A Conversation with Nicholas RasmussenThe Department of Homeland Security Counterterrorism Coordinator
In its most recent National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) assessed that the United States remains in a heightened threat environment. Lone offenders and small groups motivated by a range of ideological beliefs and/or personal grievances continue to pose a persistent and lethal threat to the Homeland. At the same time, domestic actors and foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) continue to maintain a visible presence online in attempts to motivate supporters to conduct attacks in the Homeland. To discuss the current threat landscape in America and the DHS response The Program on Extremism at The George Washington University and The National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education (NCITE) Center, a DHS Center of Excellence, jointly hosted a discussion with DHS Counterterrorism Coordinator Nicholas Rasmussen.
Rasmussen opened the conversation with his assessment of the overall threat environment as being more fractured, more complex, and more dynamic than at any other point in history. He identified some success in U.S. counterterrorism efforts, including the suppressive effect on groups like the Islamic State (IS) or Al-Qaeda (AQ) that has made it, “almost inconceivable” that an FTO could perpetrate an attack at the size or scale of 9/11 on the homeland. Importantly, this suppressive effect is not permanent, as there has been no significant change in the pool of motivated, ideologically-driven individuals globally. Domestically, the threat landscape has expanded in size and lethality in recent years. Domestic violent extremism (DVE) is increasingly occupying more of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) resources, and the diversity of extremist ideologies is at an all-time high. Currently, the threat of DVE affects every part of the country, which Rasmussen noted is distinct from the post-9/11 period where threat concerns were primarily concentrated in suburban and urban settings.
He then contextualized counterterrorism efforts within the broader national security landscape. Great power competition has become the top national security concern which has resulted in less time and resources devoted to counterterrorism efforts. As a result of less forward-deployed resources and broader government attention, the counterterrorism strategy must prioritize risk mitigation and risk management. This shift encapsulates three central ideas:
- Intelligence: The U.S. needs appropriate intelligence resources to identify indicators and warnings of situations that may produce vulnerabilities for individual radicalization.
- Collaboration: The U.S. needs to engage in capacity-building efforts with international partners to effectively respond to the current threat environment.
- Borders: The U.S. needs to rely on border security as a last line of defense for denying entry to individuals who may pose a security risk.
Ultimately, Rasmussen emphasized that current counterterrorism efforts are about managing risk with fewer tools and less margin for error.
His opening remarks concluded with reflections on the hard-learned lessons of U.S. prevention efforts. Specifically, the need to avoid securitizing prevention efforts which create “us vs them” dynamics and impede progress. DHS has adapted its efforts and focused on approaching vulnerable communities in the spirit of partnership by offering to help develop protective factors and not focusing exclusively on vulnerabilities. This reflects a more public-health-minded approach and helps to eliminate communication barriers. Rasmussen expressed hope that the current prevention efforts are headed in the right direction. The inflow of talent, diversity, and expertise into the DHS workforce, and the expanded range of nongovernmental partners in counterterrorism efforts are key features in this continued success. The most pressing challenge is about scaling these efforts to match the scope and complexity of the current threat environment.
Moving into the moderated discussion, Rasmussen spoke about the recent report that found an unprecedented number of antisemitic incidents in 2022. He noted that antisemitism is a common theme across a broad spectrum of ideologies and represents a form of hate-fueled extremism. To address this challenge, the White House has created an antisemitism task force with the goal of developing resources to combat antisemitism and other forms of hate-fueled extremism. This sparked a conversation on DHS’s ability to confront the challenge of cross-pollination and “salad bar ideologies”. Rasmussen expressed there is still a need for analysts who are experts in a single extremist entity, but emphasized that their expertise and analysis could not remain siloed. Rasmussen then turned to the transnational nature of DVE highlighted in the recent Senate Hearing on Worldwide Threats. He is particularly worried about the sharing of tactics, expertise, and suggestions from abroad that may impact the actions of individuals in the U.S. This transnational phenomenon is less organizationally defined than the networks of groups like al-Qaeda that marked the post-9/11 period, but reinforces the need for increased cooperation with foreign partners.
Next, Rasmussen addressed the tools and programs DHS is leveraging in furtherance of its counterterrorism efforts. DHS recently launched the Prevention Resource Finder (PRF) website to aggregate information across seventeen agencies related to prevention programming efforts and to generate feedback on what resources are still needed by community organizations. Rasmussen acknowledged that this information has not always been easily accessible to the public, and the new site aims to fill this gap. Furthermore, he noted that many individuals who perpetrate targeted violence follow the same pathways as other extremists. This means that these same prevention resources could be utilized to identify and redirect individuals on a pathway to targeted violence. In other words, he viewed targeted violence as a “different flavor of the same problem,” and a threat that could be addressed using the same toolbox. Another resource is the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) designed to inform the public about the current threat picture. According to Rasmussen, this bulletin must be used strategically to highlight changing dynamics, such as acute threats of violence surrounding the 2022 mid-term elections. In terms of the National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, the implementation is ongoing, but “below the waterline.” Agencies are attempting to fulfill the strategy’s objectives, but he said it is too early to measure their effectiveness.
To conclude, Rasmussen said that his biggest concern for the future terrorism landscape is the failure of our own imagination. In the post-9/11 period, the U.S. held a technological advantage over adversaries, but he worries this may no longer be the case. Emerging technologies play a crucial role in improving U.S. counterterrorism efforts, but he emphasized that we cannot be short-sighted in how these same technologies could be exploited against us.