Statement for the Record: Ms. Christine Abizaid
Director, National Counterterrorism Center
United States Senate Committee
on Homeland Security and Government Affairs
Annual Threat Assessment to the Homeland
Thursday, November 17, 2022
Thank you very much. Chairman Peters, Ranking Member Portman, and Members of the Committee. Thank you very much for the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the overall terrorism landscape.
Despite significant progress and diminishing terrorist threat to the United States, the country continues to face a diversified transnational, and in many ways unpredictable threat environment at home and abroad. An array of actors, whether foreign terrorist organizations, state sponsors of terrorism, or lone actors are shaping the nature of today’s threat.
This changed environment exists amid an ongoing transition to the counterterrorism community where CT, while still critical, is one of many competing priorities the U.S. National Security community must be postured to address. In today’s testimony I’ll start by giving an overview of the terrorist threat to the homeland, turn to the overseas threat environment, and then end with some comments on the importance of our continued CT effort.
Regarding the United States homeland. Terrorist organizations, such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, remain committed to attacking inside the United States. However, unlike 21 years ago, the threat today is more likely to take the form of an individual attacker inspired by these groups, rather than a networked and hierarchically directed plot.
In fact, since 9/11, 37 of the 45 ISIS or Al Qaeda linked attacks in the homeland have been inspired by these groups, rather than centrally directed by them. This trend towards lone actor threats inside the United States extends beyond ISIS and Al Qaeda, it also characterizes the threat we face from domestic actors, such as racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, militia violent extremists and anarchists violent extremists.
In particular, the racially, or ethnically motivated violent extremist threat has the most obvious links to transnational actors whose plots and professed ideology, encourage mobilization to violence by those vulnerable to their messaging.
This threat is fluid, it’s fragmented, lacking in hierarchical structures with proponents around the globe framing actions around the concept of leaderless resistance.
Transitioning to the overseas environment, Sunni and Shia driven terrorist movements worldwide continue to dominate the threat to Americans. ISIS and Al Qaeda continue to aspire to attack U.S. and other western interests overseas, but have been more effective at pursuing operations against regional and local adversaries.
For its part, ISIS in Iraq and Syria remains an intact, centrally led organization that will most likely continue to pose both a global and local threat. This, despite the death of its Emir Hajji Abdullah in February.
While significantly weaker than it’s peak in 2015 through 2017, ISIS leaders from Iraq and Syria have been successful at spurning branches and networks across Africa, and as far as south and east Asia, with its two most effective branches currently operating out of West Africa and Afghanistan.
Likewise, Al Qaeda maintains its regional affiliate structure, positioned effectively in parts of North and East Africa, the Middle East, and to a lesser extent South Asia. The July death of long time Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, was a strategic and symbolic setback for the organization, but it does not put an end to Al Qaeda.
In particular, in the Middle East, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is a destabilizing actor in Yemen, and remains among the most intrepid Al Qaeda affiliates intent on attacks inside the U.S. Homeland. Two other prominent Al Qaeda affiliates also stand out, both for their growing regional influence, and their significant capabilities.
The Sahel based Al Qaeda affiliate Jamaat, and Somalia based affiliate Al Shabaab. Of note, we continue to monitor for signs Al Qaeda has chosen a successor to Zawahiri, now three months since his death. In addition to Al Qaeda affiliate leaders, we are particularly focused on the role that Iran based legacy leaders, such as Syphilato (ph) may play in the future of the organization.
Transitioning from Sunni terrorism to threats emanating from Iran, its partners and its proxies, Iran continues to plan, encourage and support plots against the United States, both at home and in the Middle East where we have a significant U.S. military presence.
Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have sought to plot attacks against former U.S. officials to retaliate for the death of IRGC Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani, raising the threat both at home and abroad for those that are Iran deems responsible.
In closing, I would just highlight that the complexity of the international terrorism and extremism environment that I just outlined, continues to demand a collaborative, agile, and sufficiently resourced counterterrorism effort to mitigate terrorist threats to the United States.
It is clear that the significant CT pressure brought to bear against terrorist groups over the last two decades, along with investment in effective CT defenses here at home, has resulted in a diminished threat to the United States homeland. And CTC and its CT partners across the government are working toward a sustainable and enduring level of support to this mission that maintains this strategic success.
In fact, the role of NCTC today is perhaps more important than ever. Charged with integrating and analyzing all terrorism information across the United States government, and sharing that information with partners, both foreign and domestic, organizations like NCTC can help ensure that CT remains a foundational element of national security, even as other organizations must shift to other pressing priorities.
Finally, I want to assure this Committee that the interagency enterprise of CT practitioners remains committed to this mission, and are working behind the scenes every day to protect The American people, both at home and abroad.
It is with great gratitude and privilege that I appear before you today, and have the opportunity to recognize the incredible community of intelligence, diplomatic, military and law enforcement professionals whose dedication to the CT mission has done so much to protect this country and its citizens.
And with that Mr. Chairman, subject to your questions.
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