How Likely Is a Pre-election Attack? OZY Asks a Terrorism Expert

How Likely Is a Pre-election Attack? OZY Asks a Terrorism Expert

Why you should care

Because there are always baddies lying in wait.

It’s just the second week of the month, and we’ve already had October surprises (the Donald’s 1995 tax return and his hot mic) — plus Wikileaks and fodder for another (Hurricane Matthew). One potential October surprise no one wants, of course, would come from terrorists. Back in October 2004, Osama bin Laden resurfaced with a video nasty-gram, which many believe helped President Bush topple opponent John Kerry the following month. Could terrorists again affect the U.S. presidential race?

To get a sense for America’s terror threat in the run-up to November 8, OZY spoke to Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a retired Navy commander and former National Counterterrorism Center official who has served on the National Security Council, Nelson is a nonresident fellow at the Center for Strategic International Studies and teaches at Georgetown University.

Is a pre-election terror attack in the U.S. is likely?

Nelson: Do I think they could potentially use the run-up to the election to further their message? Absolutely. But I think the likelihood of an attack is going to be just as likely the day after the election as it is the day before. I’m much more concerned about a nation or nation state, like Russia, hacking into the electoral system or trying to undermine the system than I am with a terrorist organization coming in and conducting an attack.

Who would be the most likely culprits?

Nelson: Foreign actors like al-Qaida seem to have an affinity for more sophisticated, higher-profile type of attacks. … What we find with domestic extremists or individuals and lone wolves who have been radicalized, because they’re often operating alone or perhaps only in a manner where they’re inspired by the message, is that their attacks are a lot less sophisticated and have a lot less of an impact.

What about states like Russia?

Nelson: To actively come in and try to undermine our electoral system and process — I wouldn’t consider that a terrorist act; I’d consider that more on the verge of an act of war. But if I had to rank what would happen as more likely, a nation state conducting some sort of cyberattack or social media campaign to affect the outcome of our election, I think it’s a significant possibility and a real threat. … For them to undermine our election and bring into question the results would have a significant effect on us as a nation, and it’s something we can’t let happen.

Which pose the greater threat, homegrown plotters or foreigners?

Nelson: I think the increase we’ll see in the near term is absolutely from homegrown extremists — those lone-wolf individuals who may or may not have direct ties to a foreign terrorist organization but are inspired by that message to take a violent action. I think those are absolutely of great concern for us, and unfortunately for the foreseeable future, I think, are going to continue to persist.

How hard is it to stop a lone wolf versus a foreign group?

Nelson: Foreign groups are easier to find, track and analyze, relatively speaking. They usually have an organizational structure — someone’s in charge. They usually have a base of operations … roles and responsibilities within the organization, and they are usually planning more sophisticated attacks that take a longer time to unfold, which makes them more susceptible to being discovered. With a lone-wolf terrorist, it could be someone who’s disenfranchised with their station in life. … They adopt an ideology and then they wake up and decide that today is when they’re going to build a pressure-cooker bomb, which they can get off the internet, or take a rifle or handgun and go and commit mass murder. Because we value free speech in the United States, it’s very difficult to identify these individuals.

What are America’s softest potential targets?

Nelson: Terrorists are like electricity; they like the path of least resistance. Because of our free and open society, we have a number of soft targets — those places where we want the freedom of movement that inherently makes them vulnerable. … Anywhere where you’re going to see a large group of people gathered in a social fashion. We could pay the cost of having all these events be high-security events, but we don’t want to pay that cost, in terms of dollars, or in terms of what we give up from a freedom or civil liberties perspective.

Where does the government focus most?

Nelson: We can’t protect all people from all things all the time. It’s always going to be very difficult to predict where a terrorist is going to hit next. … So at a federal level they focus their resources on the areas where they get the largest amount of threat information and the targets that would be the most natural. That usually ends up being Washington, D.C., New York City, Super Bowl type of events, etc.

Where more can be done?

Nelson: We’ve learned a lot in the last 15 years. But the keys to fighting terrorism are information and intelligence, and most of that lies at the federal level. So the question is how do you get that information down to the individuals who are going to come into contact with the terrorist event first — the state or local police forces or even the average citizen. The Department of Homeland Security is working with the states to create fusion centers. Each state has one … and they’re very helpful in disseminating such information. More investment in these fusion centers and greater information sharing would probably be the best thing we can do moving forward.

What can average citizens do to stay safe?

Nelson: We need to be aware of our surroundings. But we don’t need to live like it’s a police state or that we’re under constant threat. We just need to be smart and self-aware. If you see a package lying by itself, you should inform someone and stay away from it. When you’re riding a subway, make sure you’re aware of the exit procedures in case something happens.

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