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Deputy homeland security adviser Russ Travers on terrorist threats

In this episode of “Intelligence Matters,” President Biden’s deputy homeland security adviser at the National Security Council, Russ Travers, speaks with host Michael Morell about the varied and diffuse array of terrorist threats to the United States. A career intelligence officer and former acting and deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Travers offers a history of Islamist terrorism and describes how splintered, geographically dispersed networks tied to ISIS and al Qaeda continue to pose a threat to the U.S.. Travers and Morell also discuss the increase in racially and ethnically motivated attacks by domestic groups, and why preventing them poses a complex set of challenges for U.S. law enforcement and intelligence communities. Travers also shares thoughts on how to responsibly move resources away from counterterrorism toward Great Power competition. Editor’s note: This conversation was taped before a decision was made by the Biden Administration on troop levels in Afghanistan.

HIGHLIGHTS

Rise of domestic violent extremism: “[U]nfortunately, the broad view of the community is that it’s likely to get worse. I think there’s the general concern that biases against minorities and perceived government overreach is going to continue to drive domestic extremism, radicalization and eventually the mobilization of violence. And then we’ve got all the kind of newer sociopolitical developments, the narrative surrounding election fraud and the breach of the Capitol, conditions related to COVID and various conspiracy theories that promote violence. Almost certainly they’re going to make matters worse.”

Evolving threat from Islamist terrorism: “Several years ago, we started referring to the threat as diverse and diffuse. I think that is a completely accurate characterization, has been really now for a number of years. And it does mean that we’ve got a very broad but very different threat landscape than we had 20 years ago.”

Shifting resources from counterterrorism: “We are going to move collection resources away from CT [counterterrorism] to support other national security threats. I think that’s perfectly appropriate. But I also think that we need to have a very candid conversation about risk.  And invariably, if we know less about a problem, we are accepting some additional degree of risk. And it just needs to be done with open eyes, as it’s a difficult proposition in terms of comparing and contrasting the risk posed by Country X or Y or function X or Y against terrorism. But that’s the kind of work that I think that we’re going to have to do to ensure that – the prime directive for me is that we don’t go back to some of the maladies that affected us before 9/11.” 

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – RUSS TRAVERS

PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS

MICHAEL MORELL: Russ, welcome, welcome again to our show, it’s great to have you back on Intelligence Matters.

RUSS TRAVERS: Michael, it’s great to be with you again. 

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Russ, the last time you were on the show, you were serving as the deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Now you’re at the White House serving as President Biden’s Deputy Homeland Security Advisor. We’re going to spend most of our time talking about terrorism. But your remit in your new job is larger than just terrorism. And I just wanted to ask you, for the sake of people who don’t understand how broad that remit is, is to ask you what does your job, your new job cover? What are the issues that it covers?

RUSS TRAVERS: So Dr. Liz Sherwood-Randall is the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security. She’s also a Deputy National Security Advisor. And I am her deputy. As you say, the notion of a homeland security account could seem somewhat narrow. It’s actually a very broad account. I think that’s partly just a reflection of an interconnected world. Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor, also says that foreign policy is domestic policy and domestic policy is foreign policy. And that’s sort of symptomatic of the homeland security account.
We’ve got probably about a half dozen major muscle movements. We reestablished the pandemic office under the Bush administration; that’s to ensure that the government is really planning for the future so that we’re better prepared next time around. That office also has a role in current COVID activities under the auspices of the overall Task Force, and they work the full range of biosecurity and biodefense initiatives.

The second major directorate is response and resilience. The response side works with FEMA, hurricanes, floods and so forth. Resilience has a longer time horizon. Last year we had, I think, the the highest number of billion-dollar climate disasters in history. And so as we gear up for long-term climate change initiatives, we need to ensure that the current infrastructure is up to the task. And so there’s a great deal of work along those lines.
We’ve got border security in its broadest sense, so that we work with other parts of the White House and the government on southern border issues. We do asylee and refugee policy, meaning that they comport with our values. We work Arctic issues with other regional components of the NSC, and we’ve got the watch list in screening and vetting architecture that has to handle something like two million people a day – probably the most complicated issue that I’ve worked in my career.

