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National Security: A Range of Threats

The United States faces myriad threats, from the porous southwest border to common adversaries – Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. Combining the known actors, the ongoing threat of spillover violence from the Israel-Hamas War, and a surge of confidence among Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K) supporters, the United States has cause for concern. The heightened level of imminent threats raises concerns across the intelligence community spectrum:

  • On April 12, 2024, Mike Casey, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, stated, “The scale is impressive and terrifying.”
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Christopher Wray echoed Casey’s concern to the House Appropriations Committee in April 2024, “Now, increasingly concerning is the potential for a coordinated attack here in the homeland, akin to the ISIS-K attack we saw at the Russia concert hall a couple weeks ago.” Wray also stated before Congress, “the range of threats…is enormous.” To add complexity to the “enormous range of threats” was Iran’s most recent attack on Israel.
  • House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mark E. Green said in a statement in late March 2024 that “The Islamic Republic of Iran presents a clear and present danger to the United States homeland and our allies,” as do the “Iran-backed terror groups and the national security threats posed by the ‘Axis of Resistance,’ which includes Hizballah, Hamas, the Houthis, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and various Iraqi and Syrian militia groups.”

A Historical Look at Current Threats

For members of Iran’s “Axis of Resistance,” gambling with escalatory threats is not new. Since the late 1970s, the Iranian government’s terror networks began to extend their influence beyond the Middle East into Latin America, aligning with drug cartels and corrupt politicians. Tehran believed the region was ideal for creating anti-American and Western civilization propaganda with its geographic proximity to the United States. Iran’s presence continued to gain momentum in Latin America in the 1980s after the first cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, was elected and founded the Islamic Republic of Iran. After Khomeini, one of the most controversial Iranian extremists, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005 and began strengthening ties with Latin America and the nuclearization of Iran. In 2009, Ahmadinejad created an alliance with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez that led to other partnerships in the region with Ecuador and Bolivia, which Chavez brokered. Ahmadinejad and Chavez condemned Israel with antisemitic remarks and threats during Ahmadinejad’s 2009 tour of Latin America. Iran, Russia, and China have all been linked to drug cartels, narcotics trafficking, and violence in Latin American countries.

The foreign terrorist organization Hezbollah, a known proxy of Iran, has been linked to two terrorist bombings in Argentina (the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the Jewish community in 1994), resulting in 114 civilian deaths and approximately 500 injured. In December 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice charged Samuel Salman El Reda – a dual citizen of Colombia and Lebanon and a ranking member of Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad Organization – with terrorism. U.S. Attorney Damian Williams for the Southern District of New York stated, “El Reda has led terrorist operations on behalf of the Islamic Jihad Organization of Hezbollah, including a 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires that massacred 85 innocent victims.” Although that attack took place in the 1990s, Hezbollah maintains a foothold in the region.

In November 2023, the Brazilian Federal Police, with the assistance of Israel’s lead intelligence agency Mossad, foiled a terrorist plot and arrested two subjects with ties to Hezbollah plans to attack Jewish communities in Latin America. In 2024, an Iraqi citizen living in Ohio pleaded guilty to a plot to kill former President George W. Bush and provide material support to a terrorist organization. The subject, former al Qaeda member Shihab Ahmed Shihab Shihab, was sentenced to 15 years in prison after successfully smuggling an unknown ISIS member through the U.S. southern border. Shihab also previously bragged to FBI informants about smuggling two Hezbollah members into the United States. Shihab did not elaborate on the U.S. entry point used to smuggle the terrorists, but Shihab’s previous modus operandi was entering the U.S. at the southern border.

Porous Borders

It is naïve to believe these infiltrations will not extend to U.S. soil. In December 2023, before the Committee on Homeland Security, FBI Director Wray expressed grave concern over the national security threat the growing number of “gotaways” poses at the Southwest border, which could exceed 1.5 million. U.S. Customs recorded a record 2.4 million encounters at the Southwest border (3.2 million encounters nationwide) in 2023. Over 564 of those known encounters were on the Terrorist Screening Center watchlist, a list compiled of people reasonably suspected to be involved in terrorism or related activities. What is not known, however, is the number of watchlist members within the growing number of “gotaways.” In a March 2023 hearing, prior U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz testified before the Committee on Homeland Security that the total “gotaways” are likely 20% higher than public reporting. The porous border is just one of the “range of threats” the FBI director expressed.

