What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Counterterrorism chief says ISIS adapting to inspire, not control attacks

What do officials know about the attempted morning attack of a New York subway and the motives of the alleged bomber? Nicholas Rasmussen, outgoing director of the National Counterterrorism Center, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the difficulties of preventing such attacks and the chances of another 9/11-style event.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to our top story- the attempted bombing this morning of a New York City subway.

    A short time ago, I spoke with Nicholas Rasmussen. He's the director of the National Counterterrorism Center. He will be leaving that post later this month, after 16 years of counterterror work.

    I began by asking him what more he could tell us about today's attack.

  • Nicholas Rasmussen:

    This is the kind of event that bears all the hallmarks of a terrorist event.

    I'm certainly going to defer to my FBI and New York Police Department colleagues who have been speaking publicly about it today. They're the closest to the investigation. But, again, what I'm hearing from them, what we're hearing from them suggests that this is an individual who had a terrorist intent, and at least it seems as if he wasn't able to carry out the kind of deadly attack that he might have hoped to.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Should New York City have been better prepared for this, or is this the kind of low-tech event that Americans are just going to have to get used to happening?

  • Nicholas Rasmussen:

    I would put New York up there with any metropolitan police department in the world, perhaps even above any metropolitan police department in the world, in terms of their level of preparation and their level of capability.

    So the last thing you will hear from me is any critique or criticism of how well New York is prepared. This is just a feature of the landscape we're living in, in the modern world, the kind of terrorist attack that's very difficult to prevent, if it involves — if, as it appears as it might, involves someone who was acting alone, acting with relatively small-scale material capabilities, that these are not the kinds of things that are easily prevented.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Someone who appears to be acting alone.

    How does this fit into the larger picture of the terrorism threat that this country faces?

  • Nicholas Rasmussen:

    Again, I want to be careful about talking about this particular case, because I think we have learned over time that these stories always have layers, and there will be layers to be uncovered as the NYPD and the FBI investigate this individual.

    But it, as I said, bears the hallmarks of the kind of terrorism we're seeing, individuals who are not necessarily tied directly to a terrorist organization. They're not operating at the command-and-control of some figure in Baghdad or some figure in Syria, but they are often operating inspired by a terrorism narrative that they see and attach to a group like ISIS.

    And those individuals acting alone can be quite lethal and quite dangerous. But they also, at the same time, don't — often don't have the same high-level capability of a terrorist cell of the sort we saw during the al-Qaida-dominated era of a few years ago.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, you just referred to ISIS, the Islamic State, being driven out of the territory that they had been holding in Iraq and in Syria, so how do you describe the threat that they pose now to the United States?

  • Nicholas Rasmussen:

    Well, we have certainly done a great deal to counter the kind of threat ISIS presented when it maintained that kind of territorial control over large swathes of Iraq and Syria.

    But now, having shrunk that territorial safe haven, the group is finding that it is adapting its model, looking to inspire individuals operating overseas, rather than trying to direct and command and control them, but instead looking to motivate individuals to act in their own environment. Don't come to Iraq and Syria. Do what you can where you are using whatever tools are at your disposal, whether that's a gun or a knife or a vehicle, as we saw in New York some weeks back as well.

    That's a different model of terrorism. It's harder to prevent. It looks often more like a criminal model, but it still can be quite lethal and dangerous.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what does that mean for Americans in terms of how Americans, people who live in this country should think about terrorism?

  • Nicholas Rasmussen:

    I think it calls — it puts us in a place where Americans need to be responsible, in many cases, for their own security, looking around, understanding what's happening around you, maintaining situational awareness, because it's not likely in most cases that the FBI or the federal government is going to bust up a terrorist cell of this sort in advance.

    But, as I said, these acts almost operate at the level of criminal acts. They're not very different from what criminals often do. And so, much like other forms of criminal violence, see something, say something, you know, reach out to the local law enforcement authorities if you see something that looks amiss and be a participant in your own community's security.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what would you say are the odds of another huge 9/11-scale attack on this country?

  • Nicholas Rasmussen:

    I don't know that I would put a single number on it, but I do know that the work we have done as a government against al-Qaida operating out of Pakistan and Iraq — Pakistan and Afghanistan over the last decade has made that kind of attack increasingly difficult for al-Qaida.

    And we face far less prospect of that kind of attack today than we faced a decade ago. That's something I think Americans can feel pretty good about.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump has taken, I think it's fair to say, a much stronger anti-Islam stance than his predecessors. How has that affected the work that you do?

  • Nicholas Rasmussen:

    I would say, at one level, it really doesn't impact the work that we do.

    The kind of direct security-service-to-security-service cooperation that we engage in with key partner countries around the world, whether that's — it's the British, the French, the Germans, the Australians, the Canadians, all of our closest partners, I would argue that it really doesn't impact day the day the kind of professional level law enforcement and intelligence operation we engage in.

    Where it can become complicating sometimes is that we need the support and participation of Muslim communities in our effort to identify potential terrorists and to get ahead of or disrupt potential terrorist attacks.

    And anything perceived — even if it's just a perception that the United States is anti-Islam, anything that makes that process of community engagement more difficult, that just adds to our challenges.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, there's a lot of conversation lately about cuts at the State Department and the diplomatic corps.

    What have you seen in terms of staffing in your own field? Have you seen cuts? And how is the morale there? The president has been pretty critical of the intelligence community in the past year. How do you — how do you…

  • Nicholas Rasmussen:

    Well, thus far, I think we have been able to sustain the kind of resource picture that we need to carry out the functions that the American people would want us to carry out. And we have not experienced those kinds of cuts.

    As far as morale is concerned, when you have a mission like counterterrorism, it isn't hard to keep morale up in your organization. My work force, my colleagues at NCTC, come to work every day knowing exactly why they're there, and it's to keep fellow Americans safe.

    They're also, I think, increasingly becoming used to the idea that everybody's better off in our line of work if you can tune out politics. And so I encourage them to do that, tune out politics of — anything that you're watching on TV that causes you to stop doing what you're doing is probably not a good thing.

    So, especially with younger officers, I try to keep them focused on the mission, keep them focused on doing what they signed up to do, which is everything in their power to keep their fellow Americans safe.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nick Rasmussen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center for the next, what, 11 days.

  • Nicholas Rasmussen:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you very much.

  • Nicholas Rasmussen:

    Thank you, Judy.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest