Nicholas Rasmussen was Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) between December 2014 and his retirement from U.S. federal government service in December 2017. He had previously served as deputy director since June 2012, after returning from the National Security Council (NSC) where he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Counterterrorism from October 2007. Mr. Rasmussen previously served at NCTC from 2004-2007 in senior policy and planning positions. From 2001 to 2004, he served on the NSC as the director for regional affairs in the Office of Combating Terrorism.
Editor’s Note: On December 13, 2017, outgoing NCTC Director Nick Rasmussen answered questions from five national security reporters, including CTC Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Paul Cruickshank, in an on-the-record interview at NCTC headquarters. Rasmussen replied to additional questions from CTC Sentinel before he left government service at the end of the year, which appear at the end of this interview. These highlights from the Q&A have been lightly edited by CTC Sentinel.
Director Rasmussen noted in brief introductory remarks that it was “safe to say that we are at far less risk today of a large-scale, mass-casualty, catastrophic attack here in the homeland than certainly we were at the time of 9/11 and the aftermath of 9/11.”
Greg Miller (Washington Post): As you depart here [after] many years focused on this [terrorism] threat, I think it’s clear to a lot of us that that threat has changed and diminished significantly, aside from the lone wolf or one-off attacks that we see in greater frequency. But this other sort of danger seems to have grown, the mass-shooting danger in the United States. I’m just curious if you could offer any insights into the evaluation of these sorts of threats and the government’s ability to rationalize its response.
Rasmussen: I can’t help but still answer the question or describe my thinking through the lens of terrorism because that’s where my set of responsibilities lies. But I had a conversation not that long ago with an intelligence officer from a partner country who talked about, “Wow, if we faced our level of terrorism threat” meaning in his country “with your level of weapons available to the public […] we’d be in real, real trouble.” Because in his country, they have a large extremist population, a large terrorism problem, but a relatively contained access to firearms. So they find themselves dealing with other forms of terrorist attacks. So while I’m not involved in the domestic debate about gun control, I can’t help but observe when I’m thinking about the terrorism problem that we find ourselves in a more dangerous situation because our own population of home-grown violent extremists, though relatively small, has no difficulty at all gaining access to weapons that allow them to be quite lethal. And I wish that weren’t so. That doesn’t mean I have a policy prescription, or this kind of gun control measure versus that kind of gun control measure would be effective in dealing with that. It’s just a simple observation. More weapons more readily available increases the potential lethality of actors who would pick those weapons up and use them regardless of their purpose. So it doesn’t leave me with a policy prescription other than that I wish it wasn’t so and that we could find a way to control at least the most lethal end of the spectrum with respect to firearms.
Jeff Pegues (CBS News): So are you saying that the only way to get or one of the only ways of getting lone-wolf type attacks under control is by limiting access to lethal weapons?
Rasmussen: No, absolutely not. First of all, you’ll almost never hear me use words like “only” or “exclusive” because I’m very rarely categorical. […] I’ve talked a lot about the prevention side of the spectrum. Some of the work we’re doing and need to do more of here in the United States I would say [is] akin to soft power that we use overseas, sometimes bundled under the heading of CVE, countering violent extremism. And so, no, I do not think that limiting access to either weapons or explosives is the only way to increase our level of safety from homegrown violent extremists. Another far more effective way, I would argue, is trying to shrink the population of those extremists. The way to do that, in my view, is not only through effective law enforcement investigations of the sort that FBI carries out but also through more community-based efforts fed by the federal government’s information that allow communities to recognize what is going on around them before an individual rises to the level of being a subject of an FBI investigation.
As I look back at the last couple of years, I wish we had done more to increase the amount of engagement we, the federal government, do with state, local, municipal governments, all of whom are likely to encounter these potential extremists, these potential homegrown terrorists long before they show up on an FBI investigation. That’s soft power in a sense. It’s information sharing. It’s being able to brief and share information with communities that says “this is how ISIS’ message is landing on young people in your environment, and this is what you ought to be looking for, the indicators and signs that you ought to be looking for, and these are the potential pathways you can use to try to divert somebody once you’ve identified somebody who’s at risk.” […]
Courtney Kube (NBC News): What do you need to do that? What is it that you don’t have?
