Top counterterrorism official: U.S. must avoid returning to "pre-9/11 state"

/ CBS News

Although the U.S. has not seen a large-scale terrorism attack on its soil in almost two decades, threats from several extremist organizations persist and some trends are "ominous," says Russ Travers, the deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

"When I testify [before Congress] now, 'complacency' is a word that I use a lot, because I do worry that we are a bit of a victim of our own success," Travers said. "There's a bit of a fatigue factor, I think, settling in with terrorism in general."

"There are a lot of ominous trends out there," he continued. "And the key question now is going to be the extent to which we reallocate resources and attention away from terrorism."

"Intelligence Matters" podcast with Michael Morell More

More in "Intelligence Matters" podcast with Michael Morell

In an interview with Intelligence Matters host and CBS News senior national security contributor Michael Morell, Travers said he was in "complete agreement" with the country's strategic shift, as described in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, from a focus on counterterrorism objectives to one on competition with Russia and China.

"We just need to be careful that we don't take our eye off the ball when it comes to terrorism," he told Morell. "We need to ensure that we don't go too far and undermine our capabilities and put us back in kind of a pre-9/11 state."

Travers pointed to the evolving threat from ISIS, which, since the collapse of its territorial caliphate earlier this year, has reconstituted a core group of leadership in other areas.

"[T]hey've known that this has been coming for a couple of years, and so they've been planning for it," Travers said. "[T]hey're operating in insurgent cells."

He estimated that just over 14,000 ISIS fighters continue to operate in Iraq and Syria – an "order of magnitude more people than ISIS had six, seven years ago at the beginning of the insurgency," he said – but that the network has spread to more than 20 countries. "The global nature of this can't be overestimated," he told Morell. "[T]his is going to be a concern for us for a very long while."

Local insurgencies throughout Africa, for instance, have "wrapped themselves in the ISIS" flag, Travers said, presenting new challenges for intelligence gathering. "It's not an area that we are particularly well-postured to do collection against," he told Morell.

And while theological differences remain between ISIS and Al-Qaeda, the two groups do occasionally cooperate in areas in West Africa – while fighting against one another in Yemen and Somalia. Of the existing Al-Qaeda offshoots, Travers said, "I think [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] in Yemen is probably the greatest long-term concern for us."

Counterterrorism challenges are also being compounded by technological shifts that are fundamentally changing the scope and focus of intelligence collection, Travers told Morell.

"Right now, pretty much every department and agency is going after all the data it possibly can in support of its analysis. That's probably not the most efficient way to do things," he said. "So we've got some really hard questions going forward, I think, because we are all swimming in that ever-increasing size of the haystack. And the needles themselves are getting more subtle."

This conversation is part of a continuing Intelligence Matters series on "Leadership of the IC." For much more from Michael Morell's conversation with Russ Travers, you can read the transcript here and subscribe to "Intelligence Matters" here.

First published on July 3, 2019 / 6:00 AM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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