WASHINGTON – In a majority of homegrown terrorism cases investigated in the United States in recent years, someone had information that something was amiss, a top U.S. counterterrorism official said Thursday.
Nick Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said countering Islamic extremism globally is a nearly impossible task — like trying to "boil the ocean." Instead, the U.S. needs to be more hands-on at home and do a better job sharing threat information with local officials, he said.
Rasmussen and top intelligence officials from Britain, Canada and Germany gave their assessments of the threat from global terrorism at a national security conference in Washington hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a group of national security professionals in the public and private sectors.
"Up to 80 percent of the cases we've looked at very closely along with the FBI in recent years, someone was aware of what was going on and if there had been the right touch, connection, intervention, it's possible that that person could have been taken off of the path that they were on," Rasmussen said.
"That tells me we have to do a much better job as an intelligence community and a law enforcement community of making information available to community actors who are going to be there long before the FBI shows up."
Friedrich Grommes, a top terrorism official with Germany's intelligence service, said the most recent attacks in Europe have been carried out by lone wolves who were inspired, but not directed by, militant groups. He said as early as 2010, Islamic State leaders were calling for these so-called "leader-less jihad" attacks.
Even back then, the group was pushing for simplistic attacks with everyday items like knives, rather than complex ones that are more easily discovered and foiled. He noted that al-Qaida also recently made an appeal for home-grown attacks.
As a rule, Grommes said these attackers have been radicalized through the internet and social media — in some cases very rapidly. He said he's struck by how many are petty criminals who know little to nothing about Islam.
He also said that as IS loses territory in Syria and Iraq, there is a fear that foreign fighters will return to their home countries, but that so far, there is no hard evidence to suggest fighters are returning to Germany.
Grommes said it's important not to let young, male refugees entering Europe sit idle, which makes them a target for radial recruiters.
Chris Rousseau, head of the Integrated Counterterrorism Center for the Canadian government, said that in his country, the threat is coming more from second-generation immigrants who don't feel assimilated and are ripe for being recruited.
Paddy McGuinness, deputy national security adviser for intelligence in Britain, favors not only trying to rid the internet of terror-related content and working to counter that message, but also preventing militants from using the internet altogether.
"What we actually need to address is their presence online — not to allow them to be there and persuade the companies not to allow them to be there," McGuinness said. "That's what we have done with people who exploit children for sexual purposes."
Rasmussen said that the U.S. intelligence community is working to regularly give technology companies as much information as possible about how their platforms are being used by militants in hopes that they will take actions on their own.