Nick Rasmussen: We are witnessing the “democratization” of terrorism threat

On the seventeenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, Voice of America’s Ia Meurmishvili interviewed Nicholas (Nick) Rasmussen, senior director of the McCain Institute’s Counterterrorism Program, a national security expert with over twenty-seven years in U.S. government service. 

Ia Meurmishvili anchors Voice of America Georgian Service’s weekly show Washington Today and can be followed on Twitter @iameurmishvili or on Facebook /ia.meurmishvili.

Nick, thank you very much for the interview. Terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were life-changing, history-changing events. 17 years later, how do you think they impacted the world?

For Americans it brought the problem of terrorism to our shores for the very first time. While we had certainly suffered losses to terrorism when our embassies were attacked or when our military forces or personnel were attacked in places around the world, it never happened here inside the United States in such a dramatic way. I think it shook Americans to the core. It required a whole of government response to change the way we do business as a country. It led to a lot of significant changes inside our government. We had to change the way we defended ourselves. We had to develop a homeland security capability that we’d never built before. And all of that took many, many years and a lot of money.

Do you think we got used to being in that state, or are we still motivated to defend the homeland?

That’s a good question. I think for most of the first decade after 9/11 and up until the last few years, terrorism was very much the number one issue on the national security agenda for American governments. But if you think about it now, when you look at what we are experiencing now and all of the different national security challenges we face – China, Russia, Iran, cyber threats – terrorism is just one threat in a whole series of threats. So, to your question, I don’t think most Americans would rate terrorism as the thing they’re the most concerned about these days and I think that is probably appropriate.

Has the threat evolved? 

Threat has certainly evolved. In the period after 9/11 we were very much focused on al-Qaida and groups tied to al-Qaida, and most of those groups operated in a very traditional way. They were clandestine organizations that sought to hide what they were doing and operated in a very secret or covert or clandestine way. The onset of ISIS or the Islamic State in recent years changed the model for terrorism around the world in many ways. Some of my colleagues used to say that terrorism was now a crowdsourced phenomenon. We were not just dealing with ISIS leaders and high value targets and cells of ISIS terrorists. We were also dealing with individuals who were motivated or inspired by ISIS, but may had never even met someone from ISIS, or had never even traveled outside their own state. And now those individuals are a terrorism problem for us to.

How do you fight something like this – the cells, the individuals, all these capabilities – downloading bomb-making instructions off of the Internet?

On the one hand it’s still very much a traditional fight. The effort to go after the leadership structure of a group like ISIS in a place like Syria or Iraq. We were fighting that war very much like we would fight a war against al-Qaida in the period after 9/11: with conventional military power, with good intelligence tracking and hunting and killing, where necessary, key high value terrorist targets. But your question is a good one, because it’s a different war that we’re fighting with the individuals who are inspired by ISIS or inspired by al-Qaida, someone who just may be accessing extremist material online, maybe becoming radicalized in the online environment and not in some training camp somewhere. And that is a different challenge. It’s a different challenge for law enforcement – how do you identify that person, if they’re just sitting in front of their computer screen until it is too late? And what are the tools you want to use against that person, once you have figured out who they are – that is something – I would argue – we’ve struggled with in the United States.

If you were to summarize the state of fight on terrorism – what would that summary be?

I would say it’s complicated and filled with both good news and bad news. On the good news side, a tremendous amount has been done by the coalition operating in Syria and Iraq to shrink the size of the so-called caliphate, so that what the ISIS proclaimed a few years ago – a growing Caliphate where all ISIS supporters could come and live in and join the enterprise – it is not a reality anymore. They’ve been squeezed into smaller and smaller bits of territory in Iraq and Syria. And so that Caliphate idea, that Caliphate dream has clearly evaporated.

At the same time the bad news is that the ideology that was underpinning the caliphate has spread even further. There’s almost been a ‘democratization’ of the terrorism threat. It can be found in more places than ever before, because this ideology, this narrative that ISIS was putting forward was so easily spread online or in the social media environment. So, you don’t have to be in Iraq and Syria to participate. You can be in the United States, you can be in Japan, or you can be in Argentina and you can be in Central Europe or Central Asia, and you can feel connected to the terrorism enterprise of the caliphate.

