- Michael Howell
9/11 Reflection on the 20th Anniversary
Updated: Sep 11, 2021
The upcoming 20th anniversary of al-Qa’eda terrorist attacks on the United States provides all Americans time to reflect on the losses of that day, changes to this country since the attacks, and the current state of affairs. By all accounts, we are a nation that is deeply divided on a number of issues right now. 9/11 was a sad and shocking event that changed our country forever. The day was also full of tragic stories, acts of heroism, and stories that showed the human element. 9/11 remembrances are events that should occur across the country every year and are happening in greater numbers in 2021 as we mark the 20th anniversary of that terrible day. 9/11 brought all Americans together and evoked feelings of patriotism in our great land. We should never forget those we lost on that day and those who rushed to the scenes, often at great danger to themselves, and tried to help their fellow citizens.
As a professor who teaches counter-terrorism courses at the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University, I try to stay informed about the different terror groups, news, and current affairs as a way to provide students with the most up to date information about terrorism as they seek to start their national security careers. I am not privy to the world of classified information anymore but I do keep up with everything in the open source arena. It is in that vein that I pose questions and comments regarding a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Bulletin that was released on August 13, 2021.
A few days ago, I was sent a screen shot of an NBC news television report regarding the DHS National Terrorism Advisory Bulletin. (Hat tip to my former university track and field teammate who sent the screen shot). USNews.com, CBS, NBC and other news sites also reported it. On the screen shot that I was sent, an NBC News graphic, was listed the title “Potential Terror Threats” (underlining mine).
Under that title was listed three categories:
• Opposition to COVID Measures
• Claims of Election Fraud, Belief Trump can be reinstated
• 9/11 Anniversary and Religious Holidays
That certainly piqued my interest. All three of those bullet points are undoubtedly being discussed these days by any number of Americans on both sides of the political spectrum. I found that screen shot interesting in a couple of ways. First, in my previous job as an FBI Special Agent, I saw and read many DHS bulletins and other analytical products. Some were good and informative and some full of conjecture and uncorroborated statements (like the one they issued claiming credit for a terrorism case that I worked and they had minimal involvement in. DHS had to rescind that one). The good ones were usually corroborated in some way, had citations, or were jointly issued with the FBI or some other agency that had direct responsibility for the topic being reported.
So rather than just read the screen shot, I went to the DHS website and printed the bulletin in question, as well as other DHS terrorism bulletins dating back to January 6, 2021. This particular bulletin, dated August 13, 2021, had several buzz words that immediately caught my eye. Words such as “we assess” (without confidence levels or citations), “could”, “may contribute”, “non-specific calls”, “may use”, and even the word used in the title of the news report, “potential.” There is lots of wiggle room when words like that are used. I mean the earth “could” be hit by a large meteor tomorrow, right? It is possible (but not probable). And if a meteor is heading towards us, I fully believe that scientists, NASA, and the Department of Defense would be able to give us actual data regarding the meteor. Specifics, science, math, trajectory, time to impact, photos, the name of the asteroid (I have ideas for the name) and other data to back up the reporting. I feel better about that already (and I also want to go watch the movie Armageddon again). There would be no words used that could be read any way the reader wanted them to be read. With this DHS bulletin though, that level of confidence is not present.
Confidence levels are things that Intelligence Analysts who have good training and experience attach to their analytical products. They give weight to the statements and some certainty to what is written. Those who rely on analytical products can thus make educated and well considered decisions if they need to. This bulletin was filled with “maybe” and “could be” statements where specifics should have been shown. That is, IF there were specifics to convey to begin with.
There are many topics related to international terrorism and domestic terrorism listed in the DHS bulletin. Al-Qa’eda “demonstrating” in their new issue of Inspire magazine that, “foreign terrorist organizations continue efforts to inspire U.S. based individuals” is one such example. In other news, “water is wet.” The FBI and other Intelligence Community organizations already have this basic information. The problem here, and what likely caused the media outlets to report on this bulletin, is that the author or authors then add to what is real with multiple “potential” and “may happen” statements, and the news media was able to synthesize these into the three bullet points they reported to the public. The DHS bulletin was released under the authority of the Secretary of Homeland Security which gave it weight and status.
If there is specific information that led to this bulletin, I would expect that the general public would NOT be privy to the specific sources, methods, or techniques used to find this information. But I WOULD expect that DHS would have coordinated the bulletin with the FBI, some other intelligence community entity with primary operational mandate, or local police. Because the FBI, not DHS, is the primary organization that investigates terrorism. The FBI addresses all allegations of terrorism through the Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) they operate. A general rehashing of actual international terrorism and domestic terrorism topics with the addition of nonspecific conjecture does not seem bulletin worthy. In fact, it seems provocative at a time when that sort of thing is not really a great idea.
