March 23, 2016

Terror threat more complicated than ever, DOJ security expert tells ABA

At an American Bar Association Standing Committee on Law and National Security program on March 17 in Washington, D.C., John P. Carlin, assistant attorney general for national security at the Department of Justice, said the United States is facing one of the most complicated terrorist environments ever.

John Carlin, Assistant Attorney General for Homeland Security, U.S. Department of Justice

As Al-Qaeda gets more sophisticated and focused, and therefore more dangerous and hard to detect, it remains committed to executing large-scale attacks that cause maximum loss of life, he explained.

Carlin also warned about ISIL’s method of bombarding social media with propaganda as a recruitment tool, which he said doesn’t net many would-be terrorists but added that “it only takes a tiny percentage to create a terrorist problem that we simply haven’t faced before.”

Carlin outlined many of the threats faced by the United States, such as Americans who join the ranks of ISIL – which represents a threat on two levels, he said. Americans who travel to ISIL strongholds put their safety at risk, and when they return to the U.S. after undergoing ISIL training, they become national security threats in the homeland.

He also pointed out that ISIL has adapted its tactics to recruit Westerners who can serve the organization without even leaving their home countries. Their original message has evolved from “come and join us” to “attack and kill where you live,” no passport or travel required.

Last year, the United States brought more than 60 criminal terrorist prosecution cases, more than ever before, Carlin said. A common thread among the cases is the use of social media and the age of the defendants – 21 and under in one-third of the cases. He also said that more than 20 of the cases  involve people who want to commit acts here at home.

Carlin also talked about cyber-terrorism. It is increasingly common for companies to pay ransoms to keep hackers from going public about security breaches – and the vast majority of companies don’t report such incidents to law enforcement, he said. But involving law enforcement is vital. Carlin explained that many hackers are extremists who steal personal information and comb through it looking for potential targets, especially U.S. military members.

One such ISIL-linked hacker, Ardit Ferizi, was indicted by the Justice Department and arrested in Malaysia in October. In January, he was extradited to the United States, where he faces charges in the Eastern District of Virginia. Carlin said this case illustrates the complexity of the current threat, which crosses international boundaries and moves at the speed of cyber.

He advises that when counseling clients, urge them to not pay a ransom but instead report it to law enforcement immediately.