We share responsibility for a new office that’s focused on democratization and human rights. Among other things, they work things like malign influence and so forth. And then we’ve got officers to deal with the more traditional homeland accounts. So transnational organized crime kills far more Americans than terrorism ever will. We stood up a domestic violent extremism office because that simply wasn’t getting enough attention. And then, as you say, the account the probably people are most familiar with, which is the international terrorism account, and that’s been a mainstay since 9/11.

I guess the key point I would make to all of these is that our role is really to keep bad things from happening, demonstrating competence along the way, I hope. It’s not geopolitical chess. It’s really a great deal of blocking and tackling, how to ensure that the government works together in the best interests of the American public.

MICHAEL MORELL: That’s a lot of stuff. So, Russ, we are coming up on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 in just a few months. And I’d love for you to take a moment to reflect on that a bit and tell us what comes to mind when you think about the 20th anniversary.

RUSS TRAVERS: Yeah, we are just under five months away. Twenty years ago, the plot was really well underway. There had been that infamous meeting in Kuala Lumpur. By now, the hijackers were in the country. They had their visas. They’ve been through the flight training. And so we were in the closing months before the attack.

Reflections for me – this is almost a generation ago. Between Americans that were not yet born or those that were too young to remember, 9/11 has got no context. And for almost a third of our population and for people like you and me, it’s amongst the most traumatic experiences, I think, of our lives. It worries me a bit that memories are fading.

In my case, I was posted overseas at the time I got called home. And so I was flying back and forth across the Atlantic before taking a new job. With my family home, I actually wrote good-bye letters to my kids because we, just as a country, we didn’t know what was coming or how bad this was going to be.

If you had told me then that we could fast forward 20 years without having seen another attack on the scale of 9/11, I think I would have taken that in a heartbeat. The key point, though, is that success didn’t just happen. There was a lot of plotting that got stopped. In my opinion, the counterterrorism architecture is the single best example we’ve got of whole-of-government, and we saw a consensus that developed across the Republican and Democratic administrations that we had to do a series of things. We had to carry the fight overseas. We had to push borders out. We had to defend the homeland. We had to share information and work with partners and all that, all that really important kind of activity.

And that consensus lasted for really a decade and a half. I started to get a little worried towards the end of the latter part of the last administration, because we were hearing things like ‘ISIS is defeated’ or ‘We just need to kill a few more people and al-Qaida will be gone,’ or on the other extreme, that maybe terrorism was worse then than it was before 9/11. None of those, in my view, were correct. I’m certainly someplace in the middle. But I guess I hope that over the next four or five months, there will be a lot of commentary, a lot of looks back at what we did right, what we did wrong. We need to think about our risk equation, I think going forward, as these are really important issues.

MICHAEL MORELL: Russ, perhaps this is a good place to to transition to the current threat itself. How has the Islamist threat changed over the years? And and where are we today?

RUSS TRAVERS: Well, 20 years ago, we were looking primarily at a threat that emanated from a little piece of real estate along the Afghan border. And after the attacks, we took a great deal of operational pressure directed against the al-Qaida leadership, forcing them to to modify posture tactics. Frankly, they made a bit of a virtue out of necessity, opting for a bit of a franchise model that would develop really over years, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb of North Africa or al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, what would eventually become Shabab in East Africa and al-Qaida in Iraq.

Generally, each one of these franchises were led by people who was close to bin Laden in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida in Iraq in particular would split from AQ, become ISIS and eventually declare a caliphate in 2014. They held that for five years until the massive global coalition led by the United States eliminated the caliphate.

It was during that time that ISIS also created branches and networks really around the globe, Far East Africa, Middle East, quite small, often built around pre-existing insurgencies. And at the same time, we had the phenomena of homegrown violent extremism, so lone actors in the United States that would radicalize largely on the Internet and conduct attacks.

So you’ve got this entire array: You got centrally directed attacks, you’ve got enabled attacks, you’ve got inspired attacks, all of which we needed to deal with. And then you had kind of second- and third-order issues that complicated the problem, we would see prison radicalization or we saw foreign fighters that would flock to the caliphate and then disperse around the globe.

