The United States faces an increasingly complex, and evolving, threat of terrorism and targeted violence. As was the case sixteen years ago, at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s founding, foreign terrorist organizations remain intent on striking the Homeland, whether through directed attacks or by inspiring susceptible individuals in the United States. Today, though, the Nation also faces a growing threat from domestic actors inspired by violent extremist ideologies, as well as from those whose attacks are not ideologically driven.
The terrorist threat to the United States is growing more dynamic and diffuse as an increasing number of groups, networks, and individuals exploit global trends, including the emergence of more secure modes of communications, the expansion of social and mass media, and persistent instability across several regions. It is fair to say that we face more threats originating in more places and involving more individuals than we have at any time in the last fourteen years, said Nick Rasmussen, Director Counterterrorism Center .
Domestic threat actors often plan and carry out their acts of violence alone and with little apparent warning, in ways that limit the effectiveness of traditional law enforcement investigation and disruption methods. We must confront these evolving challenges by building on existing best practices developed against foreign terrorist threats, identifying promising new approaches, and developing a strategic vision that provides a more holistic approach to preventing terrorism and targeted violence that originates here at home, says DHS.
In an age of online radicalization to violent extremism and disparate threats, we must not only counter foreign enemies trying to strike
us from abroad, but also those enemies, foreign and domestic, that seek to spur to violence our youth and our disaffected—encouraging them to strike in the heart of our Nation, and attack the unity of our vibrant, diverse American society, says DHS.
Looking back at the history of violence and war, women and children were, and continue to be, the main victims. Terrorist groups view women as critical components of their organizations. The number of women who support terrorism acts in Southeast Asia has seen a dramatic rise in the past five years; Indonesia is one example. Women involved in terrorist groups play multiple roles as recruiter, financier, and executor. The lesson from Indonesia is that a number of those convicted do not want to go through the deradicalization process. Deradicalization done after the fact is ineffective.
The current hard approach to counterterrorism that emphasizes security and law enforcement has worked very well in most Southeast Asian countries. However, this should go hand-in-hand with a soft approach that focuses on deradicalization and disengagement. The United Nations issued the “Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism” on December 24, 2015. This was preceded by UN Security Council Resolution No. 1325, issued more than two decades ago in 2000, focused on women, peace, and security. All nations, including Southeast Asian governments, have increased their counterterrorism efforts, which include measures to prevent women from being exploited for terrorism-related activities: many governments, including Indonesia, and non-government organizations (NGOs) run active deradicalization programmes.
Most states focus on preventing terrorist attacks, rather than reacting to them. As such, prediction is already central to effective counterterrorism. There are two means to prevent terrorist attacks. One is deterrence: through the protection of infrastructure, the application of security checks and the promise of punishment. Another is the denial of the ability to conduct attacks: by apprehending terrorists before their plots come to fruition, countering recruitment and radicalization of future terrorists, and placing restrictions on the movement and freedom of individuals.
The 2018 National Strategy for Counterterrorism acknowledges that, despite a “robust counterterrorism architecture” designed to thwart attacks, the United States does not have “a prevention architecture to thwart terrorist radicalization and recruitment.” Thus, the National Strategy calls for the U.S. Government to “champion and institutionalize prevention and create a global prevention architecture with the help of civil society, private partners, and the technology industry.”
One of the important objectives of the DHS strategic framework for counterterrorism is to Prevent terrorism and targeted violence. Technology can provide important new solutions to the challenges of terrorism and targeted violence. But technological developments
can also magnify these challenges. Technological advances influence how people radicalize to violent extremism and mobilize to violence; empower violent extremists to portray attackers as role models; provide attackers with new tactical avenues and means of destruction; and create vulnerabilities to information operations, including by foreign states, that are designed to enhance the attractiveness of violent extremist causes.
A 2018 U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) review of mass attacks in public spaces found:
Most of the attackers utilized firearms, and half departed the site on their own or committed suicide.
- Half were motivated by a grievance related to a domestic situation, workplace, or other personal issue.
- Two-thirds had histories of mental health symptoms, including depressive, suicidal, and psychotic symptoms.
- Nearly all had at least one significant stressor within the last five years, and over half had indications of financial instability in that timeframe.
- Nearly all made threatening or concerning communications and more than three-quarters elicited concern from others prior to carrying out their attacks.18
An aware society is the best foundation for preventing terrorism and targeted violence. Peers are best positioned to recognize individuals exhibiting signs of radicalization to violent extremism and mobilization to violence, but the Federal Government is best positioned to generate the evidence-based research that identifies risk factors, behaviors, and other information that informs this awareness.
The DHS Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) supports the Department’s mission by sponsoring scientific data collection and analysis to characterize threats and opportunities for prevention and evaluating terrorism and targeted violence prevention programs and interventions. Research efforts are further supported by NTAC, which has a twenty-year history of conducting research, training, and consultations on the prevention of all forms of targeted violence, and I&A’s NTER program. Assisting vulnerable individuals requires open channels of trusted communication between government and civic leaders and other members of the public in any state or locality.
Counter terrorists and violent extremists’ influence online.
For some violent extremist movements—including radical Islamist terrorists and racially- and ethnically-motivated violent extremists, particularly white supremacist violent extremists—the online space appears essential to their recent growth. Private organizations and technology companies have engaged in counter-messaging campaigns seeking to steer individuals away from messages of violence.
