Major Themes From the 2016 Aspen Security Forum

The 2016 Aspen Security Forum was held from July 27 to July 30 in Aspen, Colorado. Over the past seven years, the forum, hosted by the Aspen Institute, has earned a well-deserved reputation as the most important venue for thought leadership in the homeland and national security arenas, attracting distinguished speakers and high-level attendees from around the world. This year’s forum was no exception.

Over the course of three days, the secretary of homeland security, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, the director of national intelligence, two four-star generals, the former chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6), the European Union counterterrorism coordinator, the German and Afghanistan ambassadors to the United States, current and former members of Congress, leading academics, and internationally renowned journalists – among others – presented their views, carried on frank dialogues, and answered pointed audience questions on the global issues and trends affecting U.S. and international security. A total of 22 panels covered a wide range of topics, but several issues emerged repeatedly and should be of interest to domestic preparedness professionals. The three persistent themes included the:

  • Evolving tactics, techniques, and practices of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and what they imply for countering violent extremism and homegrown radicalism;
  • Impact of cyber intrusions and cyber warfare on governments, companies, and individuals; and
  • Implications of actions and events in Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and Syria for security in Europe, Asia, and the United States.

Countering Violent Extremism and Homegrown Radicalization

By far, the dominant theme of the conference was the need to counter violent extremism (CVE) and stop homegrown radicalization. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson’s main comments concerned the rise of the terrorist-inspired attack and homegrown radicalization. The homeland security secretary noted that ISIS has changed from trying to position its operatives to carry out terror operations themselves to getting people to “stay home” and execute attacks on behalf of ISIS. Such attacks, the secretary observed, are significantly more difficult to interdict than ones that use ISIS personnel, which requires considerable planning, logistics, and funding.

Johnson views “building bridges” to Muslim communities as crucial to preventing ISIS-inspired attacks because law enforcement is not in a position to detect the vast majority of people who are undergoing radicalization – a clear message that law enforcement CVE tactics need to change. He also stated unequivocally, “Rhetoric that vilifies Muslims is counter to our efforts to build bridges to Muslim communities. Irresponsible rhetoric has consequences.” His clear warning was that Islamophobic demagoguery enables ISIS to recruit new followers by creating an “us-versus-them” motivation in people who are subject to becoming radicalized.

Johnson’s view of the rising threat of homegrown extremism and the need for serious CVE programs was echoed by numerous panelists that followed. Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco stressed that U.S. enemies are recruiting based on the message that Western civilization is at war with Islam. She echoed Johnson’s comments that the nation needs greater connectivity with communities throughout the United States to counter violent extremism, and she went on to say that the governments will have to give communities the tools to identify and react to radicalization. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper indicated that the United States and its allies have made progress against ISIS in areas that can be measured (e.g., terrorists killed, land captured, funds seized), but went on to say, “where we haven’t made progress is in the areas we can’t [measure] … countering their ideology, proselytizing, and skillful use of the internet and social media.”

Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Nick Rassmussen pointed out that even though ISIS has a significantly reduced geographic area from which to operate, it will still have the ability to launch external attacks because of its ability to inspire people to engage in violence in their home countries – far remote from ISIS strongholds in the Middle East. Bill Bratton (who had not yet announced his resignation as New York Police Department commissioner) drew a distinction between ISIS-inspired, ISIS-enabled, and ISIS-directed terrorism, and he indicated that he is more concerned about ISIS-inspired terrorism than the other two forms because it is so much harder to detect. 

Director of the DHS Office of Community Partnerships George Selim, and Secretary Johnson noted that the ability to prevent ISIS-inspired terrorism is largely dependent on people in the community coming forward with information (i.e., “see something, say something”). Selim, who heads a CVE task force, said that local jurisdictions want to develop community-led CVE intervention models. Harvard School of Public Health researcher Jessica Stern pointed to a report from the British think tank, Demos, which points out that successful CVE programs are “localized” (i.e., customized to a given area) and that “tone matters” (i.e., people tend to interact with positive messages, not negative ones). She also indicated that in the West, time on the internet is a major risk factor for the radicalization of young people.

The resounding message was that CVE programs must be made a priority by law enforcement, community leaders, and religious institutions – that countering violent extremism and homegrown radicalization must be a “whole-of-community” effort. Absent concerted CVE efforts, the United States is likely to see a long period of homegrown, self-radicalized individuals using any tools at their disposal to carry out acts of terrorism on behalf of ISIS.

