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  4. Secretary Mayorkas Remarks at the 2023 International Counterterrorism Conference

Secretary Mayorkas Remarks at the 2023 International Counterterrorism Conference

Release Date: May 31, 2023

Secretary Mayorkas delivered the following remarks at the International Counterterrorism Conference in Las Vegas, NV. 

In January 2000, two men from Saudi Arabia – who were being tracked by the CIA for their long-time connections to al-Qaeda – traveled to the United States on tourist visas to learn how to fly Boeing jets. During flight instruction, the men focused solely on learning how to control the aircraft while in flight – they had no interest in learning how to take off or land.  

While both men eventually abandoned their flight training, they remained devoted to al-Qaeda, and ultimately served as two of the 19 hijackers who stormed the cockpits of four Boeing passenger jets and subdued the pilots and passengers using small knives, box cutters, and cans of mace on September 11, 2001.   

The 9/11 attacks killed nearly 3,000 people, injured thousands more, and forever changed how we view our security.   

The gaps in our defenses exploited on 9/11 have been filled in the years since by upgraded technology and new layers of screening and security. We developed common criteria for posting terrorists on a consolidated watch list, a surveillance program to track terrorist communications, and national capacities to share information more broadly.  We established the Transportation Security Administration to screen all passengers and bags, and created a federal department, the Department of Homeland Security, to safeguard the homeland against the threat of terrorism.   

In the 20 years since our Department was established, the threat landscape facing the homeland has grown increasingly diverse and complex.   

Nation states like Russia and the People’s Republic of China upend our rules-based international order and threaten the security of many nations. 

Our increasingly interconnected lives – enabled by our phones, cars, and appliances – introduce new risks in cyberspace.   

Even as we are dealing with a more diverse threat landscape than ever before, our founding charge to protect the American people against all forms of terrorism remains a core mission and a top priority.   

This morning’s opening panel provided a comprehensive picture of the evolving terrorism threat landscape we face. As the panel highlighted, the threat of domestic violent extremism has emerged as our most urgent and lethal homeland security challenge as measured in volume, frequency, and lethality of cases – such as the attacks that occurred in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in 2019; at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, one year ago; and just this month, at an outlet mall in Allen, Texas.  

The evolution of the terrorism threat toward domestic violent extremists has not diminished the threat tied to more established terrorist organizations. The FBI’s significant caseload tied to subjects inspired by foreign terrorist organizations remains a source of serious concern. 

Tragically, we increasingly face a scourge of non-ideological, grievance-fueled targeted violence in our communities, as Las Vegas is all too aware. On October 1, 2017, over 20,000 country-music lovers were gathered when a gunman opened fire from this resort, killing 60 people and injuring more than 800. Through the work of this conference, we honor the victims of that senseless tragedy and work towards addressing the unending need to fight terrorism and targeted violence in all its forms. 

So far this year in the United States, there have been more mass shootings than days.  The lives lost, the numbers injured, and the resulting grief and hardships are very tangible. More intangible, but no less important, are the effects on our nation’s psyche, the resulting fear instilled in children going to school thousands of miles away from an incident, the subconscious dread of walking into a familiar supermarket or a crowded mall, and the unfamiliar anxiety entering a house of worship that one might have attended for decades, to name but a few.  

Our response must be directed toward increasing people’s safety and their sense of safety. 

The investments we made in partnerships and information sharing following 9/11 remain a bedrock of our Department’s work to safeguard our communities against these increasingly pervasive threats. Since then and now, we are doing more and we continue to do it better and better. 

We are working more creatively and diligently than ever before to share intelligence, information, and promising practices with our partners abroad and at home.  

We are deepening our information exchanges with our international partners and enhancing our capabilities to screen and vet people who move internationally. 

Domestically, we provide actionable intelligence at the lowest classification level possible to the broadest audience possible, including first responders, impacted communities, and the public at large.   

We have also increased our grant funding to enable our state, local, tribal, territorial, and campus law enforcement partners to better understand, recognize, prepare for, and prevent terrorism activity. 

But as you are all aware, our prevention efforts must look beyond law enforcement.  Once we are responding to a threat that has presented itself in a school, an arena, or a house of worship, it is too late. We must proactively decrease the likelihood of violence before it manifests.  

