As a retired NYPD Inspector who worked in counterterrorism for nearly 15 years, I witnessed the threat to the homeland wax and wane over my career. For some time now – and definitely since January 6th – our domestic intelligence agencies have placed a strong emphasis on what is euphemistically referred to as “homegrown violent extremists.”
While this concept appears to be broad, in practise it refers to a politically motivated predilection for monitoring right-wing groups that apparently constitute what President Joe Biden has described as an “existential crisis.”
The focus on these groups has been a luxury belief of Washington elites made feasible only by the end of the threat of Islamist extremism, thanks to past intelligence and law enforcement professionals’ diligent work.
Domestic counterterrorism officials must restart their efforts to secure the homeland from Islamist threats, as they did following 9/11.
It won’t be simple, especially given the country’s porous southern border. When I worked in counterterrorism, the appearance in New York City of a person from a country of concern who had no entry footprint and was suspected of having ill intent was assigned Priority One. Currently, we not only promote newcomers who may fit that description, but we also pay for their transportation to and maintenance in some of the country’s key terror targets (including New York City).
This is significant because a person who enters the country without going through the visa or customs process arrives as a ghost, unknown to law enforcement. A fundamental principle of law enforcement is a meticulous examination of a subject’s past. What country is he from? Is he a military veteran? Is there a friendly international service that may know who he is? Are there biometrics on him that could be matched to an Interpol database? Europol? Customs in the United States?
While such a subject puts law enforcement at a tactical disadvantage, it also implies that innocent migrants may face unfair scrutiny. When multiplied by thousands of arrivals from troubled places, there is no prescription for a workable system.
The threat here is heightened by the fact that Iran is heavily involved in the present events in Gaza. Iran has had a long-standing influence in Latin America.
Former Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, for example, has been recognised as a cocaine kingpin by the US Treasury. Aissami is well-known in the Middle East and is suspected by US authorities of providing counterfeit passports to Hamas and Hezbollah operatives.
Hezbollah may be the only coherent group in a lawless territory in South America’s tri-border region, which includes Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina. Through its involvement in money laundering and narcotics trafficking, the tri-border is a major source of revenue for Hezbollah. Iran began an endeavour to enhance its influence in Latin America in 2005, constructing six new embassies and putting the puppet master of the current Gaza war on America’s doorstep.
Three decades is a tick of the clock in terrorist time, which means that in order to confront the present, counterterrorism experts must first understand the past. Hezbollah destroyed a Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires in 1994, almost definitely at the request of Iran, killing 87 people. In 2012, Hezbollah bombed an Israeli tour bus in Bulgaria, killing six people.
The issue is that, unlike Hamas, Iran has proved the willingness and skill to project terrorism abroad. Indeed, a conspiracy to assassinate Saudi Ambassador to the United States was staged and launched from Mexico in 2011. At the time of writing, the US embassy in Iran’s client state of Lebanon is under attack.
The other major internal threat resulting from the Gaza war is from individuals radicalised to violence by media pictures. The threat can range from actual Hamas supporters to “lone wolves” with a laundry list of grievances.
From the recent harassment and assault of a Jewish guy in Brooklyn by an assailant chanting “Allahu Akbar” to the murder of a teacher in France, we’ve seen examples of this. In Illinois, an insane guy killed a Palestinian child in response to news from Gaza, highlighting how random such crimes are and how difficult they are to trace and prohibit regardless of reason.
Furthermore, one only needs to watch the news to observe tens of thousands of students from our best colleges marching in support of Hamas. This is not the same as advocating for the Palestinian people; Hamas is a declared terrorist organisation that launched unprecedented attacks on Israel. The fact that professors might be “exhilarated” by the beheading of babies simply fuels the kind of hatred that leads to susceptible people becoming radicalised.
Do these students realize that chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” equates to the elimination of the state of Israel? Is that actually their aim?
If this is the case, domestic counterterrorism officials may soon face a new source of radicalism.
Domestic counterterrorism officers cannot afford to wait and watch at this time. Creating trustworthy information sources might take months if not years. Furthermore, the depth of situational awareness required to distinguish a true threat from posturing necessitates years of absorption in the work.
One hopes that the Department of Justice has realised it is time to move on from its concerns about traditional Catholics and begin focusing on individuals who may actually constitute an “existential threat” to our country.