In 2021, Yale University’s School of Management estimated 22.1 million as the total number of undocumented migrants in the U.S., which raises national security and policing concerns for federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies across the country. For example, state and local law enforcement agencies may have difficulty identifying migrants with fraudulent identification during criminal investigations. However, these agencies cannot request federal partner assistance if they have not charged the subject with a crime. In addition, the influx of migrants outside Latin America or the Caribbean has increased expeditiously:

  • Chinese migrants attempting to cross the U.S. southern border grew from 900 in 2022 to 6,000 in 2023.
  • In 2023, the U.S. House Homeland Security Subcommittee identified Customs and Border Protection encounters of Russian migrants at the southern border rose 704% from 2021 to 2023. The Ukraine-Russia war could have an effect and be responsible for migrants increasingly fleeing their war-torn country.

The intelligence community must consider the porous border vulnerabilities that communist countries or foreign terrorist organizations like ISIS-K and Hezbollah could exploit as an incentive to carry out terrorist attacks or espionage.

The Activities and Influence of Terrorist Networks

Relatively new to the international scene, ISIS-K nonetheless marks a return to the globally minded, well-organized jihadist tactics the Taliban enabled in the 1990s. Formed in 2015, ISIS-K is the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate and one of the most active regional affiliates of the militant group – another “range of threats” to national security. The withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2021 has reduced the ability to develop intelligence against groups in Afghanistan like ISIS-K, making it difficult for the intelligence community to assess the capabilities of terror groups. However, ISIS-K demonstrated capabilities during the deadly shooting on March 22, 2024, at the Crocus City Hall Moscow, killing at least 139 people and wounding 182. The U.S. has since confirmed the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility. Moscow was ISIS-K’s first successful mass casualty attack outside of its traditional area of operations. In the aftermath of the Russia attack, the former head of U.S. Central Command, Frank McKenzie, said, “[ISIS] has a strong desire to attack our homeland. … We should believe them when they say that. They’re going to try to do it.”

From a national security standpoint, another “range of threats” is not so much the potential physical reach of Hamas and Hezbollah but more their actions inspiring potential terrorist attacks globally, including violent extremists in the U.S. Since October 2023, Hamas has been the intelligence community’s key focus, with many agencies forecasting a terrorist attack to retaliate for U.S. military support for Israel. Attacks could range from homegrown violent extremists inspired by ISIS, Hezbollah, or Hamas’ actions and retaliate against the U.S. for support of Israel, as well as domestic violent extremists who might target Muslim or Jewish communities. Evidence of this includes the arrest of a 20-year-old Middle Eastern male on an expired nonimmigrant visa for “plotting to attack a Jewish gathering.” The FBI has stated that extremists, including homegrown violent extremists and foreign terrorist organizations, are targeting Jewish communities.

Although Hamas does not technically have a worldwide terrorist network, it has called for action abroad to support its cause. The global jihadist movement is both opportunistic and resilient. As the threat ebbs and flows domestically and the homegrown jihadist threat diminishes, the Israel-Hamas war offers jihadist groups another opportunity for resurgence. The Hamas attacks have inspired the Islamic State, Hezbollah, and al Qaeda, who have directed their supporters to attack Israeli and U.S. interests. The Islamic State remains an international terrorist network even as it relies more on regional branches due to senior leadership losses in recent years. Iran’s Islamic Republic could finance these networks through illicit funds based on U.S. sanctions and the support of Israel.

Nation-State Support

In February 2024, two foreign citizens were federally charged in the U.S. for utilizing U.S. financial institutions for a money laundering scheme to finance the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and other militant groups. Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent in Charge Derek W. Gordon stated subjects, “Shaoyun Wang and Mahmood Rashid Amur Al Habsi defrauded the U.S. financial system to facilitate hundreds of millions of dollars in oil sales in order to support terrorists.” Further compounding the “range of threats” facing the U.S. are China’s illicit purchases of Iranian oil, which indirectly financed recent proxy terror attacks. Over the years, China and Iran developed an oil trade system that bypassed Western financial and shipping services. China purchases upward of 90% of Iranian oil, including oil sold by the Quds Force, the paramilitary arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is responsible for Tehran’s foreign military operations.