Rasmussen: I don’t have a ready-made policy prescription, other than that we ought to scale up what we are doing. In the last administration, we reached, by the end of the administration, an organizational construct centered on the Department of Homeland Security, where an interagency task force was responsible for guiding the development of programs among a number of agencies, ours among them, to deliver this kind of service to communities around the country. That was a good step. It was a modest step, one that I was hoping we could continue to build on. The problem is there’s no federal program that could be tailor-made so that it delivered the right thing in the right place to every community that needs it. […] I just think we have to find a way to bring our expertise from the federal government into the rest of the country to help them tailor their own solutions to what is, in a sense, a pretty local problem at times.
Jim Sciutto (CNN): Has the political rhetoric, anti-Muslim rhetoric, which is common as can be right now, hindered community-based efforts in terms of liaising with communities, asking for their help, identifying suspects, etc.?
Rasmussen: I don’t know that there’s any one statement or any one event that you can point to that you could say, “Aha, all of sudden, now things are worse.” I tend to look at these things as being more environmental. Anything that kind of contributes over time to a sense that the authorities are inexorably set in conflict with particular communities makes our work more difficult. And again, I’m not coming up with some blinding flash of insight there. I just think even in the best of circumstances, those conversations with communities can often be fraught with mutual suspicion and questioning of motives. “Wait a minute, why is NCTC and DOJ and DHS and FBI in my community, coming to talk to us about this? It’s because they want to target our kids. They want to find young people to arrest.” That can be a community’s perception of this, and so anything that is done environmentally, to answer your question, Jim, that would kind of feed that narrative, to me, doesn’t help the cause. But does that mean any one day, any one statement creates a tipping point? I wouldn’t go that far either.
The last thing I would say on this set of issues is the lesson learned over the past five or six years working on this particular set of issues is that the conversation actually looks different and plays out differently in almost every community around the country, which is why it’s hard to come up with one federal program, replicate it, and say, “what works in Dallas/Fort Worth will work in San Francisco, will work in Chicago, which will work in New York.” Because it really doesn’t. […] That’s our lesson learned is that there isn’t a single community that we’re talking about, so there isn’t a single-community solution that we’re talking about either.
Sciutto: Let me ask you, just to be clear here, because I’m not talking about one statement or one tweet, I’m speaking about a collection of statements and frankly policies over time, including a travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries but also other statements. I know it’s an uncomfortable question, and I know you’re not a politician. But you are someone whose job it is to protect the country and has to liaise with these communities. But just so I understand correctly, are you saying that the environment today is one that makes your job more difficult?
Rasmussen: Yes. In one respect, yes. I’m often asked the question “does this make it harder to gain [the] kind of, international cooperation of the sort we need to carry out our counterterrorism activities?” And there, I’m much more confident the work we are doing proceeds pretty much undisturbed. Because I think one of the good things about intelligence professionals—and I don’t really consider myself an intelligence professional; I came to the intelligence business fairly late after being more of a policy person for most of my career—but the intelligence professionals that I deal with and other partner countries are very, very good at tuning out politics—whether it’s their politics, whether it’s our politics, or whether it’s anybody’s politics.
And so even if there are things floating around in the political atmosphere that would suggest conflict between the United States and some other partner country, I can assure you, working with their security services, that work continues on unabated, unaffected. What I’m talking about is a little harder to put a metric to because I don’t know how you put a metric around community cooperation. But if environmentally, you are increasing the level of suspicion and distress between one community and the federal government, then I don’t think it’s controversial or arguable to suggest that that places challenges in our way.
Miller: You’re talking about community relations with the community partnership aspect of it, but it might also feed the motivations of actors.