Before 9/11 and after that, the target of the terrorists was a limited number of countries: mainly in Western Europe, as well as the U.S. of course. Today the situation is completely different. Why is that?

In some ways ISIS  and its leadership figured out something that al-Qaida never did. A terrorist group like al-Qaida could gain a lot of international attention, could gain a lot of potential publicity with large scale spectacular attacks like 9/11 or the Madrid train attacks, or the London attacks the like in the 2000s. But a terrorist group like ISIS realized, you could gain a lot of attention and motivate a lot of individuals with small scale attacks — attacking somebody with a knife, or running a vehicle up onto a sidewalk and mowing down pedestrians. Those kinds of attacks can take place anywhere. They don’t take a lot of preparation. They don’t require a terrorist cell to acquire all kinds of different resources and develop a bunch of expertise. All you have to do is literally pick up a weapon and you can become an instrument of the caliphate of ISIS. And, of course, that could just as easily happen in any capital not just in a capital of the United States or another Western country.

Do you think ISIS has exceeded their own expectations? You mention that the physical caliphate has been shrinking, but according to the Pentagon there are at least 32 thousand ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria alone?

One of the things that’s made ISIS such a difficult opponent is that their narrative seems to have an equally successful way of dealing with both success and failure. If there was success of course they could point to the success of the growing caliphate. And they could try to entice people to come join the caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

When things turned around the other direction on the battlefield, they turned it into a narrative of stubborn resistance and you know, [a message of] “only the most committed fighters should come and fight here.” And so, in a sense, they’ve been able to take defeat and turn it almost into a part of their narrative, a part of their story.

Now, I think that is still not necessarily a winning strategy in the long term, because they are going to have difficulty attracting as many individuals to join their cause as they did at their peak a few years ago. But at the same time, a lot of those fighters who you referred to are still very much on the battlefield and very much present a threat both in the region and potentially outside the region.

What is the impact of other countries fighting terrorism? What roles are the Russians and the Chinese playing in fighting against global terror?

Russia is obviously in some ways the more complicated story to tell. On the one hand you have a Russian government that speaks very out very strongly against ISIS and proclaims itself to be a partner with the United States in going after ISIS targets. If you had asked me a few years ago, whether there was potential for some real cooperation between the U.S. and Russia against ISIS, I would have probably been at least a little bit hopeful. That hope hasn’t really turned out [to be valid]. And if you had to balance that work that Russia is doing against ISIS – on the positive side of the ledger – against the negative side of the ledger, the one in which Russian support for Assad feeds the conflict and sustains the war in Syria, that I don’t think it’s a very close calculation about whether Russia is positively or negatively affecting the region.

So, if and when the war in Syria ends, will there be an advancement against ISIS in Syria?

I think it depends on what that outcome looks like. If that outcome is a Syrian state of some sort, that has the ability to control its borders and to prevent international terrorists from crossing their borders then yes, maybe that could be a positive development. On the other hand, if the outcome of the war in Syria is one, in which Sunni grievances continue to be not addressed by the government, you will continue to have a feeder pool of potential terrorists and ISIS will find that its narrative continues to be attractive. So, I’m not particularly optimistic that we will see any settlement in Syria in the near term that will help us on the terrorism front.

And how about China?

China, in some ways, brings a much simpler equation to the table with its involvement in the Middle East and also in its involvement in Africa and in other parts of the third world. China is there in support of its mercantilist objectives. China is there to establish economic influence, to gain access, to gain natural resources and to use its political influence – but in support of an economic agenda. At least that’s my opinion. I don’t worry so much about Chinese geopolitical influence in the Middle East. I do worry about their economic influence in the Middle East and in Africa and in North Africa, but less so from a geopolitical perspective.

How dangerous is the interaction between terrorist groups and organized crime?

I think it becomes almost a different story depending on where you are talking about. There are certainly parts of Europe where terrorist networks have done a good job of tapping into existing criminal networks to gain access to weapons, whether those are firearms or explosives or other weapons. Some people ask why is Europe different from the United States. Well, in Europe, in terms of the terrorism, you had a much larger extremist population and which is in many ways mingled and intermingled with these criminal networks. Thus, there was a natural symbiotic relationship between some of these criminal organizations with individuals who have a terrorist motivation.

