Counterterrorism Chief Sees Gains On The Battlefield, Stubborn Threats At Home

Aug 10, 2016
Originally published on August 13, 2016 9:47 pm

Success on the battlefield against the Islamic State won't translate into an immediate reduction in the threat from attacks in the West, the top U.S. counterterrorism leader told NPR.

Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said the tactical gains the U.S. military and its partners are making in Iraq and Syria are a "necessary" part of quashing the danger it poses — but not "sufficient."

"We do need that success — but there'll be a lag in the benefits we accrue," he said.

Battles won in Iraq and Syria, fighters killed and territory recaptured don't amount to a "1 for 1" connection in eliminating the threats posed by ISIS-directed or inspired attacks in Europe or the U.S., he acknowledged.

Rasmussen, who spoke to NPR inside the counterterrorism center operations room outside Washington, is the latest top administration official to try managing expectations about how quickly the military defeat of ISIS would lead to the defeat of the ISIS terror threat.

President Obama offered a similar caution last week after a meeting with his top national security team at the Pentagon, telling reporters that even recapturing two key cities in Iraq and Syria from ISIS wouldn't diminish the immediate terror danger.

But there is some good news, officials say: Leaders of the U.S. counterterrorism apparatus are confident they can detect, disrupt or stop big, complicated attacks of the scale of Sept. 11, 2001.

And they say the government's internal process for working together — in which agencies from the Department of Agriculture to the CIA to local police and fire departments use NCTC to share information — is working as well as it ever has.

"I think we've got the mix about right. ... What we've done is create for ourselves an apparatus and an architecture that can respond to terrorism for decades, if not hundreds of years to come," Rasmussen said.

The danger from smaller-scale attacks directed or inspired by ISIS, however, may linger for a long time.

The Islamic State can be defeated both as a self-styled "caliphate" and as a terror network, Rasmussen said — but he stressed that the West can't declare victory whenever allied forces recapture Mosul, in northern Iraq, and the ISIS "capital" of Raqqa, in Syria.

Even the death or capture of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, while it would be "significant," might not create a dramatic difference, Rasmussen said. "The payoff from that ... does not come quickly."

One reason is that ISIS' ability to plan and make decisions is diffuse, and doesn't necessarily depend on any one key leader.

Another reason, Rasmussen said, is that the dangers of ISIS-era terrorism are different from the threats posed after 2001 by al-Qaida. Where al-Qaida tended to be closed, insular and cagey with outsiders, ISIS is much more willing to "reach out and grab" any fellow traveler, he said — including "lost souls" who may have no connection other than those made on social networks.

That was the case in San Bernardino, Calif., Orlando, Fla., and Nice, France. In the past, would-be terrorists might travel to Afghanistan or Syria for training and indoctrination. Their goals might include hijacking or destroying several airliners at a time.

Inside the National Counterterrorism Center operations room.
Ariel Zambelich / NPR

Today, potential attackers need only watch videos online or read extremist material to form a connection with ISIS — even if it has no connection with them.

That can happen very quickly, Rasmussen said — the time from "flash" to "bang" is now "compressed" — and it requires no special equipment. Anyone with a rifle or a truck or a machete has access to a potential terror weapon, and there may be no wiretaps, surveillance or other intelligence to help warn that an attack is coming.

Even when there are, as in the case of Orlando shooter Omar Mateen — who came to the attention of FBI investigators well before he attacked the Pulse nightclub in June — Rasmussen said he didn't believe anything could have been done differently.

There's only so much counterterrorism officials can do, he acknowledged.

"What you can't account for is what's taking place inside an individual's head," Rasmussen said.

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Morning after morning this summer, it's felt like we all woke up, rolled out of bed and learned of some new atrocity.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: A grim national record has been set in Orlando, Fla., the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: There may have been as many as three explosions in the attack on Istanbul's main airport today.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: More than 70 people are reported to have been killed - many more were hurt - in an attack in the southern French city of Nice.

INSKEEP: It was a string of harrowing days for the victims of terror attacks and a string of long days for the man who is leading U.S. counterterrorism efforts. His name is Nick Rasmussen. And this summer's events have compelled him to draw on his years of experience at the National Counterterrorism Center.

NICK RASMUSSEN: The worst day at NCTC, I think, was the day of the Boston Marathon.

INSKEEP: He means the day in 2013 when two bombs exploded near the marathon finish line.

RASMUSSEN: If you're in the counterterrorism business, your first instinct is, what went wrong? What could we have done? Even before you have any idea at all what happened, you're starting to think, where did we let something drop? You take it very personally. And so, as you're watching it unfold on one of these big screens, you're immediately thinking, let's dig in.