Rasmussen: It can certainly be construed as validating the narrative that ISIS and other terrorist organizations props its recruitment efforts upon. So, yes, it can create problems in that regard as well. [FBI] Director [Christopher] Wray often talks about—and I’ve been in testimony with him—about how much we need community help, how much the FBI relies on communities to come forward […] to engage with law enforcement and the federal government, not just on transactional matters like “who is this bad guy?” or “what is this bad guy doing?” but also a broader conversation about how do we [engage] in some preventive work. So again, I don’t think it’s arguable that those conversations are harder when the environment is contaminated by mutual suspicion and questioning of motives. And anything that makes that work harder I think is something that I prefer we not have to deal with. […]
Paul Cruickshank (CTC Sentinel): When it comes to the ISIS threat, there was this major plot thwarted in Sydney in the summer of 2017 involving a number of Lebanese brothers [in which the Islamic State allegedly] managed to send PETN explosive from Syria to Turkey all the way by air mail to Australia in a partially assembled device, and then also managed to communicate with them to help them build a poison gas dispersal device.a Given the fact that for a lot of Western jihadi extremists, it’s been quite tricky to build high-end, high-grade explosives, is the idea that they’ve succeeded in air mailing explosives to operatives in the West a game changer when it comes to the threat against the United States?
Rasmussen: We were certainly quite struck by what our Australian colleagues uncovered in the course of that investigation. It revealed to us a broader vulnerability than we perhaps had earlier appreciated. If you think back to the springtime [of 2017], you remember measures taken to try to manage the bringing of laptops onto airplanes flying to the United States from a certain discrete number of Middle Eastern airports—what the aviation industry calls the last points of departure. There, we had specific intelligence that gave us concern about a potential effort to get an explosive device aboard an airplane and without having exactly precise intelligence, we still could draw enough from what we knew to say we were more at risk in these places because these places were close to the areas controlled by ISIS and therefore most likely to present a threat.
So you could tailor your security measures around the idea that if we up the game in security at these places, we have moderated or limited our risk and our exposure, to be sensible about it without going to some global ban […]. What is challenging about the Sydney experience is that if it does prove possible to ship components that way, in ways that evade our scrutiny, then you can’t simply develop analytics that tell you, “Ah, it’s more likely to happen, emanating from country X as opposed to country Y.” You could face just as much a risk potentially from Lima, Peru, as you do from Beirut in terms of an explosive aboard an airplane.
So I think this just confirms for us what we already know, and that is that the only solution to the aviation threats that we face is to, across the board, globally find ways to introduce more technology into the screening capabilities of countries around the world and to do it on a global basis—rich countries, poor countries. Because we’re only as secure as our most vulnerable partner in this area.
[…] Now we have to proceed from the assumption that this is a threat that could manifest itself literally anywhere in the world. And so that puts much more pressure on the global aviation community and the technological solutions rather than intelligence disruption solutions: go find the cell, go find the bad guy.
Cruickshank: On the al-Qa`ida side of the ledger, there’s been this back and forth between al-Qa`ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the leaders of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham [HTS], the [Jabhat] al-Nusra successor group. There seems, on the surface, to have been a genuine falling-out between al-Qa`ida senior leadership and Nusra essentially. Do you now still see HTS as an al-Qa`ida affiliate or more like an al-Qa`ida-aligned [group]? Or is there a sort of deeper rift that is going on between these two organizations? And what are the implications? [Secondly, when it comes to the] al-Qa`ida threat, there seems to have been a moratorium on international plotting by the group and its affiliates in the last few years. Are you seeing any signs that they’re pivoting back into international terrorism?
Rasmussen: Yes, to answer the second part first. One, I think we always focus both on capability and intent, and so even during periods when you may see certain things, either in public statements or even in intelligence, that suggest that there is a stepping-back or a “let’s not do that right now” approach from a terrorist group, including al-Qa`ida and some of the affiliates, that never creates any sense of comfort among terrorism analysts because there is not perfect command-and-control of these organizations. Even if there is an organizational decision not to focus on the West for a period of time, we still see during that period of time plenty of indications that there are elements of those organizations that continue to look to carry out plotting in the United States or the West. So there’s never any sense of comfort that we are, in a sense, in a hiatus phase with al-Qa`ida-related plotting.
With respect to HTS and core al-Qa`ida, we’ve also watched with great interest the kind of ongoing debate about the alignment of HTS with al-Qa`ida. I’ve literally had half a dozen conversations with our analysts in recent months about this, and the best way I can think to describe the picture is messy and muddled because we get sometimes contradictory pieces of information. We know in some cases there’s an active effort to deceive, [an effort] to try to disassociate some elements from al-Qa`ida so as to insulate [the] group from counterterrorism pressure that we would apply or that others would apply. So what I would fall back on is that I think there is still fundamental, ideological alignment between HTS and al-Qa`ida, HTS being kind of an umbrella organization as it is.