Right now, we’ve got a massive displacement camp in northeast Syria, something called al-Hawl, which is a kind of a breeding ground for future radicalization. And then we’ve got Hezbollah and all the Shia militia groups in Iraq. So really, several years ago, we started referring to the threat as diverse and diffuse. I think that is a completely accurate characterization, has been really now for a number of years. And it does mean that we’ve got a very broad but very different threat landscape than we had 20 years ago.

MICHAEL MORELL: Is the homeland safe today from the Islamist threat?

RUSS TRAVERS: To answer that, I think you need to hang on to a couple of competing narratives because there is a tremendous amount of good news as a result of that consensus I talked about: the caliphate was destroyed. Hundreds of al-Qaida and ISIS leaders and plotters were eliminated. We degraded a great deal of the propaganda infrastructure. We’ve cut into funding and we’re doing all the smart things: sharing information, working with partners. So there’s been lots of success. And I think that’s been manifested in the fact that we haven’t seen an attack against the homeland in a long time. And we have to go back to Paris and Brussels to see any major attacks in Europe.

On the other hand, there is some news it isn’t quite so good. All those al-Qaida and ISIS branches and networks do still exist. Last month alone, we had in excess of 100 al-Qaida attacks in the Middle East and Africa, and ISIS over 200 attacks in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa, the Middle East. And we see coordination between and amongst these branches and affiliates. So they are both playing a bit of a long game here and they are both enabled by the downside of globalization. So, things like encrypted communications, that makes it really hard for us to understand what’s going on. The change UAV use, over the last five or six years, from low level surveillance to being able to weaponize them. Increasing counterfeit passports and ID cards – so they are innovative users of technology. And that’s a challenge for us.

And so for me, when I think about the risk calculus, I tend to look at things in three levels beyond core ISIS, core al-Qaida. You’ve got local insurgencies. They’ve been around forever. They are primarily focused on local conditions, not an immediate threat to our interests. The next step up is when these insurgencies – there’s ISIS emissary outreach and they further radicalize them such that we may see threats to U.S. and allied interests. So maybe kidnapping of U.S. persons or threatening of embassies or threatening of private sector interests, which is exactly what we saw a couple of weeks ago with ISIS in Mozambique. This was a low-level insurgency, but they were able to mount a multi-prong attack against the of Palma, took it over for a while and their actions over the last really year, but going back several years has adversely impacted on tens of billions of dollars of liquefied natural gas investments off the coast of Mozambique.

And then there’s a third level, which is these radicalized insurgent efforts that wrap the ISIS flag around themselves when they can reach out and touch the United States. Being able to assess where we are on that spectrum is a challenge for us, and we we haven’t always done it right. In 2009, we thought of AQAP as being largely a regional threat, and yet it was able to – Umar Farouk was able to get on Northwest Flight 253 and try to blow up his underwear over Detroit on Christmas Day. The following year, Faisal Shahzad tries to blow a car up in Times Square. He was trained by the Pakistani Taliban, also thought of as a regional actor. And more recently, we have a Shabab operative, Cholo Abdi Abdullah, to flight training in the Philippines. We don’t know what the target was, but according to the indictment, he was researching U.S. visas in tall buildings in the United States. This was somebody on nobody’s radar. And so it highlights just how challenging it is to be an intelligence analyst. We were focused on this very diverse, very diffuse threat. That’s people and networks, hard to detect, enabled by the downsides of globalisation.

MICHAEL MORELL: A couple more questions about the Islamist threat before we move to the domestic threat here at home. Not only are we coming up on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, but we’re also coming up on the 10th anniversary of the operation to bring Osama bin Laden to justice. And I’m wondering, I know this is not an easy question, but I’m wondering what you think bin Laden, if he were still alive, might think about what he started so many years ago. How would he feel about the movement, do you think?

