A View from the CT Foxhole: Joseph Maguire, Acting Director of National Intelligence.

AuthorCruickshank, Paul

Joseph Maguire was sworn in as the sixth director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) on December 27, 2018. In August 2019, he became the Acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI). Maguire previously served as NCTC's Deputy Director for Strategic Operational Planning from 2007 to 2010, and represented the Center as a part of the National Security Council's Counterterrorism Security Group.

Prior to his confirmation as the director of NCTC, Maguire served as president and CEO of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides college scholarships and educational counseling to the surviving children of fallen special operations personnel, and immediate financial grants to severely combat-wounded and hospitalized special operations personnel and their families. Prior to leading the foundation, he was a vice president with Booz Allen Hamilton. Maguire retired from the United States Navy in 2010 as a vice admiral, culminating a 36-year career as a naval special warfare officer. He commanded at every level, including the Naval Special Warfare Command.

NCTC leads and integrates the national counterterrorism (CT) effort by fusing foreign and domestic CT information, providing terrorism analysis, sharing information with partners across the counterterrorism enterprise, and driving whole-of government action to secure national CT objectives.

CTC: Eighteen years on from 9/11, what is your assessment of the jihadi terrorist threat facing the U.S. homeland and U.S. interests overseas?

Maguire: The counterterrorism enterprise is the best example of integration that exists across our national security establishment. We built a comprehensive infrastructure to analyze, assess and minimize the terrorism threat. Since the catastrophic attacks on 9/11, we have significantly diminished the ability of jihadists to strike the U.S. by removing hundreds of leaders and operatives, disrupting dozens of networks and plots, and degrading safe havens. But some jihadist groups still have that intent, not only to target the homeland but also our interests overseas. They are continually adapting to setbacks by modifying their tactics, seeking out alternative safe havens, and using new and emerging technologies to communicate, recruit, and conduct attacks. This makes for an increasingly diverse and unpredictable threat, and one that has evolved over time. Eighteen years ago, we were primarily focused on al-Qa'ida, which was then headquartered in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan and along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border areas. Fast forward to now, and the global jihadist threat landscape still includes al-Qa'ida, but also now its four affiliates as well as ISIS and its network of almost two dozen global branches and networks. In fact, we assess global jihadist groups have extended their reach into more countries than at any other point in the movement's 40-year history. This growth has largely paralleled the deterioration of security, governance, and humanitarian conditions in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia. While this threat will continue to be a challenge for us, the U.S. and our partners continue to achieve significant successes applying kinetic pressure on top of the jihadist organizations--most recently demonstrated through the degradation of ISIS safe havens in Iraq and Syria--which has taken time away from them and diminished the luxury they had to plan and execute external attacks. Going forward, we will need to apply persistent pressure against these groups, but we also need to expand our tools in the toolbox to do much more than kinetic to address the permissive environments which they repeatedly exploit.

At home, our Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, and all of the interagency have done an excellent job of preventing global jihadists from traveling to the United States. While we remain concerned about the threat from groups overseas, the homeland threat has changed. The most persistent and frequent form of global jihadist terrorism in our country is homegrown violent extremists; individuals who are inspired by global jihadism and radicalize within our borders. Before 2014, we saw a few terrorist groups attempting to encourage supporters to attack. One of the most prominent examples of that was AQAP's Inspire Magazine. Since 2014, we've seen ISIS demonstrate the ability to leverage social media, mobile messaging applications, and high-quality propaganda to maintain an image as the most prominent global jihadist group and convince individuals around the globe that it is worth fighting and even dying for their movement. So, within the U.S., the Federal Bureau of Investigation has worked hard over the last several years to diminish the FIVE threat. This year, we have had one HVE attack. In 2018, we had four FIVE attacks. And in 2017, we had five. But that said, the FBI, according to Director [Christopher] Wray has about 1,000 active HVE cases that he's following right now in all 50 states. These are all related to the jihadi threat and suggest this is a real threat that as of yet does not seem to be diminishing with the changes in the terrorism landscape overseas.

So, you take a look at all of the effort we put in here, job number one is protecting the homeland. And we've done a good job since our wake-up on the 11th of September 2001. Yet, the threat remains, and after all this time, much remains to be done to make sure the homeland, our citizens and our interests are safe.

CTC: In no small measure because of U.S.-led counterterrorism efforts, the Islamic State has been seriously degraded, losing all of its territory in Syria and Iraq. However, the group is still thought, according to the United Nations, to retain up to $300 million in financial reserves (1) and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, earlier this year surfaced in a video (2) and is still at large. What is your assessment of the threat that the Islamic State poses today?

Maguire: ISIS still remains a tremendous threat in spite of the loss of the caliphate. Since the rise of ISIS in about 2013, somewhere around 45,000 to 50,000 foreign terrorist fighters entered into that combat zone. The West has been effective in applying kinetic pressure and working with Syrian Democratic Forces as well as with the Iraqi government to reduce the physical caliphate, but that was not without great cost. That said, we have killed thousands of them and taken away their leadership. We have bought time and space for us and taken away time and space from ISIS. But now that the Syrian Democratic Forces have cleared the Middle Euphrates River Valley, they have over 2,000 foreign terrorist fighters in their internment camps. There are roughly 72,000 internally displaced people in the Al-Hawl camp. Many of them are, in fact, hardcore ISIS. And we estimate that tens of thousands more fighters remain unaccounted for in Syria and Iraq.

ISIS has tried to demonstrate that although they've lost the caliphate, they still remain a viable threat. Since March of this year, the group has identified additional branches and now has a network of approximately two dozen global branches and networks. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi remains at large--he remains as the titular head of the organization, and as you know, after the caliphate fell, he made a point of coming out and making sure that he was visible and was able to keep his leadership alive. The ISIS branch in Southeast Asia and others have sworn allegiance to al-Baghdadi to demonstrate that although ISIS lost the physical caliphate, they still have influence that is more than just in the Middle East. NCTC's assessment is that al-Baghdadi and the core ISIS are somewhere still in Syria and Iraq. They are still able to move finances back and forth.

As for the threat going forward, I think the greatest threat we in the West have is the foreign terrorist fighters that have left that we did not know about and the 2,000-plus foreign terrorist fighters that are in the Syrian Democratic Forces camps. The U.S. military and our partners and allies are biometrically enrolling those foreign terrorist...

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