effort, shifting to near-pear competition. “9/11 provided a dramatic sense of urgency, and that sense of urgency was ‘maintain and sustain’ because we had Americans in the field and risk to Americans,” explained Maj. Gen. Charles Cleveland, USA, associate director of operations, NGA. “It was easy to sustain that type of urgency. Now what we really want to do with our workforce is look for ways that we can recreate that urgency for China, and the need that we can't wait for tomorrow, we have to be focused on it today.”

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