Good afternoon and thank you all for joining us. I’m Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy. Welcome to the second session of “National Security in the Shadow of COVID-19.”
This is a series of bipartisan conversations I’m co-hosting with my colleague and friend, Congressman John Katko of New York. We discuss how the ongoing pandemic, and its aftermath, could change or complicate the international security environment.
Our goal is to inform Congress’s thinking, so we are better prepared to craft legislation, conduct oversight, and talk about this complex subject with our constituents.
Our first session was with Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who provided a broad survey of COVID-related challenges to U.S. national security interests.
Today’s subject is more specific, namely terrorism in the age of COVID-19. I will offer some very brief framing remarks before I turn it over to John and then to our special guest, Michael Leiter, who served as director of the National Counterterrorism Center under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
It’s been nearly 19 years since the 9/11 attacks on our homeland, one of the most defining and consequential events in our nation’s history.
Russell Travers, one of Michael’s successors as director of N-C-T-C, recently wrote an article for Foreign Affairs magazine, entitled “The Terrorism Threat is Not Finished.”
He wrote: “Since that tragic day, there has been not one successful, externally directed, large-scale terrorist attack on Americans, and attacks by Islamist homegrown terrorists have declined, too.”
As Travers emphasizes, this remarkable success has not been the result of luck. It’s because of specific actions taken by the U.S. government, including creation of the N-C-T-C.
As Michael will outline, even as the U.S. government focuses more on challenges from nation-states like China and Russia, we cannot become complacent about terrorism because there are real threats still out there.
These threats come from ISIS and al-Qaeda and their various franchises throughout the world. They come from Iranian-backed groups in Lebanon and Iraq. And they come from homegrown terrorists inspired by different ideological causes. One example is the perpetrator of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in my hometown of Orlando in 2016.
After outlining the threat landscape, Michael will describe whether and how these various threats may have changed in light of COVID-19.
On the one hand, some of the measures taken because of the virus—like shutting borders and limiting public gatherings—may make life more difficult for terrorist leaders seeking to gather, recruit, and target large numbers of people.
On the other hand, we could see an increase in terrorism because of bad prison conditions, virus-related conspiracy theories, growing societal frustration with lockdowns, and from the COVID-19 preoccupation of governments around the globe.
In the longer term, the terrorist threat may worsen as a result of declining defense and law enforcement budgets and growing grievances against governments unable to protect and provide for their citizens.
Finally, Michael will discuss whether the U.S. government could adapt the N-C-T-C model to the pandemic disease context. Like efforts to prevent and respond to terrorism, efforts to prevent and respond to pandemic disease demand a whole-of-government approach, in which different government agencies cooperate and complement one another. Are there lessons from our successful bureaucratic effort to combat terrorism which we can apply to U.S. government efforts to prepare for the next pandemic?
So, Michael, thank you so much for joining us and sharing your hard-earned expertise. And now let me turn it over John for his opening remarks.