The terrorist threat facing the U.S. and its European allies is “bigger, wider and deeper” than at any point since the Sept. 11 attacks 15 years ago, the White House’s top counterterrorism official said in a grim review of global threats Wednesday.
The dramatic rise of Islamic State and its ability to expand around the world presents a danger that is “considerably less predictable” than those posed by al Qaeda at the height of their power, shortly after the 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, National Counterterrorism Center chief Nick Rasmussen said.
The assessment could pose a political problem for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, coming on a day when national security issues were dominating the campaign debate and Mrs. Clinton was looking to build on her role in helping shape foreign and security policy as President Obama’s first secretary of state.
As Islamic State threatens to return to its terrorist roots in the wake of massive battlefield losses in its Syrian and Iraqi strongholds, the challenge in keeping the group from attacking the American homeland will likely fall to Mrs. Clinton or Republican rival Donald Trump.
“This will be a challenge for the incoming administration,” said Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, during the same symposium on Wednesday — an annual event hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) and the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA).
Mr. Trump said Wednesday that, if elected, he would order the Pentagon to draft a new strategy for defeating Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, within the first 30 days of his administration. But Mr. Trump has already co-opted many of the hallmarks of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy, from increased use of drones to a reliance on special operations forces, to combat Islamic State.
But the diverse and decentralized nature of Islamic State has allowed the group to carry out attacks “much more quickly and with much less warning” than previous terror groups, according to Mr. Rasmussen.
Islamic State’s dependence on so-called “lone-wolf” attackers, individuals either loosely affiliated or inspired by the group’s virulent jihadi ideology, has particularly confounded the U.S. intelligence community, he added.
While al Qaeda has planted individual operatives inside the U.S. to plan, coordinate and launch attacks, those sleeper cells still maintained “definite linkages” to the group’s chain of command that intelligence officers could exploit, according to Mr. Rasmussen. There was also a semi-identifiable “demographic profile” that would also aid counterterror missions in the U.S., he added.
The lack of such linkages, especially by lone wolf attackers who were inspired by Islamic State’s impressive online propaganda operation, has opened up “a size and scale of the [U.S.] population” susceptible to radicalization.
But as the nature of the threat has become more complicated, the evolving methods used by Islamic State for its attacks on the U.S. and Europe are also posing its own set of challenges, Mr. Leiter said.
Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda successors tried unsuccessfully — so far — to replicate the spectacular high-profile attacks of 9/11. Those type of attacks, Mr. Leiter said, took immense amounts of planning, communication, financing and coordination and came with a high risk of failure, which U.S. intelligence agencies exploited, he said.
Islamic State, he said, has shifted that paradigm. The group pursued far more basic tactics, such as last year’s mass shooting at an office party in San Bernardino, California, or the July attack in Nice, France, where an Islamic State operative used a truck to run down revelers at the seaside resort town.
Islamic State planners realized they did not need to hijack a plane or plant a truck bomb in Times Square to be effective. A heavy truck or easy access to semi-automatic weapons “is all you need” to carry out an attack, Mr. Leiter said.
On another topic, U.S. intelligence officials are struggling to get a handle on the conflict in one of the world’s most dangerous places, Yemen, where al Qaeda has taken advantage of the chaos brought on by civil war to establish a major stronghold.
U.S. military and intelligence officials are “struggling to keep up” with the group’s activities in the region, as well as the Yemeni al Qaeda offshoot’s plans to strike at targets in the West, Mr. Rasmussen said.
The U.S. official departure from Yemen in 2015 as the country descended into civil war has essentially left American intelligence agencies blind in the country, with few options to monitor al Qaeda’s activities on the ground, Mr. Rasmussen said.
Attempts to track al Qaeda’s movements in Yemen remotely via unmanned surveillance aircraft and satellites have provided at least a partial window into the group’s operations, he said, leading to several successful strikes against the Yemen cell.
American warplanes executed a recent round of airstrikes in the country beginning Aug. 24, officials from U.S. Central Command said Tuesday. Command officials claim a total of 13 al Qaeda operatives were killed during the three strikes carried out over the 11-day period in Yemen.
But high-tech surveillance is a weak substitute for having spies on the ground reporting on the Yemen group, either under the cover of the now-defunct U.S. embassy or other means of diplomatic or military protection, Mr. Rasmussen added.
In an attempt to close that gap, Pentagon leaders in June decided to extend the deployment of a small special operations team in the country, which had been deployed to back government forces battling al Qaeda in April.
The Defense Department first acknowledged the team’s deployment in May. The team reportedly gave intelligence support to Saudi and Emirati commanders to retake the coastal town of Mukalla in Hadramawt from al Qaeda, 400 miles southeast from the Yemeni capital of Sana.