Let me digress here for a paragraph with my own professionally informed views. I spend my professional time researching international and domestic terror groups in an effort to counter them and to provide accurate and up to date information to my students. My students learn about these groups and how to counter (i.e. disrupt) them using legal and ethical methods. The students deal in facts and corroboration. Another Professor here teaches the analytical process and gives our students the best possible information about how that process works. The next generation of intelligence professionals, some of whom I am lucky enough to teach, are very bright and capable and America will be lucky to have them in positions protecting this country for generations to come. As a lead in to my discussion on the three bullet points, here are some thoughts for context. Domestically, I think all of those people involved in the January 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol should be identified and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law where the evidence is present. I think the Weather Underground domestic terrorists who also attacked the Capitol Building should have been prosecuted in this way too. Those who destroy businesses or beat others up during protests and riots should be arrested and prosecuted when there is evidence to back up the prosecutions. I think most Americans would agree with that. Here is where some reality needs to set in. Donald Trump lost the 2020 election legitimately and will not be “reinstated.” That is a fact. The conspiracy theories associated with the election have no basis in fact and no evidence. Anyone who believes these conspiracy theories or those such as the QAnon conspiracy are not dealing in any form of reality and should go home and rethink their lives (at a minimum). QAnon is quite possibly the dumbest and least believable conspiracy theory ever put forth. And any individual or group that seeks to harm any other group or person who is not like them should be subjected to every legal sanction available. Those statements are not all inclusive. I have more to say about Domestic Terror groups and individuals. But that is the subject of another paper. Now, back to the topic at hand.
Addressing each of the three points in the DHS Bulletin individually:
Opposition to COVID measures. COVID is certainly dangerous and adequate precautions should be taken by all. But to link people who ask legitimate questions about a disease that is not completely known, to a document that also talks about International and Domestic terrorists is irresponsible, unless there is proof. If there is a specific allegation or proof, DHS should turn all of the information they have over to the FBI and local law enforcement for immediate and specific investigation. The reality is that many people are seeing contradictions in guidance on how to act or are not sure about a vaccine that was approved on an emergency basis (or do not feel the vaccine is safe because they have existing medical issues or other valid reasons). Some use common sense to point out anecdotal evidence of hypocrisy when past and present political figures hold private parties without masks or major music and sporting events are held without masks, but then mandatory mask mandates are put out for everyone else. To make comparisons between IT and DT groups and those Americans who legitimately have questions about the pandemic in a free country, either directly or through weak association, in the DHS bulletin, is wrong and an abuse of authority.
On the claims of election fraud. There are always claims like these made. The party that loses usually makes the claim. Some of the claims are found to be valid and some are not. But not on a widespread basis. Russia hacking in the 2016 election was real. There is evidence of that. Likewise, for individuals to ask for an investigation into electoral practices in the 2020 election to ensure our system of elections is fair and accurate does not strike me to be a revolutionary act. As long as those making the calls for investigation respect the results of an impartial investigation, there should be no issue. In other words, supportable facts, that can be corroborated, determine the result. Requiring some form of identification to vote does not seem out of the norm either for that matter. Identification is required for dozens of things in life and those requirements are legitimate and applied to all. Again, if there are specific links to domestic or international terrorism, or if there are indications that groups or individuals are preventing any American from being able to vote, the FBI and local law enforcement should be given that information immediately.
The last bullet point is what caused me to write this response article. Yes, 9/11 was the worst act of International Terrorism in history. Yes, Americans were rightly angered and we sought to punish the terrorists who were responsible, and any nation states that supported them. Current events in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Iran and any number of other countries, including European countries, show that International terrorism is a problem that will not be going away anytime soon. Did I mention Iran? Domestically, we have seen an upsurge in violence by groups on the left and on the right. Specifically, violence associated with white supremacy groups. None of those things should be overlooked. They should all be addressed as a top priority of law enforcement and there should be a sense of urgency in the investigations. But the DHS bulletin did not mention anything about that.
The DHS bulletin stated, that for 9/11 and religious holidays “we assess could serve as a catalyst for acts of targeted violence,” (emphasis mine). That is pretty serious and inflammatory if there is no actual linkage between terrorism and 9/11 remembrance events. I hope DHS has provided the specific information they have to the police and FBI so the targeted violence they indicate could happen (emphasis mine again) is proactively stopped before it happens. If however, DHS is just engaging in conjecture, vague wording, and insinuation, it is irresponsible and wrong to write the things that were written in that bulletin.
DHS does not identify which religious holidays or even which religion they are concerned about in their bulletin. Some journalists opined that the warning was in regards to Jewish religious holidays in September, but that is not stated in the DHS bulletin. So what is the point? Freedom of religion is guaranteed in the First Amendment. If there is a specific issue, warn the public or the affected religion about the specific issue or threat and immediately give the information to an investigative agency with primary jurisdiction so it can be proactively addressed and those threatened can be protected. To leave people guessing, as DHS did, does nothing but stir up more conspiracy theories and divisive talk. If DHS has nothing specific to report, they should not write a bulletin and inflame the public on a point that is vague, at best- Ill thought-out conjecture at worst.
Perhaps, this 20th anniversary is a good occasion to start the discussion regarding curtailing some DHS’s authorities, many of which duplicate what other agencies such as the FBI and local police already do. DHS has a background in Customs enforcement, Immigration enforcement, and Border security. They have traditionally been very good at these things and could use more resources and more focus on these issues. That is their lane and should remain the lane they operate in. These are great areas to focus on for DHS in protecting the Homeland. If there is specific information about individuals, or even groups, who are engaging in any of the three categories listed, I encourage DHS to provided that information to the FBI and local police in the areas where the issues are occurring - immediately. The FBI, through the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), will address each report of terrorist activity through legal and established protocols to protect the United States of America, U.S. citizens, and U.S. persons.
However, if this DHS bulletin was just a “this could happen” document, I would encourage the Secretary of DHS to NOT approve any future bulletins of this nature. Because although these things “could” or “may” happen – in a “non specific way” (all DHS wording from the bulletin), Martians from outer space “could” and “may” also land on Earth and ask to be taken to our leader. Then we would all have real problems.