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Aspen Times Weekly: A new world of terror post 9/11

by Rick Carroll
Director John Brennan and Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson have a chat Friday, July 29, while en route y to the Greenwald Pavilion, where Brennan cast doubt on the chances of the unrest in Syria ending in the near future.
The Aspen Institute/Photo by Dan Bayer |

As at least two moderators noted at the Aspen Security Forum last week, the news gods were smiling on the event.

Perhaps they were, but the subject matter was ominous.

“Sadly, it could not be more timely,” said Daily Beast correspondent Shane Harris of the forum’s seventh edition. For sure, in the days, weeks and months leading up to the forum, presented by The Aspen Institute, a cloud of insecurity hung over America and the rest of the world.

Nice. Orlando. Paris. Brussels.

“We are in an evolving environment.” — Jeh Johnson, Secretary, Homeland Security

Domestic terrorism. Self-radicalization. Islamic State terrorism, both inspired and organized.

The war in Syria. An attempted coup in Turkey. North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons. China and the South Sea.

Cyber hackings, most recently on the Democratic National Committee, presumed to be carried out by Russia but which no official would confirm publicly at the forum.

Is there no end?

For several days at the Security Forum, attended by some of the most influential leaders and experts in the world of intelligence and counter-terrorism, a grim conclusion was reached: America and the rest of the globe are in for a long and winding march through the shifting winds of terrorism and violence, in large part because of the world’s myriad complexities of clashing cultures, religions and politics.

And it will take a collaborative approach to gain traction in this indisputably daunting task.

“In this environment there is a role for the public to play,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said July 27, the opening day of the forum. “The public can and has made a difference through vigilance, awareness.”

Since Sept. 11, 2011, the world hasn’t seen an attack on that scale. But America and the West’s fears in the immediate wake of 9/11 are now being realized, as “we never saw the rapid succession of attacks we seem to see today,” noted Harris of the Daily Beast.

“The challenge with ISIL really has been that they’ve compressed the execution period of carrying out attacks significantly, like the 9/11 attack took a long time, it was very deliberate, the planning,” CIA Director John Brennan said. “ISIL has been able to compress into weeks or months the ability to have an idea or have a person who is positioned to do something and to carry it out.”

This new age of bloodshed administered on soft targets — restaurants, buses, public events — often has been referred to as “the new normal,” which even was the title of one of the Security Forum’s panel talks.

Don’t, however, get used to the

new normal because it will continue to alter its course, said William

Bratton, commissioner of the New York Police Department.

“The term new normal, there is not a new normal,” he argued. “The normal is going to keep changing, much more quickly than it has changed in the last 14, 15 years. The threats have multiplied exponentially.”

Making the threats worse are their unpredictability, said Peter Neffenger, head of the Transportation Security Administration.

“What I see over the past year in particular is a disaggregating and evolving threat,” he said. “I don’t know if what we’re seeing is especially new, but the way in which it is occurring, the unpredictability of its occurrences and the proliferation of its occurrences is new, and the rapidity in which people can share information and move information among themselves has changed,” he said, noting that the “enemy is creative and adaptive and evolves, and we have to do the same thing.”

A More complicated Environment

Likewise, Bratton added, because social media has become extremists’ dominant means to organize and recruit, counter-terrorism authorities must learn to adapt.

“The whole social media world, it’s different from 9/11,” he said. “Now we have the social media, which changes everything, and the threat isn’t just the radical Islamic threat. … We’re now seeing attacks on police officers,” he said, adding that it started with the Dec. 20, 2014, killing of two off-duty police officers in New York by a gunman seeking vengeance for recent police shootings and killings.

Experts certainly could speak with sophistication and authority about the current climate of terror, but what did the Security Forum accomplish?

That’s actually not a fair question because the future cannot be predicted. Panelists and speakers, however, noted that predicting the future by getting ahead of the next attack must be their chief priority.

“I tell our people constantly we’ve got to focus on the next attack, let’s anticipate the next attack as well as learn the lessons from the last attack,” Johnson said. “We are in an evolving environment.”

To illustrate how rapidly the environment is changing, Johnson drew on his own experience since become secretary of Homeland Security in December 2013.

At the time, his department’s chief focus was on fighting al-Qaida and its affiliates overseas in such countries as Yemen and Somalia. Today, al-Qaida remains a threat, but it isn’t on the same level as its competitor the Islamic State, both Johnson and Brennan said at the forum.

That’s in large part because the Islamic State’s message resonates with self-radicalized men and

women whom it doesn’t even know.

“Now we see not only the rise of ISIL, but the rise of the terrorist-inspired attack where the operative may not have met a single other member of the terrorist organization that he is inspired by, may never have trained with the organization, have never been to Iraq, Syria, and is — may not have ever received a direct order from a terrorist leader but is inspired by something in social media, on the internet, to go commit an attack,” Johnson said. “That makes for a much more complicated threat environment. It is harder to detect by law enforcement, by our intelligence community.”

One of the prevailing themes of the Security Forum: Don’t make plans for a “big victory parade” over the Islamic State. That was according to Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, who suggested the process of eradicating the movement will be methodical and time consuming.

“I think of this very much as a wrestling match,” he said. “We wrestle, we score a point, and then we move on to the next moves in this thing. And if you do that enough, eventually you end up prevailing, and that’s kind of how I think we have to look at this.”

rcarroll@aspentimes.com


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