RUSS TRAVERS: Well, to the extent that these guys have all taken the long view, his perspective 20 years ago was that of a small piece of real estate in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Afghanistan. And now we see an ISIS that is in 20-odd locations around the globe. All of the al-Qaida affiliates that were started are still there. I think he probably would like to have seen a closer relationship between ISIS and al-Qaida in many places around the globe. They are in conflict with one another. But I have to believe that the the trend for him, albeit with some setbacks, to be sure, has been in the right direction.

MICHAEL MORELL: Russ, let’s shift the conversation to talk about domestic terrorism. It’s come to the fore over the last few years and was certainly punctuated by January 6th. The IC just released an assessment that warned, quote, of an “elevated threat” from domestic violent extremism. Can you kind of paint the landscape on domestic terrorism for us? What is this all about? How do you think about it?

RUSS TRAVERS: Sure, remember, terrorism is by definition politically motivated violence directed against noncombatants. The bureau has a sort of a broad array of the way they talk about domestic politically motivated violence. The biggest category is probably what they would refer to as racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, what they refer to as RMVE. There’s also a host of anti-government, anti-authority violent extremists. So these would be militias and anarchists and so forth. We’ve had animal rights, environmental violent extremism, for a long time, as we have had abortion-related violent extremists as well.

If you looked at a Venn diagram, you would see some overlap between and amongst many of these. And the phenomena has been around forever. It ebbs and flows depending on societal conditions. At the time, there was a so-called left wing extremist violence in the 60s and 70s. We would see a half dozen pipe bombs a day blowing up – and you and I were in middle school – partially related to Vietnam, to be sure. And there still is some left wing violence, as President Biden said, completely unacceptable.

But by any objective standard, the the vast majority of attacks that we’ve seen over the last four years has fallen into really two categories, either what the bureau calls racially/ethnically motivated extremism, principally white supremacist, or, in the past year, it’s been more militia violence. What we’ve primarily seen – again, not new; long, sordid history; white supremacy violence was worse in the 20s than it is now – but it was really Charlottesville that brought it front and center a few years ago.

Your audience will have heard President Biden talk about this and the impact it had on him. In my case, my two kids attended UVA, one just starting and one just finishing when the Unite the Right protests and violence occurred on Charlottesville. And that was really a wake up call for a lot of people. It increased in 2018, and 2019 was the worst year for this form of violence since Oklahoma City. 2020 was more militia-oriented, the alleged plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan, and then we, of course, saw all the violence associated with the breach of the Capitol on January 6.

And as you say, unfortunately, the broad view of the community is that it’s likely to get worse. I think there’s the general concern that biases against minorities and perceived government overreach is going to continue to drive domestic extremism, radicalization and eventually the mobilization of violence. And then we’ve got all the kind of newer sociopolitical developments, the narrative surrounding election fraud and the breach of the Capitol, conditions related to COVID and various conspiracy theories that promote violence. Almost certainly they’re going to make matters worse.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Russ, we we seem to be having difficulty – struggling a bit, I would say, coming to grips with how to address this threat. Why is that? What is it about this threat that makes it so challenging?

RUSS TRAVERS: It is a pretty complex phenomenon, and the very nature of the threat is it’s different in that it’s not as much group-oriented as is the case with ISIS and al-Qaida. The phrase ‘leaderless resistance’ is used. And that harkens back to 1960S anti-communist doctrine, it was a phrase that was picked up by a KKK guy as a strategy for white nationalists to fight against the government. There’s actually an analogue in Islamist terrorism. It’s kind of the leaderless jihad thing, homegrown violent extremism.

But it’s a simple fact that most of all of the mass casualty attacks over the last several years have been conducted by individuals with no affiliation to any group or movement. And the movement itself is really amorphous. There’s not a lot of structureD hierarchy. Some of these groups only exist on the Internet. They come and go. They will disappear and reappear under a different name. Frankly, the the leaders don’t like one another very much. So you see lots of squabbling and fracturing and they don’t have a coherent ideology. That’s what we see.

In the case of the Boogaloo movement, for instance, there’s another complexity in that the legal framework is very different. And there is no domestic terrorism statute. There’s a definition, but there’s no federal charge – though there are state charges that can be brought. And so as a result, there’s no mechanism for designations of ‘groups,’ quote unquote, in the United States. And even designations of overseas analogues of domestic terrorism groups as foreign terrorist organizations is really challenging because of the legal regime.

