When it comes to the threat of terrorism in America, sometimes it seems hard to tell whether we should be scared, very scared or just plain terrified. On Sunday's Face the Nation, House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) warned that "we face the highest threat level we have ever faced in this country today." Including after 9/11. Nunes said part of that threat is from foreign fighters, some Americans, who have traveled to train with terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria, but the "more important fact is that on the internet young people are being radicalized here in the United States." House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) also predicted last week that that there could be more small-scale attacks by ISIS leading up to the July 4th holiday.
It's enough to make you long for the old color coded terror alert system which was introduced after 9/11. Known as the color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS), it was shelved by the Department of Homeland Security in 2011 because, as DHS put it, "many felt that the HSAS uses fear tactics and that the system lacks any real credibility due to its ambiguity ."
The color coded system was replaced in 2011 by the lesser-known National Terrorism Advisory System. The reason that it may be lesser known is that the NTAS has not issued a warning since it was created. Its Twitter feed looks like it should be discontinued for being a ghost account. It doesn't have a single entry. Nor does the NTAS web page. The Department of Homeland Security issues those alerts characterizing a threat as "imminent" or simply "elevated." Yet despite the warnings from lawmakers, the threat is neither imminent nor elevated.
According to an official at DHS no warnings have been issued because unlike the color coded system which was vague, this system is to be used when the situation is specific and dire and public awareness can help counter the threat.
Still, people with high security clearances are sternly warning that the threat of a terrorist attack on American soil sometime soon is highly likely. What has them worried is that intelligence officials estimate that over 150 Americans have traveled overseas to fight or support terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria. FBI Director James Comey said of the threat from ISIS alone earlier this year that "we have investigations of people in various stages of radicalizing in all 50 states."
According to one veteran law enforcement officer with extensive experience countering terrorist threats, the new sense of concern is also motivated by fear that the previous posture toward the self-radicalized may have been too lax. After the attack on the cartoon contest in Garland, Texas featuring images of the prophet Muhammed, federal law enforcement officials became even more vigilant about ISIS related chatter. "After Garland, they started picking up a lot of people they'd been watching," said the former official.
Michael O'Hanlon, national security expert at the Brookings Institution says that we need to distinguish between large Al-Qaeda style attacks and threats from ISIS that resulted in the confrontation in Garland. "The threat from big attacks is not the highest it has ever been. We've gotten better at tracking big attacks and we can be pretty confident there's not a big ring preparing an attack," he said. "But when it comes to the category of small attacks the vulnerability is as high as it has ever been." O'Hanlon also points to the larger than ever global growth of terrorism, outlined in the State Department report from last week that found that "the number of terror attacks worldwide shot up by 35 percent between 2013 and 2014, with an 81 percent jump in the number of deaths."
So it's not that easy to tell just how anxious the public should be. Some level of concern is crucial, say law enforcement officials, because it means the public is vigilant which might help foil and attack. On the other hand, officials also concede that the public relations machine of ISIS delights in creating anxiety and activity simply by sending out a flood of social media messages. Though there might be some nostalgia for the color coded system to categorize just how nervous people should be, the problem may not be the lack of a classification system, but that the threat is as hard to pin down as it always was.
With reporting by Jill Jackson