The link between Iran and China in petroleum trafficking can have greater implications as war looms between Israel and Iran. Iran increased oil production in 2023, fueling concerns that China, the largest importer of petroleum, is supporting terrorist organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps by proxy. China and Iran engaging in covert crude oil transactions indicates that China is attempting to circumvent U.S. sanctions on Iran and countries engaging in petroleum schemes. The current escalation of the Israel and Iran conflict indicates why China chooses to support Iran. This partnership is further empowering Iran as they stockpile uranium for nuclear capabilities that political alliances with China and Russia support. These alliances have a direct connection to the U.S. southern border and possibly future terrorist attacks in the U.S.

As federal, state, and local law enforcement focus on the growing antisemitism and Israeli-Palestinian protests across the U.S., foreign adversaries see opportunities. The U.S. intelligence community must increase efforts in human intelligence, open-source intelligence, and electronic surveillance to prevent homegrown extremists and foreign terrorist organizations from carrying out attacks. Air Force Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Kruse, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, stated, “The trajectory and rate of change in the national security arena is perhaps the highest and most consequential we’ve seen in our lifetime.”

Threat of Attack on U.S. Soil

The U.S. national security capabilities are stretched thin and struggle to manage the international strife that continues to fuel the sequence of violence, insurgencies, and regional conflicts. Often driven by social division, competing ideologies, and the inability of the regions to deliver on elementary human needs further stimulates structural violence. Such violence occurs when economic and political structures systematically deprive need satisfaction for certain segments of society. With the ongoing narratives motivating such violence further – often inspired by revenge, retribution, and religious and ethnic hatred – solutions must be explored to meet these ongoing challenges and “range of threats.” These solutions may include:

  • More People – Large and small law enforcement agencies across the country are experiencing a law enforcement officer shortage. These U.S. agencies continue to struggle with hiring new officers at the same rate as staffing losses each year, according to a 2023 study from the Police Executive Research Forum. The shortage makes it difficult to maintain the status quo and address new and emerging threats.
  • Community Policing 2.0 – Community policing efforts should be enhanced to include creating open lines of communication with migrant communities and improving relationships between immigrants and law enforcement agencies. For example, one agency attempting to gather intelligence from these relationships is the New York City Police Department (NYPD). The NYPD’s Community Policing, Community Affairs, and Counter Terrorism Unit reach out to these communities with officers who speak the same language or have the same ethnicity or culture, but this has its limits. Support from federal agencies like DHS to remove violent offenders from the city streets is still necessary to prevent transnational organized crime and criminal gangs from victimizing the immigrant communities that law enforcement agencies attempt to protect. Porous and uncontrolled borders continue to allow transnational criminal syndicates and violent extremist groups to capitalize on the trafficking and smuggling of humans, narcotics, and weapons. DHS’s Customs and Border Patrol must be able to conduct its operations according to the law without political interference and accomplish its primary responsibility of preventing people from entering the U.S. illegally.
  • Increased Intelligence Community Funding – Funding cuts in the U.S. government’s 2024 fiscal spending package for intelligence community members would hamper counterintelligence activities and, according to FBI Director Wray, does not allow the FBI to sustain current operations needed to protect the American people. The U.S. intelligence community and law enforcement agencies face a greater “range of threats” than in previous years: the threat from foreign terrorists following the October 7 attack in Israel; border insecurity and transnational organized crime forcing fentanyl and other dangerous drugs into the country; the flood of cyberattacks impacting critical infrastructure and businesses from known actors like China, Russia, and Iran; the rise in post-pandemic violent crime reaching alarming levels; and China’s persistent efforts to steal intellectual property and valuable information, to name a few.
  • Enhanced Law Enforcement Agency Interaction – Federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies often lack collaboration regarding undocumented migrants, in part, due to “Sanctuary City” policies, particularly in larger metropolitan areas. Local agencies in the U.S. typically have the most contact with civilians, including documented and undocumented migrants. For these agencies to be successful in controlling crime, ensuring public safety, providing victim advocacy, and preventing future terrorist attacks, the limitations on federal, state, and local agencies to work together must be reevaluated so agencies can work fluidly across all sectors. For example, correctional agencies should notify their U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) counterparts of undocumented migrants charged or convicted of violent offenses. This notification will prevent local agencies from appearing as extensions of immigration enforcement and help maintain communications between the community and local police.
  • Seamless Intelligence Sharing – National security depends on the ability to share the right information, with the right people, and at the right time. However, information sharing requires sustained and responsible collaboration between federal, state, local, private sector, and foreign partners, removed from political aspirations. Promoting seamless intelligence sharing across the intelligence community and law enforcement agency platforms facilitates a successful streamlined process. This process integrates information systems to enable information sharing at the federal, state, and local levels. Such integration would improve information sharing and safeguard processes and capabilities while strengthening intelligence integration and making it seamless among those in place to protect U.S. citizens.

