Twenty years ago this month, a new counterterrorism intelligence center was established to protect Americans from foreign terrorists, with powers and legal authorities to suit. But the threat has changed, and Congress must now reconfigure the National Counterterrorism Center to centralize and analyze information pertaining to domestic terrorists as well.
While the NCTC—launched in 2004 as the Terrorist Threat Integration Center—was formed to deal with an existing terrorist organization (al Qaeda) championed by an identifiable leader (Osama bin Laden), today’s threat is as much domestic as it also remains foreign; and comes not from an organization but from a leaderless, digitally connected network of likeminded racists, hatemongers, misogynists, and xenophobes spurred to violence by self-perpetuating online echo chambers peddling malignant, exclusionist ideologies and conspiracy theories. A far less pronounced, but nonetheless concerning, development is the accompanying danger of violent extremism from the far-left, which produced the 2017 attack on Republican congressmen and others training for the annual bipartisan charity baseball game, and may be rising in a post-Dobbs world.
Recent administrations have noted the changing threat. The Trump administration’s 2018 National Counterterrorism Strategy was the first to warn about domestic far-right and far-left extremists and issue-specific militants. The Biden administration then laid out a plan to meet the threats in 2021’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, an ambitious document that calls for more data, information-sharing, and efforts to combat root causes behind radicalization and violence.
Yet the government agency responsible for the analysis and synthesis of terrorist threats and implementation of coordinated counterterrorism strategic operations is legally barred from taking meaningful action to counter the growing threat of domestic terrorism. A February report by the Government Accountability Office notes that NCTC “is the primary organization responsible for “analyzing and integrating” all national intelligence related to terrorism and counterterrorism, except for intelligence that pertains exclusively to domestic terrorism. Instead, the NCTC passes on domestic investigations to the FBI to take the lead. Although NCTC participates in a Joint Analytic Cell on domestic terrorism alongside the FBI and DHS, a recent unclassified Strategic Intelligence Assessment and Data on Domestic Terrorism reported that “NCTC does not have analysts focused exclusively on domestic violent extremism threats.” Shockingly, even DHS has just 10.
A central counterterrorism clearinghouse with powerful strategic analytical capabilities is arguably more important today than in those chaotic years after 9/11. In a social-media era defined by rising domestic threats, modern terrorism has grown more diffuse, characterized by blurring ideologies, perpetrators motivated by personal grievances, extremist networks that transcend borders, and few limitations on terrorists’ access to weapons.
The January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol provides one example of how such challenges manifest. Although the FBI has performed admirably in responding to the attack, with the Department of Justice having arrested nearly 1,000 people, it failed completely to heed the voluminous intelligence warning of a threat, coordinate and surge resources with partners, and prevent the incident.
In the face of such a monumental challenge, the importance of an all-source intelligence analysis center with a “big picture” capability to identify both existing and emergent domestic terrorist threat patterns is more urgent than ever. Only in this way can the expeditious sharing of intelligence and data be assured among federal, state, local, and tribal authorities so that all are able to respond effectively. Indeed, the January 6 committee’s chief investigative counsel later reflected that both the FBI and DHS had failed to warn their counterparts and the public about the threat.
Additionally, the NCTC’s strategic orientation is needed to complement the FBI’s intense focus on investigating attacks and reducing threats. Endowing the center with a domestic counterterrorism mandate would provide important long-term intelligence analysis that would enable authorities to better anticipate, predict and respond to emerging, over-the-horizon terrorist threats both domestically as well as internationally. Moreover, a higher-level view would improve our ability to assess and respond to longer-term trends in domestic terrorism—such as rising numbers of juveniles involved in domestic extremist movements or the increasing targeting of political leaders and election workers.
Perhaps most important, though, is NCTC’s unique structure compared to other counterterrorism agencies. The center is largely made up of detailees from 20 other agencies in the intelligence community and beyond, compiling a professional intelligence force that is far more insulated from changing political winds than an FBI that resides under an appointed Attorney General. Collaboration between these analysts of differing expertise will improve the community’s ability to solve complex counterterrorism problems—such as January 6.
Although the NCTC has in the past taken incremental steps to increase its domestic terrorism work, an expansion is urgently required. Broadening the NCTC’s mission to include domestic terrorism will require bold executive leadership and congressional action. Valid concerns over domestic monitoring and surveillance by an arm of the intelligence community, which were behind the limits originally placed on NCTC operations, should be aired and debated given this new, more dangerous environment, where terrorism perpetrated by Americans against their fellow citizens claims more lives than that by foreign terrorists. Close legislative oversight and strictly drawn guidelines should be embraced and enacted, rather than peremptorily dismissed. NCTC’s 20 years of experience in collating information on U.S. citizens drawn to foreign extremist ideologies and adhering to legal protections on such data should also inspire confidence that the agency is well-equipped to protect civil liberties in any domestic counterterrorism investigations.
Bruce Hoffman is senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council of Foreign Relations and a professor at Georgetown University. Jacob Ware is a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an assistant adjunct professor at Georgetown University. They are the authors of the forthcoming God, Guns, and Sedition: Far-Right Terrorism in America, to be published in December by Columbia University Press.
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