Not Letting Up One Inch

September 9, 2016

Reflecting on the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, Congressman Will Hurd of Texas said that there have been both successes and room for improvement as the U.S. campaign against terrorism continues. The efforts of the U.S. intelligence community “should be credited for why there has not been another foreign-planned terrorist attack inside the United States since 9/11,” Hurd told The Cipher Brief. However, he cautioned that the U.S. “national security apparatus needs to do a better job in countering the Islamic extremist ideology” and developing “micro-intelligence networks in the U.S.”

The Cipher Brief: Where were you on 9/11?

Will Hurd: Everyone who was at least 10 years of age that day remembers where they were. I had been in the CIA for about 11 months, and I was in training in the Washington, DC area. The thing I still remember like it was yesterday were the weeks prior to the attacks. There was a feeling in parts of the CIA that something major was going to happen, but we couldn’t figure out just what.

TCB: How has the U.S. strategy in the global war on terror evolved over the last 15 years?

WH: On September 12, 2001 I became one of the first officers to join the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center/Special Operations (CTC/SO). This was the group that would eventually prosecute the war in Afghanistan. If you would have told me then that we would go more than 15 years without another major terrorist attack on our homeland, I would have said you were crazy. The reason it’s been this long is because the CIA and our other security, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies are still operating as though it is September 12, 2001. They have not let up one inch, and their efforts should be credited for why there has not been another foreign-planned terrorist attack inside the United States since 9/11.

One of the biggest changes over the past 15 years is the reliance on unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks against terrorists. Prior to the war in Afghanistan, not many people thought the inter-agency battles would allow the CIA to have operational control of an Air Force airframe with Army ordinance. The vision of folks like Hank Crumpton, former head of CIA's National Resources Division at CTC, to use all the tools at our disposal, really redefined how we chased terrorists. However, the reliance on UAV attacks has a downside. It limits the amount of battlefield intelligence that can be collected on plans and intentions of senior leaders within terrorists groups and details on potential future attacks.

One area that has significantly improved is intelligence sharing. We still haven’t changed the cultures of our intelligence and law enforcement agencies from “need-to-know” to “need-to-share” as the 9/11 commission had suggested, but we have come a long way. I left the CIA in 2009, and I was sworn into Congress in January of 2015.  I’ve been impressed with the increased level of cooperation across the federal government in the realm of intelligence sharing between my CIA days and since becoming a member of the House of Representatives.

TCB: How have terrorist groups’ tactics and appeal evolved over that same time span in response to U.S./coalition actions?

WH: When I was chasing al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the mid to late 2000s, they would do something called night letters. They would write an actual letter and leave it on the recipients’ doorsteps. They could hit hundreds of people a night. Now ISIS is doing four social media campaigns a day, translating them into dozens of languages and dialects, and hitting hundreds of thousands of people in the process. The use of social media by terrorist groups is unprecedented and their ability to leverage this medium is helping them spread their ideology.

TCB: What is your assessment of our current counterterrorism efforts? What else can be done?

WH: I think our national security apparatus needs to do a better job in countering the Islamic extremist ideology. We can’t do this with the State Department twitter feed alone. The Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition of several dozen Islamic countries to work on countering the ideology of Islamic extremism. We need our greatest brands and companies to join this part of the fight. We have some of the most creative and talented minds in the world and we need to leverage this talent to ensure young men around the world realize that groups like ISIS, al Qaeda, and al-Shabaab are misrepresenting Islam by indiscriminately killing innocent people, among other things. A person thinking about joining a terrorist group needs to understand he is more likely to get a bomb dropped on his head than find adventure in a place like Syria, Afghanistan, or Yemen.

Another area we must improve is in developing what I call micro-intelligence networks in the U.S. Preempting lone wolf attackers inspired by terrorist groups is one of the hardest things for law enforcement to do. But it becomes much easier if security personnel at the local level are empowered to support intelligence collection efforts.

For example, the Orlando shooter cased several locations in preparation for his attack that had private security guards. Were those guards trained to detect suspicious activity? If they were, did they file a suspicious activity report, or did they know how to go about doing so? Would there have been a way for a suspicious activity report to make to an FBI officer’s desk? The gap between federal and local law enforcement needs to be bridged to underscore a better intelligence sharing environment. Asking these kinds of questions and brainstorming how to best equip our local law enforcement and security agencies with the skills to handle the transforming threat domain is critical to the success of our counterterrorism strategy. It’s going to be a whole-country effort.

The one thing everyone remembers post 9/11 was a sense of unity and commonality of purpose. Of course there were debates at the tactical level about how to best prosecute the war, but that stands in stark contrast to today, where frankly we don’t even have a strategy. Leadership starts from the front, and I hope that as we reach the halfway point of what is now the second decade we’ve been fighting the War on Terror, we’ll renew our purpose and work to engage the best and brightest this country has to offer to answer one of the most difficult challenges we face as a nation.