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Counterterrorism Chief Christy Abizaid on top terror threats - "Intelligence Matters"

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Okay.MICHAEL MORELL: So your career, what got you interested in public service, number one, and in a career in intelligence, number two?CHRISTY ABIZAID: So I come from a long line of public servants. But it was the cause, the proximate cause was 9/11 that got me into public service and the intelligence community specifically.MICHAEL MORELL: And why intelligence and not some other aspect of government?CHRISTY ABIZAID: I'll be honest - I tried any way in to the CT fight. And what are the kind of lessons for younger officers who want to be like you?CHRISTY ABIZAID: Well, Mike Leiter would tell you he was much younger than me.MICHAEL MORELL: But it's not true, I don't think.CHRISTY ABIZAID. We are unique across government in the authorities we have, the data we have, the collaboration across an interagency environment that exists at NCTC, and that is all to serve the protection of the United States of America.MICHAEL MORELL: And in terms of the analytic function that you have, how does it differ from what CIA does or DIA?CHRISTY ABIZAID: I think our difference is in the uniqueness of the data that we hold. What don't you do?CHRISTY ABIZAID: So we actually have unique authorities to be relevant in this space in a way that other parts of the intelligence community need to be very careful about.We, in the domestic context, are kind of a support element to the FBI, to the Department of Homeland Security - especially when you're talking about those acts of terrorism, those individuals that are motivated to violence without any inspiration from or connection to a foreign terrorist organization.Our primary role is to connect the dots, to live in the seams and to look across the information that we have to be able to discern when a threat is coming our way. And then you have your own permanent people.CHRISTY ABIZAID: That's correct.MICHAEL MORELL: So if I'm listening to this podcast and I'm listening to Christy and I say, 'I want to work there' - What do you look for in your permanent employees that you hire? We've got al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is probably, I think, the most concerning of the affiliates, in terms of intent against the homeland.We've got al-Shabaab, we've got JNIM in North Africa, which is driving a number of really interesting dynamics in terms of how that threat environment is evolving.You've got a new environment in Afghanistan which, you know, 21 years later is a very difficult environment to discern in terms of what's happening from a CT perspective. And you have the spawning of ISIS, which comes from an al-Qaeda in Iraq background, which has grown in terms of its branches and affiliates over the last many years, including, you know, I think it's something like 16 different branches across multiple different countries.And they have taken what was this centrally organized, hierarchical approach to plotting against the West and they democratized it and they made it much more difficult for counterterrorism professionals across Europe, across the United States, across the world to understand what was happening in terms of an individual's decision to motivate to violence.And when I look at the most likely way in which a terrorist attack will happen here in the homeland or in parts of Europe, it is an individual, motivated, using crude weapons, easily accessed, including a vehicle that they might drive on a regular basis. He also said that both groups have aspirations to attack the homeland, but they don't yet have the capability.So I'd love your view on how significant the reconstitutions have been and if you see any evidence at all of either group building an external attack capability.CHRISTY ABIZAID: The dynamic in and around Afghanistan is one of our top priorities from an intelligence community perspective, from a CT perspective. If you think about the way that the strategic landscape has changed over the last however many years, you know, Afghanistan and our presence having been removed from Afghanistan is a major change that we have to understand.ISIS-K and al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent were two networks that were present in Afghanistan when we decided to leave. And if you have followed the news of what the security environment looks like in Afghanistan right now, it is marred by ISIS-K.Whether that ISIS-K focus against the Taliban actually translates to an external intent that they are actively pursuing today, that is our main intelligence priority.The al-Qaeda dynamic is different. The - al-Qaeda has to wrestle with a long-standing history with the Taliban, where their actions reflect on the Taliban's ability to lead the country, the international perception of the Taliban as legitimate, and I think that creates a much different dynamic than we're dealing with on the ISIS-K side.So, you know, top priority, really important in terms of understanding the external intent. And AQAP has