There may be differences that emerge in terms of phasing or tactics or what prioritization scheme should be followed—‘Should we be focused in the first instance on the conflict inside Syria? Or should we be also, at the same time, looking to carry out or to advance an agenda in attacking the West?’ But those are relatively minor gradations in differences of organizational philosophy, not massive ideological cleavages, in my view. From a threat perspective, we don’t have the ability to turn on and turn off our intelligence collection apparatus to say, “Oh, we’ll wait to they get interested in external operations again before we jack up our effort to collect intelligence on them.” We have to operate on the presumption that they are engaged in that activity, so long as they are an al-Qa`ida-aligned or an al-Qa`ida-supported movement. So from a “what do you do about it?” perspective, it doesn’t matter sometimes a little bit of the churn about “are they or aren’t they? Will they or won’t they?” We have to act and be prepared as if they are.
It does, however, make complicated some of the prioritization decisions that we face, in terms of who we devote our resources to because we do not have infinite resources and the operating environment in Syria is quite challenging. So bottom line: messy and muddled, and we spend a lot of time trying to peel apart who represented the most proximate threat to U.S. interests, but it is a constantly shifting calculation.
Pegues: A year and a half or so ago, the warnings about fighters from Syria returning to Europe were pretty dire. But I think last month, your European counterparts said they weren’t seeing what they expected.b Do you agree with that?
Rasmussen: I do. And in some of my testimony in recent months, I’ve kind of shifted our analytical line in terms of how we talk about the foreign fighter problem. 2014 to 2016, we spent a lot of time as an intelligence community fathering as much information as we could about these foreign fighters in whatever way that we could. The point was to develop as much identity information of people going in so that when those persons came out, we would stand a chance of being able to disrupt their travel.
That was done on the presumption that a flow-in would lead to a flow-out when the conflict subsided. Well, the conflict has not really subsided, but it’s certainly a different conflict now with the upper-hand having been gained against ISIS. […] So the conflict is not over in Syria by any means, but what we have not seen is what we expected a couple of years ago, which was a pretty significant, maybe even large-scale or massive out-flow of foreign fighters back to either their places of origin or other Western countries.
That’s not happened for a couple of reasons. One, we think ISIS has made aggressive efforts to prevent it—confiscating passports of individuals who go to fight, actually physically preventing individuals from leaving the conflict zone. Then there’s also I think the ideological pull for many of these individuals [that] has led them to a place where they’re willing to fight and die on behalf of the caliphate, even if the caliphate is not succeeding the way it was succeeding a few years ago. So I’m not saying we were wrong. It’s just we’ve now adjusted our view on the volume issue, how much of this we were going to face. That’s not to suggest, though, that this isn’t a problem because a relatively modest number of these individuals who get out of the conflict zone and line up in a European capital or a Western capital or any capital could still pose quite a significant threat.
Our focus more recently has been on quality rather than quantity. If the individual we get information on is an individual who has special skills—some facility with weapons of mass destruction or some experience with explosives or has ties back into a network in Western Europe, be [it] in Belgium or France or the U.K. or some partner country, then so what if that one person isn’t one among 500 foreign fighters? If he’s the wrong guy and he has a high degree of capability, then that is every bit as much a concern to us as if it were a volume problem.
I think one of the reasons why we’re in a better place on this than we were a few years ago is that these foreign fighters also know that they have a tougher time going home. They, in many cases now, face a criminal prosecution regime in their home country that they didn’t face at the time they departed to go to Iraq or Syria. One of the things I think we’ve done successfully, in partnership with other countries, is increase the awareness of countries that they need to update their legal frameworks to criminalize activities like traveling to Iraq and Syria for purposes of jihad. The kinds of things that we would capture in the United States under a material support charge, in many countries are not criminal activities. I think a lot of our European partners have realized that that was an important gap in their legal regime, and so, [if you’re an] individual [who has waged jihad in Syria], if you’re going back to your point of origin, you know that [if] you get back there, you’re not going to be just welcomed back and rehabilitated. You may go to jail for 20 years or face some pretty significant legal penalties. So that has made the foreign fighter flow more of a one-way flow than we first anticipated.
