The threat from self-radicalized, homegrown terrorists has eclipsed the potential threat of foreign fighters coming to the U.S. to carry out attacks, the top U.S. counterterrorism official said Wednesday.
Nick Rasmussen, head of the National Counterterrorism Center, said homegrown violent extremists are now the greatest threat to U.S. national security.
During a counterterrorism symposium hosted by the Center for a New American Security, Mr. Rasmussen downplayed recent alarming reports that foreign fighters tied to Islamic State and other extremist groups will be returning from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria to wage jihad in their home countries.
Roughly 40,000 foreign nationals from 120 countries flocked to the black banners of Islamic State over the last two years as the group violently conquered territory across Syria and northern Iraq.
The creation of the so-called caliphate, rooted in the Syria city of Raqqa, spawned a cadre of Islamic State foreign fighters who represent “the most ethnically diverse, sociologically diverse, nonmonolithic problem we have seen so far,” Army Lt. Gen. Michael Nagata, head of strategic operational planning at the National Counterterrorism Center, said earlier this month. But Mr. Rasmussen said it would be unlikely those foreign fighter ranks would abandon their shrinking Middle East stronghold and move into the U.S. en masse.
“I think we’re unlikely to see a mass exodus,” Mr. Rasmussen said. “We are concerned about a small minority of fighters who will return and will try to return to their home countries looking to build local networks and plan attacks.”
The threat of homegrown violent extremists, or HVEs, is a much graver threat facing the U.S. military, intelligence and counterterrorism officials, he said.
Among the major terror attacks committed in the U.S. over the past few years — including the Boston Marathon bombings, the San Bernardino shootings, the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting and the bomb explosion in New York — all the perpetrators of the attacks were U.S. citizens.
“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the pool of potential HVEs,” Mr. Rasmussen said. The FBI “is in some stage of investigating at least 1,000 potential HVEs across all 50 states,” he added, characterizing these individuals as attracted to the “violence and adventure of fighting” as opposed to strict adherence to the jihadi ideology.
That strict adherence to jihadi ideology was one reason al Qaeda was never able to replicate the recruiting and radicalization strategy successfully employed by Islamic State.
“AQ always wanted these immaculate recruits, while ISIS wanted to take anybody willing to join,” said one U.S. official who spoke anonymously with The Washington Times last month, using an acronym for Islamic State. “But now we have this next generation of foreign fighter jihadis who have been trained on the ISIS battlefield,” he added.
But Islamic State’s knack for finding American recruits in particular has confounded U.S. counterterror officials and only ratcheted up the threat posed by domestic terrorists.
“One of the things we find difficult is the pathway to radicalization — particularly for individuals here in the homeland — looks so very, very different in almost every case,” Mr. Rasmussen said. Potential recruits, he said, are swayed by a wide variety of deep-seated grievances — from perceived anti-Islamic U.S. policies to the overall corrosive nature of Western culture.
Islamic State’s online presence has distilled those various factors that turn a recruit into a jihadi into a potent social media and propaganda operation — one U.S. counterterrorism officials are recruiting Silicon Valley to help dismantle.
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