certainly been able to sustain itself - though, has absolutely been distracted by and undermined by both the international coalition that's active there, and this dynamic with the Houthis that results in squeezing of their territory from directions that they may not have anticipated.That said, the concern that I've always had with AQAP is a concern that pertains today, which is that small cadre of experienced operatives that is focused on mounting some of the most technologically sophisticated external attacks that we've seen emerge from the al-Qaeda network.And when you look across the last 20 years and the number of attacks that have happened here in the homeland, you know, the most recent was in 2019, where AQAP associated itself with the shooting in Pensacola, Florida, at the Naval Air Station.Those are the kinds of things that we've got to be very attentive to. And we've got to kind of train our intelligence resources on understanding that piece of tactical information that may not seem relevant in a sea of other information, but that you can discover and then disrupt threats based on.MICHAEL MORELL: You know, the Pensacola attack was interesting because it was an external attack.CHRISTY ABIZAID: It was. But he says it's the group he worries most about and I'm wondering how you think about al-Shabaab in terms of an external attack capability outside of Somalia, in Africa, and then even outside of Africa. And it's connected to other al-Qaeda elements that, with their contribution to any kind of plotting, we should be really concerned about the effects that it could have, including here in the homeland.And so I would I would describe the the overall external threat from Shabaab as something that has to be a top intelligence priority, and certainly is.MICHAEL MORELL: Why are they better funded than most other groups?CHRISTY ABIZAID: Because of the territory they own in Somalia and the way in which they're able to extort their way to deep coffers. It comes from the al-Qaeda affiliate that's operating there and has really expanded.MICHAEL MORELL: When you say North Africa, define that geographically.CHRISTY ABIZAID: Mostly the Sahel.MICHAEL MORELL: And for those people that don't know what the Sahel is.CHRISTY ABIZAID: Mali, northern Mali, you know, that region.MICHAEL MORELL: Southern Libya.CHRISTY ABIZAID: Absolutely. They are able to thrive in an environment where there is no authority that is holding them accountable and to co-opt a population that is looking to survive.MICHAEL MORELL: Is there an ISIS group in Africa that you're concerned about?CHRISTY ABIZAID: Yeah. And there is definitely an ISIS dynamic there.What's interesting is the ISIS dynamic is many times in conflict with the al-Qaeda dynamic and kind of the internecine violence that will happen in different parts of Africa is very tribal and creates a complexity for us in the CT environment that is certainly a challenge.MICHAEL MORELL: The degree to which these groups around the world, both al-Qaeda and ISIS, are connected back to their motherships, right, back to Zawahiri, wherever he is in South Asia, and back to ISIS core in in Iraq and Syria - does it depend? And most of those attacks, which are highly lethal, the majority of them and the majority of the deaths are perpetrated by a racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists.When I think about the way that the global terrorism environment has changed, the way that that manifests here in the United States in a different way, this rise of domestic violent extremists that are conducting attacks without motivation from a foreign element, without a connection to a foreign terrorist organization, they are leaving an indelible mark on how the threat is developing in the United States and the way in which Chris Wray's folks can array against that threat.And so we from the national counterterrorism community are really focused on doing our part within the scope of our authorities to support the FBI, to support DHS, as we try and get ahead of and protect against that version of the terrorist threat that is presented to Americans.MICHAEL MORELL: And there's some links, correct, between these domestic violent extremists here and similar folks overseas.CHRISTY ABIZAID: That is one of our number one tasks as the National Counterterrorism Center - is to determine the foreign linkages, to understand the transnational elements.So there are some, but I don't I don't want to overstate it. And how do we establish a linkage across the movement, which is enabled by social media, in a way that helps us protect against those that actually choose to mobilize to violence.MICHAEL MORELL: So is it safe to say, Christy, that if your phone rings and somebody tells you that a federal building somewhere in the United States has just been bombed, that your first instinct would go to domestic violent extremism as opposed to international terrorism?CHRISTY ABIZAID: Not necessarily.MICHAEL MORELL: Not necessarily?CHRISTY ABIZAID: I think either could happen upon us with equal likelihood.

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