Members of the intelligence community have indicated that the threat of attack inside the U.S. has increased to its highest point since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The director of national intelligence issued the 2024 Annual Threat Assessment report, which solidifies that the U.S. “faces an increasingly fragile global order strained by” great power competition, transnational challenges, and regional conflicts. The report emphasizes a critical fear that the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, specifically in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, threatens to spread worldwide uncertainty and violence. The conflict – now lasting six months – has reinvigorated the instability in the region, pulling in known actors to increase the concern that the “regional” conflict will now have broader and less predictable global implications.

Additionally, the “range of threats” comes from terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, who leverage the Middle East crisis to generate propaganda to inspire followers to conduct attacks. “Homegrown” terrorists – individuals or small net groups that will be or have been inspired by the ongoing conflict in the Middle East to carry out attacks in the U.S. – are of immediate concern. Although an attempted large-scale attack is the inspirational plan for these groups, a small-scale or “lone wolf” style attack is more likely. Regardless, the imminent threats looming are of significant national security concern. The director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, stated, “The crisis has galvanized violence by a range of actors around the world.” For the U.S., the growing “range of threats” stems from known and unknown actors domestically and abroad. These threats worsen with less border security, increased conflict spreading from the Middle East, and the developing relationships among the Chinese, Russian, Iranian, and North Korean governments as they demonstrate on the world stage their eagerness to cooperate in economic, political, military, and intelligence matters.

Anthony Mottola
Anthony (Tony) Mottola

Anthony (Tony) Mottola, Ph.D., has over 35 years of law enforcement and security experience, including the New York City Police Department, United States Air Force, and the National Basketball Association (NBA). He retired as a sergeant detective (SDS) after 25 years as a member of the New York Police Department (NYPD). He served as executive officer for the NYPD Intelligence Bureau’s Strategic Unit, which is a covert counterterrorism initiative, and director of the Domestic Liaison Program. He represented the Intelligence Bureau in numerous investigations, including the Boston Bombing, civil unrest, mass shootings, and large-scale incidents outside New York City. During his tenure with the NYPD, he worked additional assignments in Counter Terrorism, Gang Intelligence, Detective Bureau, Task Force, Street Narcotics Enforcement Unit, anti-gang/graffiti units, and patrol. He was a first responder/search leader for recovery efforts and supervisor of security details in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks. Dr. Mottola has conducted extensive research into human trafficking, labor trafficking, border operations, and transnational organized crime. He is currently an assistant professor of Criminology and Homeland Security at the University of Tennessee-Southern.

Richard Schoeberl

Richard Schoeberl, Ph.D., has over 30 years of law enforcement experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He has served in a variety of positions throughout his career, ranging from a supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Before these organizations, he worked as a special agent investigating violent crime, human trafficking, international terrorism, and organized crime. He was also assigned numerous collateral duties during his FBI tour – including as a certified instructor and member of the agency’s SWAT program. In addition to the FBI and NCTC, he is an author and has served as a media contributor for Fox News, CNN, PBS, NPR, Al-Jazeera Television, Al Arabiva Television, Al Hurra, and Sky News in Europe. Additionally, he has authored numerous scholarly articles, serves as a peer mentor with the Police Executive Research Forum, is currently a professor of Criminology and Homeland Security at the University of Tennessee-Southern, and works with Hope for Justice – a global nonprofit combatting human trafficking.

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