And that gets really to the third complexity, I think, which is, I think, we would all agree that ideally we want to prevent domestic extremist violence before it happens. Law enforcement does a fabulous job of investigating violence after the fact, but the question is, can you get kind of left of boom? And now it gets really challenging, because first and foremost, we absolutely need to operate within the constraints of constitutionally protected speech. Probably implies that we need to have a closer partnership with the social media companies because they have to be part of the answer. They’ve done a much better job, I think, working with the government on Islamist terrorism over the last few years. In part, that was easier because ISIS and Al are designated foreign terrorist organizations.

But it gets harder with domestic violence. Extremism gets questions of, kind of, terms of service. At what point does abhorrent conspiracy-laden speech get pulled down? Because we know Americans are being influenced by this stuff. So the question, I think, is how do we get our arms around an effective prevention program? We’re getting increasingly confident with the research that shows that a substantial majority of the attacks, somebody knew something. Research would tell us that 60 or 70 percent of homegrown violent extremist attacks, somebody had relevant information, might be a relative, a friend, like a soccer coach, but somebody knew. So that would suggest there’s a role for call centers here.

We do have DHS grant programs that are focused on targeted violence and terrorism prevention. At the same time, there is a campaign promise to ensure that we look hard at what works and what doesn’t work and that the programs are being executed in accordance with values. So we need to do all that.

But I think the key point for me, I think, is that these programs can work. I mean, we’ve got just last week, the Secret Service put out a report not about ideologically motivated violence, but about school shootings. And their conclusion was, looking back over 50 years, I think, that vigilant community members stopped something like 67 school shootings because they saw something of concern and then reported it. So the real key here is building of trust between community and law enforcement.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Russ, the IC assessment that I referenced earlier said that a small number of domestic extremists have traveled abroad to, quote, ‘network with like-minded individuals,’ unquote. And we know from other media reports about communications between some domestic extremists here and folks overseas. So what what can you tell us about the international dimension of this problem and how much we should worry about that?

RUSS TRAVERS: And that adds really an additional layer of complexity to this problem, but we talk about domestic violent extremism or some domestic terrorism, but aspects of this really are – it’s almost a variant of international terrorism. And in particular, one segment of the racially and ethnically motivated violent extremist category is there’s something of a global movement going on here amongst those who are kind of convinced of the superiority of the white race. It’s not just the United States.

We see many of the same demographic issues, societal pressures you will hear sometimes reference to, quote unquote, a ‘Great Replacement’ theory. And that’s a French book that came out a decade ago, very dystopian, xenophobic view of the of the white race and the pressure that it’s under. And we’ve seen violence conducted with this justification of sufficient concern that many of our partners in Europe, in Australia, New Zealand, have put right wing violence or terrorism on a par with Islamist terrorism.

We’ve seen attacks in the U.K., in Germany, killing politicians who took pro-immigration stances, obviously the mass killings at the mosque in Christchurch a couple of years ago and many others. And the linkage, as you talk about those, there’s a lot of transnational influence, to be sure. Manifestos and demonstrations of influence will often trace back to Anders Breivik, who conducted the attack in Norway ten years ago. The Norwegian, along with an American and a Canadian, then influenced Brenton Tarrant, who conducted the Christchurch attack.
Tarrant, in turn, influenced a bunch of American attacks, as well as that by a German, and influenced a Singaporean kid who wanted to conduct another Christchurch-like attack but was pre-empted. So there’s a tremendous amount of cross-pollination between and amongst these individuals and those manifestos share tactics, techniques, procedures.

Beyond that, as you suggest, there’s some limited interaction. After the fact was determined that the Tarrant had both been in contact with and provided money to Identitarians in Europe. We have seen individuals in the United States being encouraged to conduct an attack by an overseas sort of quasi-group. We’ve seen some travel abroad for training. We’ve seen some cross-border outreach. But in general, it’s mostly this notion of leaderless resistance, which is a massive challenge for the intelligence and law enforcement community.