Miller: Can you give us any sense of the magnitude of the outflow?
Rasmussen: It’s hard to come up with anything by way of real numbers, but I would say it’s probably in the hundreds, not the thousands.
Sciutto: That’s returning foreign fighters? In the hundreds?
Rasmussen: Exiting. I would say exiting because it doesn’t necessarily mean returning solely to the place of origin. They could be trying to find some alternate playground on which to carry out their extremist activities. We’ve thought about whether there would be other conflict zones that individuals or small groups would try to make their way to in order to kind of carry the fight forward to another location. I think we worried about Libya in that regard at various times. We’ve worried about Egypt in that regard at various times. Other places where ISIS has had a pretty significant presence, we have tried to turn our intelligence resources on those places to make sure that if there were, in fact, a trend line of fighters moving to that location as an alternate safe haven, we would pick that up before it became a fait accompli. Now, I don’t think we’ve seen it in volume at this point.
Cruickshank: There seems to be in some recent plots—[the attacks in] Manchester, Berlin being the cases in point—a link back to some kind of external operations effort inside Libya when it comes to ISIS.c ISIS is somewhat on the run in the northern part of Libya, but what concern [do] you have that there may be elements for external operations plotting from there directed at Europe, perhaps even the United States?
Rasmussen: That’s a very tough question, Paul, because I think we’re operating on less of an intelligence base than we would like when we make those judgments now about what’s going on in Libya and certainly less of an intelligence basis than we have in places like Iraq and Syria, where our intense involvement on the ground gives us many more resources—human intelligence, technical intelligence. We simply don’t know as much about what ISIS is doing in Libya as we would like, and so you have to, in some cases, go to the far end of the spectrum in terms of anticipating or fearing the worst even though you don’t necessarily have a lot to back that up.
There’s no doubt that in the course of the early part of this year, ISIS was ejected from Sirte and, in a sense, sent on the run into more rural parts of central Libya. That was undoubtedly a success. But it also made them a harder target from an intelligence-collection point of view. […] They are, in a sense, operating more outside our view today than they were when they were holed up in urban locations in Sirte and we had a kind of unblinking eye, as it were, watching them. That does not mean I would have altered our strategy and left them alone in Sirte to have a safe haven and maintain territorial control over a large Libyan city. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m just saying it requires us now to have a strategy that will give us more access than we currently have. I think this administration has approached this in the same way that the last administration was approaching it at the end, which was “we need to develop some Libyan partners.” We’re not going to go into Libya with large numbers of American troops, with large contributions of assets from the American intelligence community, but we are willing to provide tailored support to key partners who we think can do the job on the ground. Now, that’s the challenge: identifying who those capable partners are on the ground inside Libya given all the political turmoil that is going on there. And so, like many places, our terrorism work would be advanced if we could find a durable political solution in a place like Libya, much the same way our CT agenda would be advanced if we had a durable political solution in Yemen or Somalia or any of those other conflict zones. So Libya is just kind of, I would say, an archetypal example of that but made worst by the fact that we are doing it, in a sense, with that relatively modest levels of investment. […]
Cruickshank: February marks the 25th anniversary of the first World Trade Center terrorist attack. The United States has been confronting jihadi terrorism in various manifestations, including al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State, since then—a period spanning almost your entire service in government. How do you see things 25 years from now? Is the best case scenario containing and defending against a persistent and enduring threat? Or can the United States, international partners, and communities isolate and decisively weaken the extremists? In other words, how does this story end?
Rasmussen: If there is one thing that I’ve taken away from my 16-plus years working on the terrorism problem, it’s a healthy dose of humility about our ability to project past the two-to-three year mark and make useful predictions about the future evolution of terrorism. I tossed out a question to NCTC’s analysts this fall—which is one of the great privileges of being director; I can ask smart folks to answer my questions—and I put the question in front of them, “How does it all end?” Meaning, in essence, when does the salafi jihadist movement stop inspiring violence against the West?