DHS will support these efforts by sharing threat information when possible, evaluating the efficacy of counternarrative efforts, and providing grant funding to effective campaigns. DHS will engage the technology sector to identify and amplify credible voices online, and promote counternarratives against violent extremist messaging. In these efforts, DHS will prioritize freedom of expression, privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties, while seeking to convey the harm done by targeted violence and terrorism.
Intelligence and Early Warning
Terrorism depends on surprise. With it, a terrorist attack has the potential to do massive damage to an unwitting and unprepared target. Without it, the terrorists stand a good chance of being thwarted by authorities, and even if they are not, the damage from their attacks is likely to be less severe.
It follows that the United States must take every appropriate action to avoid being surprised by another terrorist attack. To secure the homeland, we must have an intelligence and warning system that is capable of detecting terrorist activity before it manifests itself in an attack so that proper preemptive, preventive, and protective action can be taken.
Early warning of an impending terrorist attack is a far more difficult and complex mission than was early warning of a strategic nuclear first strike. Whereas we almost always know the identity, location, and general capabilities of hostile nations, we frequently do not know the identity or location of non-state terrorist organizations. The indications of terrorist intent are often ambiguous. Terrorists are able to infiltrate and move freely within democratic countries making themselves effectively invisible against the backdrop of an enormously diverse and mobile society. Efforts to gather intelligence on potential terrorist threats can affect the basic rights and liberties of American citizens.
Moreover, the question of how to achieve early warning of terrorist threats is inseparable from the question of what to do with some warning information once it is in hand. What preventive action should be taken? What protective action should be taken? To whom should the information be provided on a confidential basis? Should the public be informed and, if so, how and by whom? These very concrete decisions can have life-or-death implications. Unfortunately, the ambiguous nature of most intelligence on terrorist threats means that these decisions must often be made in conditions of great uncertainty
Developing the intelligence needed to anticipate, prevent, disrupt, or mitigate the effects of an attack requires the production of intelligence in a collaborative and integrated endeavor by a number of agencies across this dispersed area. Intelligence is an important element of forging an interagency response. To be effective, counterterrorism intelligence must embrace network attributes and effectively fuse with networked operational forces.
The process is known as “All Source/All Phase” fusion, where intelligence is derived from all potential sources (classified, sensitive but unclassified, and open sources or OSINT) to provide information and decision support at all phases of a threat/response. Information needed to understand an event is available from local through global sources.
We need to have early warning indicators and systems to alert us when environments are created in which women are vulnerable to be exploited by radical groups. It does not require in-depth data for us to start analyzing the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats in particular states or regions. From the historical data on women who join certain groups, we can designate causes, red flags, and contributing factors, writes Joynita Hutasoit.
Utilize dual-use analysis to prevent attacks.
Terrorists use equipment and materials to carry out their criminal acts. Such equipment and material can include items such as fermenters, aerosol generators, protective gear, antibiotics, and disease-causing agents. Many of these items are “dual-use” items-they have not just terrorist applications, but also legitimate commercial applications, and can often be bought on the open market. If suspect dual-use acquisitions are identified, cross-referenced with intelligence and law enforcement databases, and mapped against threat analyses, the U.S. government’s ability to detect terrorist activities at the preparation stage will be enhanced. Therefore, the federal government, led by the Department of Homeland Security, will evaluate and study mechanisms through which suspect purchases of dual-use equipment and materials can be reported and analyzed. (See Defending against Catastrophic Threats chapter for a discussion of the Select Agent Program.)
Employ “red team” techniques.
The Department of Homeland Security, working with the intelligence community, would utilize “red team” techniques to improve and focus of the Nation’s defenses against terrorism. Applying homeland security intelligence and information, the new Department would have certain employees responsible for viewing the United States from the perspective of the terrorists, seeking to discern and predict the methods, means and targets of the terrorists. Today’s enemies do not think and act in the same manner as yesterday’s. The new Department would use its capabilities and analysis to learn how they think in order to set priorities for long-term protective action and “target hardening.” Employing “red team” tactics, the new Department would seek to uncover weaknesses in the security measures at our Nation’s critical infrastructure sectors during government-sponsored exercises.
Advanced data analysis using Artificial Intelligence
Advanced machine learning called topological data analysis allows computers to identify patterns that can’t be discerned through traditional algorithms. Instead of relying on the analyst feeding the search engine clues, the software learns from the data to discover hidden relationships which may prompt investigators to connect new dots.
Ayasdi is one Silicon Valley Company offering such technology, particularly suited toward helping the national security sector predict and prevent terror threats. It translates data into three-dimensional shapes and colors to help analysts visualize nonlinear patterns. It received early funding in 2008 from the Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and has to date received $100 million in total.
Warning and protective action.
Analysis can, and must, be turned into action that prevents terrorists from carrying out their plots. The United States has at its disposal numerous tools that allow for the disruption of terrorist acts in the United States and the detention of the terrorists themselves. These tools can be deployed as soon as the analysis uncovers evidence of terrorist planning. This analysis and assessment will help support and enable the actions taken by the U.S. government to prevent terrorism.
The inclusive and comprehensive analysis allows the government to take protective action, and to warn appropriate sectors and the public. Defensive action will reduce the potential effectiveness of an attack by prompting relevant sectors to implement security and incident management plans. In addition, defensive action works as a deterrent to terrorists weighing the potential effectiveness of their plans. Warnings allow entities and citizens to take appropriate actions to meet the threat, including upgrading security levels in any affected sectors, activating emergency plans, dispatching state and local law enforcement patrols, and increasing citizen awareness of certain activities.
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