Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Look Inside The National Counterterrorism Center And Preventing The Next Big Attack


The U.S. fight against terrorism is at a key juncture now. More than 17 years after the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaida is no longer the force it was. And the Islamic State has lost its core territory. Still, lots of threats remain. And NPR's Greg Myre spoke with the government's counterterrorism experts to find out how their job is changing.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: A critical lesson from the 2001 al-Qaida attacks was the failure to see the looming threat and connect the dots. So we've come to the place built to do precisely that.


MYRE: We're inside the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Va. The main operations room is an open floor plan with analysts at desktop computers. And they're all facing huge TV screens tuned into news channels. This place receives thousands of incoming messages daily. And they have to figure out which ones may point to a threat. And we're going to talk to the man who oversees all this.

RUSS TRAVERS: I'm Russ Travers, the deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

MYRE: Travers has been at the center on and off since it was established 16 years ago.

TRAVERS: On a daily basis, 10,000 reports come across our ops center screen, where you were. Eyes are put on every one of those. We have to process all of that.

MYRE: You don't often hear about the center, yet it's the crucial place that pulls together disparate information from around the globe to give a comprehensive picture of potential risks. And the big picture has been positive. The blows delivered to ISIS and al-Qaida have been major successes. But as someone who began his intelligence career in the Army 40 years ago, Travers is instinctively cautious.

TRAVERS: So after 9/11, we talked about this being a generational struggle. I still very much believe that's the case.

MYRE: Over the past generation, the U.S. has sent many troops abroad and built a massive infrastructure at home to combat terrorism. Some are now calling for a reassessment, including President Trump, who says it's time to bring those troops home from Afghanistan and Syria. Analyst Peter Bergen of the New America think tank acknowledges the price tag has been high. Some parts of the system are redundant. And the results have been uneven. But he says the U.S. is a safer place today.

PETER BERGEN: On 9/11, there were 16 people on the no-fly list. Now there are 81,000. On 9/11, there was no TSA. Annoying as you might find the TSA, that is a pretty big deterrent.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: November niner, six, eight, five...

MYRE: Back in the operation center, the workforce is built for collaboration. The CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency and even local police departments all have officers here to check and cross-check data coming from U.S. intelligence agencies, American embassies, foreign allies and open sources. Twice a day, every day of the year, the center puts out a situation report that's shared across the national security community. Again, Russ Travers.

TRAVERS: Terrorism information is unlike anything I've ever seen. It's always ambiguous. It's invariably incomplete. It's often completely bogus. But we have to make a determination about, what do we follow? What don't we follow?

MYRE: The U.S. has not been hit by a major terror attack from abroad since 2001. And today the U.S. is shifting its security focus to great power rivalries, like those with China and Russia, and away from counterterrorism. But the radical Islamist ideologies that keep attracting new recruits remain a challenge. Farah Pandith was in charge of outreach to Muslim countries under President Barack Obama and is the author of a new book "How We Win."

FARAH PANDITH: We know that the most authentic voices to stop a young person from joining a group like ISIS are those people who have already been there and have come back.

MYRE: The U.S., she says, needs to tap into marketing skills and create campaigns...

PANDITH: Available for young kids in a way that is savvy, is pure friendly, that makes sense for them.

MYRE: The counterterrorism center was built at a time when the country was focused on foreign threats, yet homegrown extremists have carried out most attacks in recent years, many by the far right. Travers says the U.S. must adapt to these evolving threats. But he also offers this assessment.

TRAVERS: We need to keep terrorism as a risk in perspective. It is not - it never has been existential unless and until it causes us to change who we are as a people.

MYRE: And that, he says, is entirely in our hands. Greg Myre, NPR News, McLean, Va.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIM'S "COLD WATER MUSIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.