A panel of counterterrorism experts told lawmakers on Tuesday of a growing threat of domestic terrorism that appears to be coming over the Internet from overseas affiliates of ISIS, al-Qaida and other jihadist groups.
Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the panel that ISIS has developed a system for “remote-controlling” attacks in the West, which relies on digital operatives who connect with aspiring jihadists via social media applications. ISIS, he said, has had more success with these types of small-scale operations in Europe but the FBI has uncovered a string of plots inside the United States involving these same virtual planners.
“It’s a whole new ballgame, in terms of counterterrorism,” said Edward Davis, the Boston Police Commissioner during the Boston Marathon bombing who now runs his own consulting firm.
Davis, who was testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee’s Counterterrorism and Intelligence Subcommittee, cited a growing threat from U.S.-based individuals who are being controlled by handlers in remote places, like Syria or Iraq. He urged law enforcement agencies to shut down websites and online magazines that successfully recruit these would-be terrorists.
“We need to pay more attention to the radicalization of our people over the Internet,” Davis said.
“Individual terrorists are often described as “lone wolves,” but that term is misleading,” Joscelyn added. “If a person is acting in the name of a global, ideological cause, then he or she cannot be considered a “lone wolf,” even if the individual in question has zero contact with others.”
U.S. Rep. Peter King, (R-NY), the chairman of the panel, said he worries that “hundreds of Americans have been radicalized” and pose a potential threat for domestic terrorism. Those threats are being compounded by continuing victories on the ground by U.S. and allied forces, creating a new “terrorism diaspora,” King added.
Several of the experts told the subcommittee they believe the Trump administration’s travel ban on individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries is misguided and will do little to deter terrorism in the United States.
Peter Bergen, a well-known author on terrorism and a director at New America, a think tank, noted that terrorist incidents that killed 94 Americans since Sept. 11 were all carried out by American citizens. He called the proposed labelling of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization “a bad idea.” He said “tens of millions of people” including top officials in numerous Middle East countries consider themselves members of the Muslim Brotherhood, “a tiny minority of which turn out to be terrorists.”
U.S. Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) questioned Bergen, saying the Trump administration’s proposed prohibition on travelers does not constitute a “ban,” but should more accurately be called a “reset” or a “time-out,” during which U.S. authorities could better determine how to deal with travelers from high-risk countries. “The U.S. needs to be vigilant against individuals and organizations that advocate for our downfall,” Perry said.
Bergen cited another new threat to U.S. entities both domestically and overseas: the development of drone capabilities. Both Hezbollah and ISIS groups have already showed their ability to deploy drones, he said, questioning whether U.S. embassies are prepared to defend against air attacks by drones.
U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY), the senior Democrat on the panel, said she is concerned about growing threats to Jewish community centers and urged the FBI to investigate “a recent wave of bomb threats” to Jewish institutions.
Bergen made several recommendations towards combatting domestic terrorist threats. His first priority would be reinstating the ban on ownership of semiautomatic weapons, which were used in the attacks at Fort Hood, Texas, and San Bernardino, California. But King has opposed this in the past, as have House Republican leaders.
Bergen also urged antiterrorism agencies to enlist the help of the U.S. Muslim community, who, he said, would be most knowledgeable of potential attacks by peers; and to target ISIS and other groups with anti-terror propaganda.
Also testifying Tuesday was Robin Simcox, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.