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Think Tank Perspective: Interview with Philip Mudd

By Matthew Harwood

Philip Mudd is a senior global advisor at Oxford Analytica, where he advises on the issues of global politics, counterterrorism, intelligence, and homeland security, as well as a senior research fellow with the New America Foundation’s Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative. In 2005, FBI Director Robert Mueller appointed Mudd to serve as the newly established National Security Branch’s first-ever deputy director. He received a Presidential nomination to become Undersecretary of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in early 2009 but later withdrew his nomination, returning to the FBI as its senior intelligence advisor. Before arriving at the FBI, Mudd served as deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center from 2003-2005. He started his career at the CIA in 1985 as an analyst, specializing in South Asia and then the Middle East. He has received many CIA awards and commendations during his service, including the Director’s Award.

Drawing on your experiences and contacts at the FBI and the CIA, what, in your opinion, are the most credible threats to homeland security today?

People think we still face an al Qaeda threat and we do, but what we face more is the ripple effect of ideology among people who typically don’t even know much about what al Qaeda is. They hear about the message from friends, and they read about it on the Internet. In my experience, the Internet serves more as an accelerant in radicalization than an actual initiator.

We face more threats from individuals who may appear in the newspapers as al Qaeda affiliated people, but they’re just sort of fuzzy radicals. They think they have absorbed al Qaeda’s ideology, but they are usually angry or frustrated without having a serious ideological understanding of the al Qaeda message. They might be emotionally driven as a result of, for example, photographs they saw. Or they saw American forces doing things that they don’t approve of, such as searching women or operating in mosques. Over time, these individuals may begin to overtake the threat from al Qaeda core and affiliated groups in places like Yemen and Algeria.

We also face a threat from other types of groups, such as gangs, that are more damaging but make fewer headlines. It’s interesting, though, because we struggle to accept the occasional act of violence from a low level al Qaeda affiliated individual, but we seem to have accepted a threat from gangs. We still have well over 10,000 murders in this country every year. Almost none of them are terrorism-related.

And, finally, we’re starting to understand the implications of the cyberthreat. We start with the national security threat and then, obviously, the personal threat of people intruding on our cyberspace to steal things like Visa cards. I think we’re just now seeing the tip of the iceberg of this. The cyberthreat should easily overtake terrorism as a national problem in years to come, and probably soon.

Looking over the horizon, what other ideological threats aside from jihadism could metastasize into violent extremism?

There are a couple of broad areas. White supremacist and sovereign citizen groups, while not a significant threat, are still a problem.

The second threat, which I mentioned earlier, is gangs. They are more entrenched and their territories are broader.

When the FBI was set up in 1908, it was set up partly as a result of the Model-T. If you were a local sheriff before the Model-T and someone committed a bank robbery, it was unlikely they’d get too far. The Model-T meant that no local sheriff could handle regional or national crime. If you keep going a century beyond, what we have now is cybergangs from Eastern Europe, human trafficking from Southeast Asia, narcotics from Central America, and drug cartels from Mexico. Increasingly, crime is international and the kinds of gangs that we’re seeing are not only national or regional; they’re international and virtual.

(To continue reading this interview  from our June 2012 issue, please click here)

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