Washington is struggling to stymie the growing trend of terrorists radicalized on American soil, officials said Wednesday.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, told senators that despite a surge in homegrown terrorist activity, the department is still figuring out how best to combat it.
“We do not yet have a complete understanding of what would cause a United States person to radicalize to the extent of violence,” said Napolitano, adding that the department was aiming its efforts at the community level by sharing information about the early signs violent radicalization might take.
“There’s no one way of counter-messaging,” she said. “We’re learning a lot about counter-messaging.”
Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) pointed out that at least 63 American citizens have been charged with or convicted of crimes directly related to terrorism during the past 18 months. The most widely known arrests occurred after the shooting rampage last year at Fort Hood in Texas, allegedly by a Muslim Army officer, and the failed Times Square car bombing in New York this past May.
FBI Director Robert Mueller and Napolitano warned senators that in addition to large terrorist organizations, even smaller factions that are al Qaeda affiliates have been increasing their focus on convincing Americans to carry out attacks.
“Groups affiliated with al Qaeda are now actively targeting the United States and looking to use Americans or Westerners who are able to remain undetected by heightened security measures,” said Mueller.
Michael Leiter, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), also expressed his frustration with the growing trend of homegrown radicalization, stressing how difficult it is to combat.
“It’s a different challenge from what we see overseas because … it’s not easily isolated to a single demographic group or area,” said Leiter.
Lieberman pressed Leiter about whether his department was receiving enough funding and resources to effectively combat homegrown terrorism, but Leiter avoided the questions, saying the department was doing its best with what it had.
The committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsWelcome to ground zero of climate chaos A tale of two chambers: Trump's power holds in House, wanes in Senate Bipartisan blip: Infrastructure deal is last of its kind without systemic change MORE (Maine), raised additional concerns about the findings of a study by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Preparedness Group. The study states the U.S. has grown complacent in its attitude toward homegrown radicalization.
“The American ‘melting pot’ has not provided a firewall against the radicalization and recruitment of American citizens and residents, though it has arguably lulled us into a sense of complacency that homegrown terrorism couldn’t happen in the United States,” states the report.
Collins said that these findings were a call to “redouble our efforts to better anticipate, analyze and prepare.”
“We cannot afford a lapse in vigilance or foresight, nor wrap ourselves in a false security blanket,” said Collins.
She also posited that perhaps the various counterterrorism departments were having so much difficulty combating homegrown radicalization because there was no centralized agency in charge of operations.
“I can’t help but think that we have a lot of good people, a lot of good agencies [and] a lot of activity, but there still doesn’t seem to be an overall strategy nor accountability built in, nor a means of assessing the success,” said Collins. “I’m concerned that this … is too nebulous.”
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) received a great deal of criticism in the days following the failed Times Square bombing as well as the thwarted bombing of an airliner above Detroit on Christmas Day. Critics questioned how the alleged airplane bomber, a Nigerian man, made it past U.S. counterterrorism officials, especially after officials with the State Department and DHS had been alerted to his intentions.
Napolitano stressed there is a much stronger level of communication between departments, saying the use of 72 “fusion centers” is providing state and local officials with a stream of top-secret intelligence on suspicious activities while also channeling local intelligence back to analysts who have a big-picture view.
But Leiter, responding to Collins’s line of questioning, resisted accepting the argument that the NCTC was in charge of fusing U.S. counterterrorism intelligence.
“I think saying ‘in charge’ is too strong a word,” said Leiter. “[The NCTC is] who’s responsible for coordinating across multiple departments … in conjunction with the National Security Council.”
Napolitano said that perhaps in the future officials should hammer out an overarching written strategy that details a chain of command and operations.
In a simultaneous move aimed at remedying the weaknesses that the attempted Christmas Day bombing revealed in aviation security — as first reported by The Hill — Napolitano said that the U.S. would be leading the charge to establish a set of security standards for international airports at next week’s United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization’s general assembly.
This story has been updated from a version first posted at 2:05 p.m.