The “See Something, Say Something” initiative is effective to ensure the public reports clearly recognizable threats, but what do we do when a concern is not as simple as an abandoned backpack on a subway platform? This requires a different approach.  

What should a caring teacher, neighbor, or loved one do if someone is growing alarmingly despondent or aggressive, fixating on previous violent attacks, or implying a vague intent to do harm in the future? Depending on the nature of those potential behavioral indicators of violence, it may not be comfortable or even appropriate for a bystander to notify law enforcement directly.  

The imperative to prevent terrorism and targeted violence by focusing on community-based prevention is greater than ever before, and we have powerful tools at our disposal:    

First, build upon the strengths of individuals, families, and communities that protect against violent outcomes in the first place. When our citizens are empowered, when our communities are vibrant, and when our social fabric is strong, hateful and violent narratives gain less purchase.  Strong communities can build a culture of violence prevention that combines 1) recognizing when individuals are struggling and exhibiting behavioral indicators associated with violence, and 2) encouraging referrals to those who can help. Practitioners in the field call this a “public health-informed” approach. 

Second, leverage the expertise developed over decades of work in related fields. We have developed huge bodies of knowledge regarding suicide prevention, intimate partner violence prevention, and gang violence prevention that we can apply to terrorism and targeted violence prevention.  

Risk factors for violence, including terrorism, premeditated hate crime, or school-based violence, are similar. If we work with violence prevention practitioners in our communities – mental health professionals, social workers, school counselors, and faith leaders – to reduce these shared risk factors when individuals are referred to them, we can help individuals in crisis and prevent a host of violent harms through non-criminal justice interventions.  

One way communities are doing this is through multidisciplinary Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management teams, where law enforcement officers partner with non-law enforcement prevention professionals to conduct non-criminal justice interventions where possible, and to ensure public safety when necessary. 

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s Threat Assessment Program is already demonstrating the impact such a team can have.  

After two police officers were ambushed in 2014, the police department here recognized that the assailants exhibited warning signs that could have been identified and mitigated through a threat assessment program.   

The 2017 mass attack reinforced the need for such a program, and since 2019 the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department has maintained a full-time threat assessment team that develops short and long-term management plans for persons of concern.   

Thanks to this program, the police department was able to intervene after an individual threatened to conduct a mass attack at his high school.    

We must ensure law enforcement and non-law enforcement practitioners have the training and the resources they need to prevent terrorism and targeted violence. Our Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships is at the forefront of the federal government’s prevention efforts to do just this, providing training, resources, and funding to help communities build local targeted violence and terrorism prevention capabilities.  

Through our Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention grant program, we have awarded $50 million over the past three years to communities across the United States to prevent acts of targeted violence and terrorism, including $20 million to 43 organizations last year. To give you just a couple examples:

One grantee, the McCain Institute at Arizona State University, established the Prevention Practitioners Network comprised of hundreds of interdisciplinary professionals who have created evidence-based trainings and resources for prevention program design, and a register of mental and behavioral health clinicians who can receive and process targeted violence and terrorism prevention referrals.

Another grantee, the University of Denver’s Colorado Resilience Collaborative, trains education, behavioral health, and law enforcement professionals on terrorism and targeted violence prevention, provides consultations to help those professionals manage cases, and curates an online resource library. 

Additionally, FLETC – our Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers – provides basic training in this area, and our National Threat Evaluation and Reporting Program Office has trained 200 master trainers who have trained over 7,000 people across the country on behavioral threat assessment and management. Through the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center, we provide consulting and on-demand training for threat assessment teams dealing with challenging cases.   

Twenty years after the Department’s founding, we continue to develop our approach and expand our capacity to meet the evolving threats of terrorism, targeted violence, and hate crimes by working across all levels of government, with our communities, and with our international partners.

Concurrently, we must also invest in strengthening our communities by decreasing the appeal of violence and providing help to others who are struggling – before they turn to violence.

As we evaluate what works in this prevention space, continuing to build an evidence base and drawing upon our collective experience with communities across the country, our next challenge is to scale this work to meet the challenge of the changing threat environment. That is what we intend to do.

It will take all of us gathered here together to take on this vital work – work that we are very proud to do with all of you.

Thank you.


Last Updated: 08/09/2023
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