Insights into the U.S. Counterterrorism Mission

December 2, 2021 9:00 AM to 9:45 AM

On December 2, Christy Abizaid, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), joined INSA’s Executive Vice President John Doyon for a virtual conversation focused on the NCTC's role in the drawdown in Afghanistan along with current missions, priorities, and the outlook for the year ahead.

Director Abizaid was sworn into her role on June 29, 2021, only a week before the U.S. military pulled out of Bagram Airfield, its largest airfield in Afghanistan, as the final withdrawal date neared. She describes this time as a remarkable introduction to the NCTC where events and activities were happening very quickly and the NCTC needed to avoid being distracted from its primary mission of protecting the country.

In addition to tracking threats on the ground, the center was also looking closely at the individuals that were being evacuated from Afghanistan to be sure there was a clear understanding of who was entering the U.S. During this time, Abizaid was particularly struck by the effectiveness of NCTC’s interagency partnerships and their ability to function during the crisis. Going forward, one of the NCTC’s top priorities is to understand the trajectory of the various terrorist groups that operate in Afghanistan and prevent groups from transitioning from regional to international threats. The U.S. will no longer have the level of insight into Afghanistan as when there was a major presence there, so the intelligence community needs to ensure it is focused on the most concerning threats emerging from the region.

Addressing the IC’s shift away from counterterrorism and towards China and Russia, Abizaid stressed that counterterrorism would continue to be a baseline requirement for protecting the U.S. homeland. It is critical to make sure that the NCTC and other agencies are deliberate about navigating the counterterrorism enterprise in a way that enables the U.S. to ensure all of its national security priorities. She stressed that the counterterrorism environment and threat landscape are very different from 20 years ago. Today, there is a geographically diverse and diffuse threat environment and thus, the center needs to be sure they are focused on the actors that present the largest threats to the U.S.

In addition to its role internationally, the NCTC also focuses on domestic threats primarily in support of the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Director Abizaid conceded the challenge of detecting and preventing lone actor attacks in the U.S. and emphasized that the NCTC is taking the lessons learned from their efforts against international terrorism and applying them to domestic violence extremism, where applicable.

In closing, Abizaid emphasized the importance of technology in assisting the NCTC and the IC to analyze the large amounts of data that they have access to. She is interested in innovative technology that will assist in this goal and stressed the importance of the center’s private sector partnerships as essential to ensuring the NCTC’s success in the long term.