The Department of Homeland Security will continue to strengthen its support for state-based intelligence fusion centers and suspicious activity reporting to combat the escalating threat of homegrown terrorism, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate committee Wednesday.
The Department of Homeland Security will continue to strengthen its support for state-based intelligence fusion centers and suspicious activity reporting to combat the escalating threat of homegrown terrorism, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate committee yesterday.
Napolitano called fusion centers the "heart" of her department's strategy to protect the American people from homegrown terrorists. Since 9-11, 72 fusion centers have been established across cities and states nationwide to collect, vet, and share information with local first responders on the ground and federal law enforcement and intelligence officials at the national level.
"My goal is to make every fusion center a center of analytic excellence that provides useful, actionable information about threats to [state, local, tribal, and territorial] law enforcement and first responders," Napolitano told the Senate Homeland Security Committee (.pdf) . To do this, DHS has deployed 64 DHS intelligence officers nationwide and made fusion centers a priority for federal homeland security grants. Fusion center personnel with the appropriate federal security clearances are also given access to the Homeland Security Data Network, which stores classified homeland security threat information.
Napolitano also noted that DHS is working with the Department of Justice (DOJ) to expand the Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative into a national resource by the end of 2011. "The SAR Initiative creates a standard process for law enforcement in more than two dozen states and cities to identify and report suspicious incidents or behaviors associated with specific threats or terrorism," she explained. Once collected, suspicious activity reports from around the country can be analyzed to identify broader trends involving terrorist activity.
According to Napolitano, the SAR Initiative "makes first responders first preventers, as well."
The theory behind both counterterrorism tactics is that local police officers and first responders know their communities better than anyone in the nation's capitol and thus can spot and report suspicious activity that could portend terrorism, especially as the threat comes from within local communities. They aren't without their critics, however. Civil libertarians see fusion centers and suspicious activity reporting as the foundation for an ever-expanding surveillance state that will continually erode the notion of privacy. Both DHS and DOJ insist that their efforts respect civil liberties, although a string of incidents where law-abiding citizens have been monitored or painted as possible terrorists call such claims into question.
(For Security Management coverage of fusion centers and their discontents, click here .)
Napolitano's focus on ways to combat homegrown terrorism came during a hearing on the terrorist threat facing the United States nine years after 9-11. According to Napolitano and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III (.pdf) and National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter (.pdf) , the terrorist threat to the United States has diversified with homegrown terrorists a growing danger while core al Qaeda and like-minded jihadist affiliates continue to plot against the nation.
At least 63 Americans have been convicted or charged with terrorism or related charges since 2009, noted Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) (.pdf) . "Now to me that is an astoundingly high number of American citizens," he said.
Often times, the specter of homegrown terror mingles with the threat from overseas, Mueller said. He noted that failed homegrown terrorists Najibullah Zazi and Faisal Shahzad, who both planned to attack New York City, took directives from overseas groups—core al Qaeda in Zazi's case and Tehrik-e Taliban in Shahzad's case. And as radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki demonstrates, sometimes the call to terrorism comes from Americans living overseas. Based somewhere in Yemen, al-Awlaki has been tied to the Fort Hood massacre carried out by Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan and the botched terrorism attack of Christmas Day attempted by a young Nigerian jihadist. Counterterrorism and defense officials also allege al-Awlaki's ties to terrorism go beyond propaganda and that the cleric has taken up an operational role in planning attacks.
"Beyond the sheer number of disruptions and arrests that have come to light, homegrown extremists are increasingly more savvy, harder to detect, and able to connect with other extremists overseas," Mueller testified. They also plan and execute attacks faster, although the attacks are smaller in scale and use more diverse methods, such as small arms and IEDs, said Napolitano.
Asked by Ranking Member Susan Collins (R-ME) whether the recent spate of homegrown terrorism incidents is an aberration, Napolitano believes it is not.
"I think that caution would dictate that we assume it is not an aberration," she said.
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