I thought New Zealand did a really good job looking at the the full array of issues after Christchurch. They put up like a 900-page document that acknowledged mistakes, to be sure, but basically concluded at the end of the day they couldn’t have prevented the attack. And so that’s pretty challenging for those of us in the law enforcement and intelligence community. As maybe the last couple international issues in Europe in particular, we’re seeing some very blurry distinctions between extremist groups and political parties, and that poses a challenge. And we’re also seeing the presence of violent extremists in the police and the military. The Germans in particular, have been investigating many hundreds of military police for extremism in their ranks, even forcing them to eliminate some units in the military. And obviously, Secretary Austin is taking that on as a major issue within the Defense Department.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Russ, you mentioned that some countries are putting this new kind of domestic extremism on the same level, the same par as Islamic terrorism. Do you?

RUSS TRAVERS: Well, I think in terms of just cases, the last time I testified with Chris Wray was probably 18 months ago or so, he talked about roughly equivalent, I think, 850 domestic terrorism cases at the time, roughly a thousand homegrown violent extremism cases at the time.

When he testified a couple of months ago, he said that domestic terrorism investigations were now, I think, at 2,000. So it is a substantially increased concern. And whether you put one above the other, they are both of significant concern to the entire counterterrorism community.

MICHAEL MORELL: Russ, you and I have talked a lot about the resources dedicated to terrorism, and obviously, you know this better than anyone, the tremendous amount of resources that have been expended over the last 20 years on the Islamist threat. Yet at the same time, right, today, we have so many needs, right? From recovering from COVID to revitalizing our economy to dealing with the Russians to China’s rise to the domestic terrorist threat. So how do you think about resource allocation in the terrorism world? How do you think about that?

RUSS TRAVERS: I think it’s going to be one of the key national security questions for the next four or five years. I was actually supportive when the former Secretary Mattis, basically, when he put out his military strategy in the beginning of 2018, said that we need to elevate great powers and Iran and North Korea relative to terrorism. We, up to that point, terrorism had been unequivocally number one. And we built a huge architecture, a huge enterprise that did extraordinary work, I think.

So now we have a far more complicated global national security environment. And terrorism has been paying bills now for for several years. We just need to ensure that we do this rationally. And the kind of lessons learned from CT, how do we ensure that we maintain an integrated national security posture that is almost certainly going to get smaller. We are going to move collection resources away from CT to support other national security threats. I think that’s perfectly appropriate. But I also think that we need to have a very candid conversation about risk.

And invariably, if we know less about a problem, we are accepting some additional degree of risk. And it just needs to be done with open eyes, as it’s a difficult proposition in terms of comparing and contrasting the risk posed by Country X or Y or function X or Y against terrorism. But that’s the kind of work that I think that we’re going to have to do to ensure that – the prime directive for me is that we don’t go back to some of the maladies that affected us before 9/11.

MICHAEL MORELL: Russ, we’re running out of time. And I’d like to ask you one more question, and I’d love to flip back to the Islamist threat for a moment. This all started in Afghanistan, as you know. And so I’m just wondering – and I’m not asking you to forecast policy here at all, but I’m just wondering, what’s your view of what happens to al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan in a world in which the coalition is no longer in Afghanistan? How do you think about that?

RUSS TRAVERS: Well, the premise assumes that a decision has been made; it hasn’t. The, I think everyone agrees, that a negotiated agreement, political agreement is the only way that Afghanistan is brought to a successful conclusion. I think the president has said that it would obviously be very difficult for us to depart by 1 May, but that he doesn’t envision forces on the ground in the next year.

However that plays out, there is, as you suggest, a small al-Qaida and kind of a diffuse ISIS force in Afghanistan. And the the sort of prime directive for our community will be to ensure that Afghanistan itself doesn’t become a launching pad for attacks against the United States going forward.

MICHAEL MORELL: And you guys are focused on making sure that that doesn’t happen.

RUSS TRAVERS: That’s what we do.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. Russ, thank you. Thank you very much for joining us. It has been it’s been an honor to have you back on the show. And it’s great to talk to you again.

RUSS TRAVERS: Thanks very much, Michael. It was a pleasure to be with you. 

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