Cyberattacks and Hacking

Another major theme that should be of interest to state and local government officials as well as to private sector leaders is the vulnerability of critical infrastructure and data systems to cyber attacks and hacking. Speakers focused on the ability of state-sponsored hackers to penetrate seemingly any computer network. The recent hack of the Democratic National Committee e-mail system provided fodder for many questions about who was culpable and whether one could safely say that the hack was the work of the Russians. Although this has been suggested by the Clinton campaign and some information technology security professionals, none of the presenters were willing to go on the record and attribute the intrusion to anyone or speak about how the matter was being investigated.

Cyber vulnerabilities have clear implications for public safety entities. Terrorists have demonstrated their willingness and intent to use the internet as well as guns and explosives to carry out attacks. Presenters pointed out that cyber penetrations have led to physical damage to computers, loss of valuable data and sensitive information, and the compromising of physical systems that are controlled by SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems. They also noted that many hackers, especially those associated with foreign governments and terrorist organizations, can employ extremely sophisticated methods.

The central message of the experts was that cybersecurity is currently – and will continue to be for the foreseeable future – a major problem. The primary admonition for public safety agencies was that, given their dependence on computing solutions (e.g., computer-assisted dispatching systems, mobile telecommunications systems, and investigative databases), jurisdictions of all types would be well-advised to re-evaluate their cybersecurity programs, policies, and equipment, and to take the necessary actions to prevent and mitigate the effects of a cybersecurity breach.

Understanding International Security Issues in a Domestic Context

The third major theme of the conference was the international security environment. This could be broken down into two primary sub-themes – first, the intentions and recent actions of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, and second, the impact of the Syrian Civil War on security in Central Europe.

Panelists and attendees alike seemed to gravitate to the understanding that Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran all display a clear intent to counter Western interests and possess (or are building) the capability to carry out both kinetic and cyber attacks to realize this intent. Russia and China appear to be concentrating largely on the development of offensive cyber capabilities, whereas North Korea and Iran are focused primarily on kinetic weapons.

Panelists were concerned that Kim Jong-un is relatively unknown and unpredictable. Therefore, he could pose a serious threat should North Korea achieve its long-held dream of developing a long-range missile able to reach the Continental United States. Although the chances and timing of success in this respect are hard to assess, realization of this capability could portend a need for domestic preparedness agencies to revive Cold War-like capabilities, doctrines, and practices. Such a return would also be probable should Iran not honor its obligations under Iran Arms Treaty–The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and surreptitiously develop a nuclear capability.

There was a lot of discussion of the impact of the Syrian Civil War on the security situation in Europe and the United States. CIA Director John Brennan suggested that there is no end in sight for the Syrian conflict as long as Bashar Al-Assad is in power. The war has produced a steady flood of refugees into Europe, which has proven very difficult to control because of the relative proximity of Syria to Central Europe. Panelists seemed to concur that the war in Syria poses only an indirect threat to the United States in the form of increased terrorism in Europe. In addition, Syrian refugees in the United States are both low in number and risk because of the rigorous vetting process to which they are subject (it takes nearly two years for a refugee to get cleared to enter the United States) and the relative distance and expense of making the trip here. The unstable situation in Syria, however, makes it difficult to root out Nusra Front (al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria) and provides fertile ground for ISIS to continue its operations. Lisa Monaco warned that the United States should be careful that any success in defeating ISIS does not create a power vacuum that would allow a resurgence of al-Qaida.


The three major themes evident at the 2016 Aspen Security Forum – countering violent extremism and homegrown radicalization, cyber vulnerabilities, and the international security landscape – offer domestic preparedness professionals much in terms of developing actionable plans, understanding threats and vulnerabilities, and improving the awareness and training of frontline personnel. The forum provides an excellent and broad venue for homeland and national security professionals to exchange ideas and build new professional relationships. Attendance at next year’s Aspen Security Forum (19-22 July 2017) ought to be on every domestic preparedness professional’s agenda.

Erik S. Gaull

Erik S. Gaull is the director of Public Safety and Emergency Management Programs for Applied Research Associates Inc. He is a Certified Emergency Manager®, Certified Protection Professional®, and Certified Business Continuity Professional®. In addition, he has earned FEMA’s Master Exercise Practitioner, Professional Continuity Practitioner, Advanced Professional Series, and Professional Development Series recognitions. He is currently an officer in the D.C. Police Department Reserve Division and a firefighter/paramedic III in the Montgomery, Maryland, County Fire-Rescue Service. He has a Master of Public Policy and an MBA from Georgetown.



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