The analysts pulled together a conference with this title, and they came back with two scenarios, which are not mutually exclusive: one scenario in which the movement collapsed because of repeated failure to demonstrate value in resolving the grievances of its followers, and another scenario in which the movement reoriented away from attacks on the West because the local environment provided more opportunities to achieve its aims. In effect, the movement stopped being global in favor of being local. And they told me this was the best we could hope for. None of this provides any near-term relief to the threat we face, and I’m convinced that my successor—and probably my successor’s successor—will be dealing with many of the same problems we’re dealing with at NCTC today. But it does tell us one thing, and that’s the persistence of this evolving threat.
Cruickshank: With the Islamic State losing its territorial caliphate, how do you see competition playing out between al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State in the decade to come? Given the relationship between their leaderships is toxic—and each has accused the other of theological illegitimacy—do you see any prospect for them mending their differences and combining forces? Could al-Qa`ida reassert itself as the standard bearer of global jihad? Could some newly formed organization upstage both? Or do you see a more crowded and fragmented jihadi landscape emerging with no dominant group, and if so, what would be the good news and bad news about such a messy new reality?
Rasmussen: We continue to see al-Qa`ida and ISIS operating on essentially different playing fields. They have different timelines for reestablishing an Islamic caliphate, and that results in competing operational priorities for the groups. We do see them cooperate in a limited tactical way on certain battlefields—for instance, in Syria and Yemen—when they need resources and are facing a common enemy. But at this point, we don’t anticipate they will expand beyond this transactional cooperation to some grand reunification because there is no real basis for the groups to engage on that strategic level. The simple fact of ISIS emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi laying claim to the title of caliph creates an ideological barrier that makes it tough for the groups to reconcile their opposing visions for the caliphate.
To answer the second part of your question, we see ISIS as pretty anchored in its claim over other jihadist groups, even with the territory ISIS has lost in Iraq and Syria. No branch or network has defected from the group despite its losses, and they continue to inspire violence worldwide. Al-Qa`ida has been holding steady during this period of ISIS loses, and we expect al-Qa`ida may see an opportunity to exert even more influence in leading the global movement as ISIS continues to lose territory. But we don’t expect that level of influence to eclipse ISIS.
Cruickshank: Are there any additional lessons you’ve learned that you’d like to get across?
Rasmussen: As I look back on my efforts to help develop CT strategies—from my time in the Bush White House, Obama White House, and today with President Trump’s administration—the lesson learned that I take away from my involvement is simply this: We should all bring a good amount of humility to the project of developing CT strategies touching on conflict zones like Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahel. I say that because as powerful and capable as the United States is—and we have military, law enforcement, and intelligence capabilities that surpass those of any other country on earth—it’s still quite difficult to deliver outcomes in these conflict zones such that the terrorism threat will be eliminated.
We have it within our power to play very effective offense and very effective defense. We can do great work in building partner capacity, and we are sharing intel more rapidly and more effectively than ever to enable partner action. But truly altering the environment that gives rise to the terrorist threat we face, that’s a much more formidable task. More resources are required, more time is required, and much more patience is required.
All one need do is look at the persistence of conflict in South Asia, the Levant, East Africa, and North Africa to understand the point I am making. And so, the unsolicited advice I would offer to anybody engaged in CT strategy development is this: Keep these underlying fundamentals in mind as you set forth to articulate new and bold strategic objectives, or to set timelines for achieving those objectives. CTC
[a] Editor’s note: According to Australian officials, the Sydney plotters initially planned to smuggle an explosive device onto an airliner at Sydney international airport but aborted the plan after bringing the bomb to the airport in a suitcase on July 15, 2017. Australian authorities were unaware of the plot at that point. The Sydney terrorist cell subsequently started plotting to attack crowded areas in Australia with poison gas, but its members were arrested on July 29, 2017. Andrew Zammit, “New Developments in the Islamic State’s External Operations: The 2017 Sydney Plane Plot,” CTC Sentinel 10:9 (2017); Paul Maley, “From Syria to Sydney: how the airport terror plot unfolded,” Australian, August 5, 2017.
[b] Editor’s note: For more on this, see Eric Schmitt, “ISIS fighters Are Not Flooding Back Home to Wreak Havoc as Feared,” New York Times, October 22, 2017.
[c] Editor’s note: For more on this angle, see Johannes Saal, “The Islamic State’s Libyan External Operations Hub: The Picture So Far,” CTC Sentinel 10:11 (2017).