WASHINGTON – Matthew Olsen swung open his door shortly after 3 p.m. More than a half dozen people were waiting, with writing tools and notes in hand. Judging from their varied expressions, there was good and bad news.
The impending meeting on Feb. 11 was one of several that Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center in D.C., has each day to check the climate of the counterterrorism world.
While NCTC officials did not characterize the meeting or the level of urgency it carried, it came at a crucial point in the U.S. counterterrorism timeline.
In 2008, a report from the Bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism warned: “Our margin of safety is shrinking, not growing. In fact, on the current trajectory, we believe it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction – probably biological rather than nuclear – will be used somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.”
A stream of troubling developments starting in 2012 has reminded U.S. intelligence officials that this is now 2013.
Areas of North Africa have erupted into an insurgent-controlled terrorism cluster bomb that insurgents have detonated on multiple occasions, recently killing Americans in the process. An al-Qaida influenced coup in Mali in March 2012 that has since been arrested, but not fully staunched, started the hemorrhage.
The violence continued on Sept. 11, 2012 when U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other U.S. citizens were killed in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, enflaming political passions that are still raging in Washington.
On Jan. 19, three Americans were killed after Islamic militants stormed work and living quarters at the Amenas gas facility in eastern Algeria.
In each case, the attackers deployed sophisticated weapons, which U.S. officials believe came from Libya. But among the most notable trends is that these attacks were launched quickly.
The attack in Benghazi appeared to be the manifestation of what former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations was “part of a broader strategic challenge to the United States and our partners in North Africa.”
U.S. officials say Libya’s fledgling central government and immense stretches of ungoverned space have allowed numerous threats to generate in the region and endanger the continent and beyond.
Thousands of weapons have disappeared from stockpiles maintained by former Libya dictator Muammar Ghadafi. U.S. and foreign intelligence officials worry that chemical or biological weapons may be among the many regularly smuggled through North Africa.
Approximately 800 government analysts and hundreds of contractors from the intelligence community at the NCTC and elsewhere, are constantly picking at bits and pieces of intelligence — looking for trends and clues that might head off a future attack.
“Groups have in some cases adopted the core intention of al-Qaida of attacking the United States in the middle or North Africa or attacking us in the United States,” says Olsen, explaining the perpetrators’ tactics.
The threat from what Olsen calls the core of al-Qaida has “greatly diminished” since the killing of key leaders such as Osama bin laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, he says.
“I think today the threat is a lot more decentralized, and it is more diverse and that in fact makes it in some ways unpredictable and harder to take steps against those threats,” he says.
There are many other global hot spots that concern U.S. officials. Clinton said during her Senate testimony that there are more than 20 other diplomatic facilities around the world that are at risk.
Officials at the NCTC — the main organization in the U.S. government that analyzes intelligence related to terrorism — work around the clock, trying to piece together useful information.
“The first thing in the morning when I get here, we have a threat briefing and that’s provided by a handful of briefers who have been here since two or three in the morning,” Olsen says.
He says the briefers review information flowing in, including cable traffic from around the world and open source information.
“They are able to provide for myself and the other senior leaders here situational awareness,” he says.
Even with more awareness, there seems to be less time to act.