The Utah Valley University (UVU) National Security Studies program hosted Ms. Bridget Matty, a regional representative for the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), on August 29, 2018. Ms. Matty spoke on the current state of counterterrorism, described the current terrorism threats, and talked generally on the role and mission of the NCTC. First, she presented a review of the past terrorism landscape, stating that in the wake of 9/11, counterterrorism was focused on Afghanistan and areas throughout the Middle East, where terrorist groups had clandestine, scattered presences. The context of pre-2011 counterterrorism was the post-Gulf War period of the mid 1990s, when Islamic extremist groups such as Al Qaeda became more prolific in attacks and mobilizing local influence. Additionally, the September 11 attacks and the ensuing Iraq and Afghanistan wars brought Islamism and Islamic extremism to the forefront of American Policy.
Ms. Matty then explained that the period from 2010 to 2014 was characterized by a substantial increase in terrorist propaganda on the internet, and that in 2011, the counterterrorism priority shifted from Afghanistan to Yemen, with Al Qaeda remaining the main focus. Additionally, terrorist groups in the Middle East spread their areas of influence, so that terrorist groups now held a greater presence throughout the Middle East and North and East Africa. Additionally, counterterrorist efforts began to focus on homegrown violent extremism (HVE), or instances of US citizens being mobilized into terrorist activities abroad. Matty spoke briefly on Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Yemeni imam who joined Al Qaeda and was instrumental in making recruitment videos for the group, as well as planning terrorist attacks. She then explained that HVE is a small but important phenomenon, stating that while there are relatively few US citizens being mobilized into terrorist groups, the number is higher than most would realize; currently, 295 or so have been identified, being won over by groups such as Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The counterterrorism focus shifted again in 2014, with the rise of ISIS and the increase of terrorist fighters in the Middle East. ISIS proved popular among terrorists and extremists, gaining nearly 40,000 members mostly from Turkey, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia, but also attracting around 5600 people from western countries. Although ISIS wielded significant influence during this period, their influence has sharply decreased with coalition efforts—the group only controls 3% of the land it previously had in 2014, and the groups media output (i.e., propaganda propagation) decreased 70% during the latter half of 2017. Additionally, the group has less foreign fighters, and regional security groups and armed forces in the Middle East are responding more effectively to the threat of ISIS. ISIS is weak, Ms. Matty explained, because of lower talent pools, counterterrorism efforts outside of battlefield contexts, ideological disagreements among key ISIS leaders, lower funds, and the group’s tendency to claim all terrorist attacks as theirs, regardless if that is true. However, Ms. Bridget pointed out that ISIS still remains a threat and a focus of counterterrorism efforts, stating that while their land is largely gone, they are still wielding a presence in international affairs.
The state of terrorism in 2017 was the continued threats of Iraq, Syria, and Yemen (because of ISIS and political instability), and the number of small scale terrorist attacks increased. Additionally, new kinds of threats emerged, outside of the conventional suicide bombings and terrorist attacks. For example, Ms. Matty cited the Underwear Bomber’s unconventional methods as well as an instance where bomb-making materials where shipped via parcel service from the Middle East to Australia. While threats like these, thankfully, are many times stopped, they speak to the adaptation of terrorist groups in finding novel ways to carry out their work. Other tools, such as the internet, have become avenues for new kinds of terrorism, as well as continue to aid terrorists in recruitment and propaganda. Additionally, while the numbers in terrorist groups have decreased, there exists still a strong presence of veteran fighters, whose actions account for much of the loss of human life and property. Fighters such as these are still spreading to Europe in areas like the UK, Germany, and France, where refugee crises and the influx of Middle Easterners create unique and complicated dynamics in domestic politics and local affairs. Terrorists also have been identified in Central Asia and South America; the NCTC therefore expects terrorism to pop up anywhere around the globe.
Today, the NCTC’s efforts of info gathering and sharing focus counterterrorism on HVE, Al Qaeda, and Hezbollah. World events related to Iran, Syria, and the Middle East in general continue to be monitored and addressed. NCTC also focuses on decreasing instances of HVE. The group notes that terrorism is increasingly attractive to teens in the west, many of whom desire attention, fulfilment, meaning, and camaraderie. The NCTC, along with addressing intelligence gaps and sharing knowledge with government agencies and politicians, seeks also to increase community awareness outside of government, by empowering community efforts to both identify extremists and possible extremists, but also to prevent HVE, especially among teens. According to Ms. Matty, there is a clear role of the American public in counterterrorism efforts: to develop societal resilience along with identifying and preventing terrorism at home.
The presentation was very informative, not only on the basis of providing a survey of recent counterterrorism efforts, but also in helping to contextualize the role of US intelligence and counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East, especially given recent events concerning the coming end of the Syrian Civil War, Iran’s partnership with Syria, and what the near future may look like from a counterterrorism viewpoint. Ms. Matty’s presentation helped me to understand that while coalition efforts have been successful in stemming terrorism from these regions, there is still a great need for western and eastern nations to coordinate intelligence gathering and counterterrorism efforts that include, but are not limited to, putting boots on the ground. Certainly, current regional issues deserve a more in-depth analysis in order to understand the role that counterterrorism will play in the coming years. I very much appreciate the efforts of the UVU National Security Studies program to bring such a high-level official to our campus.
Michael Hinatsu, Political Science Major Student, Utah Valley University
STUDENT REFLECTIVE ESSAYS