US faces most diverse, complex security challenges in DHS history

Terrorists, both foreign and domestic, as well as violence and international election interference will be top threats to the U.S. in the coming year, according to a report from the Department of Homeland Security.

During the unveiling of a new approach to articulate the terrorism threat level to U.S. officials and the public, a DHS official told reporters that “challenges facing our homeland are more diverse and complex than at any time in our department’s 20-year history.”

Not only are the threats different, but the origins, layers of organization, tools and objectives of each create difficult tasks for DHS and its partners to manage.

The terrorism threat appears to be fueled by a persistent, evolving trend of low-level plotting.

The official said the threat of violence from individuals radicalized in the U.S. will remain high, “marked by lone offenders in small groups seeking to conduct attacks with little to no warning.”

The southern U.S. border could be a contributing factor.

A record number of migrants arriving from an increasing number of countries, according to the official, “have complicated border and immigration security.”

Part of the reason, the official said, is that “we’ve encountered a growing number of individuals in the Terrorist Screening data set, also known as the watchlist.”

Those included in the watchlist range from people who are known associates of watch-listed individuals, such as family members, to individuals directly engaged in terrorist activity.

Another unique and increasingly tangled problem is cyber threats.

Domestic and foreign adversaries, according to the report, will likely seek to target U.S. critical infrastructure over the next year.

In fact, according to the official, “we have noted an uptick over the last year of physical attacks on our critical infrastructure as well.”

Also, DHS has noted the rapid pace of cyberattacks seeking to compromise networks or disrupt services for geographical, political or financial purposes.

Multiple intelligence sources from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Asia and Africa tell WTOP the most watched political competition in the world is the upcoming U.S. presidential election. The intrigue extends far beyond the global halls of political power, even reaching the depths of the dark web.

“We expect the 2024 election cycle will be a key event for possible violence and foreign influence targeting our election infrastructure processes and personnel,” said the DHS official.

Yet another deep concern for DHS is illicit drugs.

“Illegal drugs produced in Mexico and sold in the United States,” the official said, “will kill more Americans than any other threat.”

All of those challenges, the official said, “demand a whole of society approach” to mitigate them.

DHS’s new approach, due in part to the unprecedented and intricate nature of the threat environment, means it will no longer release biannual National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) bulletins. The alerts indicate and describe the terror threat level. Instead, DHS will now release an annual Homeland Threat Assessment (HTA).

The HTA, which is characterized as an intelligence document, is designed to provide “a current baseline to inform decisions by Homeland Security stakeholders, including our state, local, territorial, tribal and private sector leaders, as well as the American public,” said the official.

However, another DHS official said, the NTAS bulletins may still be utilized under special circumstances.

“We will reserve our use of the NTAS for a situation where there’s a change in the level of the terrorism threat level, or when there’s need to alert as to a particular terrorism threat.”

The HTA will be delivered once a year in September and be divided into four key areas — public safety and security, border and immigration security, critical infrastructure and security and threats to economic security.

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J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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