INSKEEP: The big screens Rasmussen mentioned are on the floor of the counterterrorism operations center. Very few people ever see that floor. Our colleague Mary Louise Kelly headed to that floor to interview Nick Rasmussen.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: We are just about to turn into what you would never know is the hub of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. It's a little grassy hill. There's a line of cars about to turn into what looks like an anonymous suburban office park here in northern Virginia - a guy mowing the lawn. But just about everybody in these cars holds a top-secret security clearance.

About a thousand people work here at the National Counterterrorism Center. It's staffed 24/7. They bring in cots when a big blizzard like Snowmageddon shuts down the roads, and everybody just sleeps here. At any given time, the big spy agencies are represented - the National Security Agency, the FBI, military intelligence, also, local law enforcement and first responders. A firefighter from LA might be working a few desks away from a CIA officer.

And just looking around, we're in a two-story operations center. Everybody's got three big monitors on their desks and big screens on the wall, which, at the moment, are showing cable news. But you could be watching - what? - live drone feeds coming in.

RASMUSSEN: Without going into too much specificity, yes, we're able to kind of monitor classified information on those screens.

KELLY: Nick Rasmussen, the man steering this enterprise, says one of his takeaways from the recent spate of attacks is the speed at which terror recruits are now being radicalized. Rasmussen calls this a shortened flash-to-bang ratio.

RASMUSSEN: The ability of ISIS to reach to individuals on the internet or in social media and quickly turn them into, not just a believer or a consumer of radical extremist material, but then someone who would actually take the next step and go to act on it, who would actually look to carry out an act of violence, an act of terrorism.

KELLY: And you're saying you see that compressed.

RASMUSSEN: And we're seeing that compressed. What may have taken months or even years previously can now take place over a matter of weeks.

KELLY: Which means fewer opportunities for counterterrorism officers to spot suspicious patterns of travel, communications, purchases. This is a lesson hard-learned after this June's attack in Orlando. I asked Rasmussen - with the benefit of hindsight, was there something you missed?

RASMUSSEN: From everything I could tell, the information we had available and the understanding we had and FBI had of the individual, Omar Mateen, led us to take - led the FBI to take all of the appropriate steps. What you can't account for - what nobody can account for is what's going on inside an individual's head.

And so, as much as I would like to find some nugget of information and say, aha, if we had just paid attention to this, somebody would've figured out what Omar Mateen had in mind, I just don't see it. I wish that I did. In some ways, it would make it easier if there was a single flaw that you could land on that would say, if we fix this, we will have closed that vulnerability.

KELLY: It speaks to the limits of counterterrorism.

RASMUSSEN: It does, and it speaks to partners in the local community to help do our work with us.

KELLY: I asked Rasmussen for a big-picture update on the campaign against ISIS or ISIL. Is the U.S. making progress?

RASMUSSEN: ISIL has certainly begun to lose territory in Iraq and Syria. And so it seems like a little bit of cognitive dissonance when, on the one hand, they're losing territory, and we're having success on the battlefield. And then, on the other hand, the group seems to be able to organize and carry out attacks in various places around the globe. So how do you explain that?

KELLY: I think it's a big disconnect...

RASMUSSEN: It is a big disconnect...

KELLY: ...For a lot of Americans trying to keep up.

RASMUSSEN: ...For a lot of Americans. But what we've observed is that there probably isn't a direct one-to-one connection between territorial control and ISIS's ability to operate as a terrorist network.

KELLY: Rasmussen admits the struggle against ISIS is likely to be long.

RASMUSSEN: It's hard for me to imagine a set of conditions that would prevail that would - that we would not have to worry about terrorism at all as a country.

KELLY: But, he argues, the changes put in place since 9/11, including this high-tech counterterrorism center where we're talking, have left the U.S. prepared.

RASMUSSEN: What we've done is create for ourselves an apparatus and an architecture that can respond to terrorism for decades, if not, you know, hundreds of years to come. I actually think that we're postured pretty well to deal with not only terrorism 1.0 and 2.0, but probably 3.0 and 4.0, as well.

KELLY: Any idea what that looks like?

Rasmussen pauses, leans back in his chair, considers that.

RASMUSSEN: We certainly have analysts here at NCTC who are charged with looking around the bend or over the horizon and thinking about what the - what terrorism looks like five years from now or 10 years from now. But I think, if anything, we've learned to have a great deal of humility about that because so much has changed even in just the last few years as we've dealt with the terrorism landscape that ISIS has presented to us.

KELLY: Today's immediate challenge - Rio. Nick Rasmussen says a team of about two dozen U.S. intelligence officers have traveled to Brazil for the Olympics. This is standard practice, both to keep officials back home in Washington informed about any possible threats and to share what the U.S. knows with the host country. This is the NCTC's mission in a nutshell - gathering thousands of threads of what can seem fleeting and contradictory information, distilling those threads, finding patterns, sharing them. So far, Rasmussen says the Brazilians have been a very good partner in this enterprise. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.