In the United States we’ve seen it somewhat differently. I think we’ve worried about whether our southwest border – the border with Mexico – is vulnerable to terrorist crossing into the United States and whether they might use drug cartel routes or benefit from cooperation with transnational crime organizations. But we haven’t seen that as much as we thought we would.

When I left the government, we still were thinking that was more of a potential problem than an actual problem. And our analysis was that these transnational organized crime networks were making too much money and doing too well, so that they didn’t want to put at risk their business model by cooperating with terrorists and maybe bringing more attention to themselves than they really wanted. Again, somewhat of a good news…

That doesn’t mean that vulnerability on the southern border isn’t something we are still not very worried about. We wish we had a better ability to control our southern border and to prevent potential criminals and terrorists from crossing. But from the terrorism perspective it’s more of a potential problem than an actual problem.

Are the extremist groups posing a terror threat – groups like neo-Nazis, extreme lefts or rights and are we ready for them?

It’s an interesting question. When I think about terrorism inside the United States, it’s no longer a question simply of Sunni jihadist terrorism, whether it’s al-Qaida or ISIS.

When a community is worried about that kind of violence or terrorism it’s just as often tied to something like right wing extremist or some racially motivated ideological agenda.

That means when we in the government [must] work with the community to try to identify who the potential individuals of concern are. We need to be looking at those populations, not simply looking at individuals who may be tied to the extremist Islamic ideology.

Similarly, when you go to those communities. they want help in dealing with right wing extremism just as much as they want help in dealing with ISIS or Al-Qaeda.

Are our law enforcement agencies ready for these groups, considering technological advancements like the Internet and social media, which these groups can utilize? Are they capable of being effective against them considering their rights, such as freedom of speech?

It’s a good question. I’m biased, I admit that. I think our law enforcement and intelligence professionals are as good as any in the world at dealing with this problem. But at the same time, when you have an individual who is operating on his own, limited only to the thoughts within his own head and not communicating with terrorists or networking with anybody else, it’s a lot to expect of the FBI or of our police to be able to identify that individual before they’ve done something and somehow intervene. It’s a big challenge.

We talked about how the ISIS caliphate is shrinking. ISIS is also losing members, some of them are getting killed and some are returning to their homelands. Georgia is one of those counties. While the problem of returning Islamists is not big at the moment, concern is there due to proximity with North Caucasus as well as some of the regions in Georgia with history of radicalization. What should the governments in countries like Georgia be thinking about to get ahead of the problem with returning Islamists?

The only real tool in my mind that works, in terms of managing the foreign fighter return threat, is information sharing. There needs to be a willingness not only between the states of the region, but literally any state in the world that has information about citizens traveling across borders from the conflict zone in Iraq and Syria to returning to their country of origin.

They need to be willing to share that information and not just bilaterally with one or two close partners, but potentially with all of their neighbors who might be affected by that person’s travel.

While you could say it’s only a Georgian problem if a Georgian citizen is trying to move from the conflict zone out of Iraq and Syria, but that person could land in Turkey, or in a dozen other countries. I would say if there’s any silver lining in the terrorism situation over the last few years regarding ISIS, it is that the  information sharing between and among countries has expanded dramatically. Because everybody realizes that what happens in one place, could very easily spill over into their security as well.

What do you think about the reintegration programs for returned Islamist fighters to their homlands?

It’s a case-by-case situation. There are some that have proven quite effective in giving extremists or terrorists a set of incentives to bring them back into the fold of normal society. In other cases, it’s very hard to measure output. We know what they’re spending or what they’re doing, but we don’t necessarily know what kind of success rate they are having. I’m not being critical of other countries here. I think we face the same problem here at home, when some of the programs we have to counter violent extremism are very well intentioned, but it’s difficult to measure success and to know, if you’re really having a lasting impact in turning someone away from extremism.

Do you think extremism prevention programs could be successful?

Yes, I think they can be successful, but I think it almost doesn’t matter if they can be successful or not. You have an obligation to try and do this work anyway even if you have a difficult time measuring how successful you are. From my perspective, if you succeed only one time in ten in turning somebody away from terrorism, who might otherwise have killed somebody – then that is success. That doesn’t make people happy, when they’re thinking about government spending on big programs where you can’t really measure success. It makes it difficult for generating support for such programs.

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