Redefining the Current Threat Landscape: DHS’s Evolution to Acknowledging Religiously Based Terrorism

Last week the House Homeland Security Committee held a hearing with Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, and Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew G. Olsen.  Napolitano covered a wide range of topics during her testimony, from preventing homegrown terrorism to improving global supply-chain security.  Notably, in her opening statement Napolitano listed several factors that have led to acts of terrorism both in the United States and around the world, one of which was religion. Religion has been adamantly deemed off-limits by the current administration when discussing terrorist motivations.  This is one of the single most important points of contention between the Administration and national security experts.[1]  This subtle change in wording may indicate that DHS is taking religiously inspired terrorism more seriously in the wake of various terrorist attacks and plots within the United States.  If so, this would raise tensions between DHS and the Department of State, which continues to assert that religion is not an issue in such places as Nigeria, where Islamist militants are systematically attacking Christians.

Judging from the questions posed to the witnesses, the Committee members were primarily interested in two topics: 1) The William Webster Report on the Fort Hood Shooting, (released July 19th), and 2) DHS’s training curriculum for law enforcement officials.  Sec. Napolitano was asked if she would categorize the Fort Hood attack as an act of terrorism or simply as an act of workplace violence, as it had been previously termed by the White House.  Napolitano said she believed it was both and that the two were not mutually exclusive.  This too reflects a subtle shift from earlier positions.  Secretary Napolitano also answered questions about the recent visit to the White House by Hani Nour Eldin, a self-identified member of Gama’a al-Islamiyya, an Egyptian Islamist militant group which has been designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government.  Committee Chairman Peter King wanted to know how Eldin was allowed not merely into the United States, but into the White House, given his membership in a known terrorist organization.  Napolitano avoided a direct answer, stating that the situation was more complicated than just being part of an FTO, and that particular groups “have evolved over the years” despite still finding a place on the FTO designation list year after year.

The second witness at the hearing, Matthew G. Olsen, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, received far fewer questions from the Committee but did deliver some interesting information during his opening statement.  Of particular interest was that Director Olsen specifically included Nigeria-based Boko Haram as a “persistent and diversifying threat to the US and overseas interests.”  Olsen went on to say that Boko Haram has only shown minimal interest in targeting the U.S. Homeland, but he also cited an April report according to which Boko Haram had threatened to attack a US-based news outlet if its coverage of Islam did not change.  The fact that Boko Haram has made the list of current and emerging threats mentioned by the National Counterterrorism Center shows how serious a problem they have become in West Africa and how their escalating violence is raising red flags within the intelligence community.  However, when asked by Committee member Rep. Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania if Boko Haram should be listed as a Foreign Designated Terrorist Organization (FTO), a hotly contested issue right now, Olsen balked and said that decision was solely up to the State Department.  Rep. Meehan asked Secretary Napolitano the same question about Boko Haram’s FTO designation, but she too declined to answer.  Olsen’s comments affirm the conflict between US intelligence organizations on the one hand, who firmly assert that Boko Haram is a terrorist organization with potential for serious destabilization in Nigeria, and the Department of State on the other hand, which continues to insist that the conflict is not religious in nature and that Boko Haram is merely a group of underprivileged disgruntled youth, whose disaffection can be resolved with US foreign assistance.  (Though as Rep. Chris Smith pointed out in a hearing on July 10th, to suggest that Boko Haram is motivated to terrorism by poverty is a true disservice to all the other many impoverished people of the world, who do not respond to their circumstances with terrorism.)

In a speech at the Heritage Foundation in March 2012 Meehan cited several well-known terrorism cases where the terrorist group in question was thought to be only a local or regional threat–until that group attacked or tried to attack the United States:

Throughout 2009 the assessment by the US Intelligence Community was that AQ affiliate AQAP would target only Saudi Arabia and Yemen and lacked the intent and capability to conduct a strike against the U.S. homeland.  This assumption was proven wrong on Christmas Day 2009, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up a U.S. airliner over Detroit….Similarly, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was supposedly interested only in the local insurgency against the government of Pakistan until it recruited, trained, and deployed U.S. national Faisal Shahzad to drive a car bomb into Times Square.[2]

Referring to the adage, ‘fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me,’ Meehan stated that the State Department needs to reassess the threat presented by Boko Haram to the United States and its international allies.  A growing number of intelligence and law enforcement experts as well as members of Congress are pushing State for the FTO designation for Boko Haram.  While acknowledging that the designation will not in itself resolve the conflict, it will, as Meehan said, “improve the ability of the United States Intelligence Community to assist Nigeria in fighting the group….it would allow enhanced capability on our part to limit the group’s fundraising, and would send a message globally about who the group is and about the danger it poses.”[3]  Although NCTC Director Olsen had to acknowledge, rightly, that the FTO designation is a decision for State, his inclusion of Boko Haram among current and emerging threats to the US leaves State further out in the cold in its assessment.

This congressional hearing, which occurs annually, acts as a barometer that measures what DHS and the Intelligence Community deem as the most imposing threats facing the U.S.  Comparing the testimony of Secretary Napolitano from year to year offers an interesting viewpoint of how current and political events shape what will be added to her report.  In her first hearing in front of the Homeland Security Committee in 2009, Secretary Napolitano did not use the word terrorism once, and she refused to categorize the Fort Hood shooting as an act of terrorism.  The gradual change of terms used by Napolitano may signal that she and her mammoth 200,000 strong department have re-calibrated what they deem to be the threat to the United States homeland.  However, it seems that Secretary Napolitano still is not ready to identify the Muslim Brotherhood as a major threat.  When asked about the Muslim Brotherhood and its penetration of the United States government, Napolitano responded by saying, “…DHS has found no credible evidence that operatives from the radical Islamic organization known as the Muslim Brotherhood are operating inside the United States.”  Perhaps in order for her to acknowledge that threat, we will have to wait until the 2013 hearing.


[1]  From audio transcript of the hearing: 24:30-24:36 “…we still know that violent extremism can be inspired by various religious, political or ideological beliefs.” C-SPAN Events: Secretary Napolitano Testifies on the State of Homeland Security

[2] Representative Patrick Meehan. “Boko Haram: An Overlooked Threat to U.S. Security” The Heritage Foundation.  Lecture delivered on March 6, 2012.

[3] Representative Patrick Meehan. “Boko Haram: An Overlooked Threat to U.S. Security” The Heritage Foundation.  Lecture delivered on March 6, 2012.