February 25, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: A Gathering of Threats

• The recent al-Shabab threat against specific shopping malls in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. comes on the heels of what has been a gathering of diverse threats with evolving targets and tactics

• The potential for a shutdown of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could present widespread and unpredictable consequences, given how many different attack actors and vectors the department is responsible for countering and deterring

• Returning foreign fighters, lone wolf attacks, increasing radicalism through social media, cyber attacks, critical infrastructure vulnerabilities: even fully staffed and funded, DHS faces challenges that are a reflection of widespread and sustained violent extremism across the Middle East and other regions

• A DHS shutdown would be less an immediate security crisis and more a longer-term drain on effective security strategic planning with vital tactical flexibility in a department already struggling with internal and external issues.


In countering the domestic threat from what is a rising tide of violent extremism amid sustained regional conflicts, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) faces both strategic and tactical security challenges. The potential targets range from cyberspace to shopping malls, and the potential actors range from well-established terrorist groups to newly radicalized individuals. The possible shutdown of DHS creates additional challenges for an agency already stressed by the increasing level of evolving threats and a decreasing level of staff morale and retention.

The diverse and rapidly evolving nature of the threats is a challenge for all government agencies with security and intelligence responsibilities, let alone one tasked with coordinating between local, state, and federal entities. The reality of today’s DHS threat matrix is one of far too many possible threats diverting limited resources from probable threats, an imbalance extremist groups deliberately try to enhance through social media and recruitment efforts. By making it appear as if everything is a realistic target instead of a hypothetical one, terrorists can create their much-needed disruption and attention with nothing more than a statement on the Internet.

The recent threat against specified shopping malls by the Somalia-based al-Shabab is a case-in-point, though one with perhaps more credence in theory because of the group’s history. Al-Shabab has demonstrated the capability to conduct exactly the style of attack it threatened this week, with its 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi that killed 67 people and lasted three days. But Minnesota is not Kenya, and the group’s ability to conduct a similar attack far from its traditional operational area is likely very limited. However, the potential exists, the threat is public, and in addition to the specified Mall of America, one of the largest shopping malls in the world, there are over 100,000 shopping malls in the United States. This forces the DHS to react with additional measures to augment systems already in place—all while it still remains unclear if it will be operating at full capacity by week’s end.

The past year has seen an increase in concern, both domestic and international, for attacks inspired by established groups but carried out by individuals likely unknown to the groups though perhaps known by local authorities. The increase in the spread of violent extremism puts immense pressure on local law enforcement and community organizations that are the first line of defense against homegrown extremists who don’t need to travel to a war zone to start their own war at home. The liaison work that DHS facilitates between these countless agencies and organizations at every level is one of its most important duties, and a shutdown, while not ending this liaison work, would certainly not help it.

Of course the threat isn’t just to shopping malls. Critical infrastructure such as power and utility grids, seaports and airports, all have numerous points of vulnerability—all of which DHS and other agencies must safeguard against while groups, or even a lone-wolf attacker, just need to find one unprepared point in order to create cascading negative effects. The universe of possible targets is overwhelming, placing incredible importance on proper risk assessments by DHS analysts and their counterparts across the U.S. government to best discern what is most probable. The U.S. has done a remarkable job in deterring and disrupting even small-scale attacks, but this will become increasingly harder as the media and public reaction to attacks becomes progressively out of balance with the attack itself. This imbalance could force DHS and other agencies to respond more to the possible than the probable, and put too much effort into total prevention (which is impossible) and less on mitigation and resilience (which is crucial and very possible).

Concerns over a possible shutdown of DHS are focused less on the possibility that it would immediately expose the nation to attack and more on what it suggests about long-term strategies and capabilities to effectively deal with threats that aren’t going to resolve themselves. The department is already struggling with poor morale and with low retention. A shutdown that involves sorting personnel between essential and ‘non-essential’ will likely worsen both problems, which again bodes poorly for the country’s long-term security needs.


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