Kevin K. McAleenan was designated as the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security by President Trump on April 8, 2019. Before this appointment, he served as Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), having been confirmed by the U.S. Senate in March 2018. From January 2017 until then he had served as CBP Acting Commissioner. He served as Deputy Commissioner from November 2, 2014, until his appointment to Acting Commissioner.

Prior to that, McAleenan held several leadership positions at CBP and one of its legacy agencies, the U.S. Customs Service. From 2006 to 2008, Mr. McAleenan served as the Area Port Director of Los Angeles International Airport, directing CBP’s border security operations at one of CBP’s largest field commands. In December 2011, Mr. McAleenan was named acting Assistant Commissioner of CBP’s Office of Field Operations. In 2015, McAleenan received a Presidential Rank Award, the nation’s highest civil service award.

CTC: Last time we spoke to you, you were the head of Customs and Border Protection.1 Obviously the scope of your counterterrorism responsibilities has widened immensely in your current position. What is the most significant CT-related challenge you have faced in your new position?

McAleenan: Responding to the emerging threat landscape. Not only have the domestic terrorism/targeted violence threats become more frequent, more prevalent, more impactful on the American conscience, but we’ve also faced the other types of issues we called out in our recently released “Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence.”2 One of the challenges is that technology is empowering terrorists to coordinate better and those motivated to violence to get validation more quickly. The FBI have talked about how the velocity of their domestic terrorism cases is increasing dramatically. We’re very worried about certain emerging technologies, whether it’s unmanned aerial systems or even cyber tools that could be in the hands of terrorist groups or individuals. We see technology as an opportunity that can be leveraged against those threats. Those have been the main focus areas of the past five and a half months.

Of course, we’re still monitoring very closely the international threat environment, the dispersal of ISIS, how we’re managing the remaining elements on the battlefield, looking at their travel out and also ensuring that we’re monitoring older terrorist organizations like our original adversary al-Qa`ida and their potential plotting and continued designs of attacks against the West.

CTC: DHS is a fairly unique organization that was founded with the prevention of terrorist attacks in the United States as its primary mission, yet the vast majority of the Department’s day-to-day activities, while related to CT, are not directly focused on countering terrorism. So how do you remain focused on that original core mission while simultaneously handling all those other complex, non-CT-related challenges the Department faces? How does that impact your ability to communicate and speak with authority on CT given that diversity of focus areas?

McAleenan: That’s an interesting question. I think I would look at it in two ways. First of all, our origin story and the motivation for our creation was a major terrorist attack and the design of the Department was to protect the entire homeland, whether the borders, transportation, the waterways; this was the main focus in the initial months and years after 9/11. All these were counterterrorism efforts. Every program that we worked on, whether it was identifying risk in international travel to the U.S. or targeting high-risk cargo coming toward the U.S., the first objective from a threat perspective was to identify whether there was a terrorism or security risk with that person or thing. Then you filled out your other missions—the counter-narcotics mission, the customs compliance mission. I think if you look at TSA, they are a counterterrorism agency first and foremost. They are providing security for those aircraft taking off or landing within the United States every single day by ensuring that no individual or thing is boarding that aircraft can threaten it. That’s a very explicit day-to-day mission. But we do have a broader responsibility to protect the homeland, and I think the definition by [former DHS] Secretary [Jeh] Johnson of securing the American people, our homeland, and our values is exactly the right framework for DHS. That starts and is animated and is motivated by a counterterrorism purpose, first and foremost.

CTC: The DHS Strategic Framework that was released in September received a lot of attention due to emphasis on the evolving security environment and increased emphasis on domestic terrorism and racially motivated violent extremism. Could you speak a little bit about how this framework will change the approach to this specific threat of racially motivated violent extremism but also to the more diverse threat landscape in general?

McAleenan: What this strategic framework does for us is it recognizes and highlights our core commitments on preventing international terrorist actions to the homeland. Obviously preventing another major terrorist attack on the U.S. is our operational requirement. That’s why we were created. That’s where our authorities are derived for the most part. But we did want to very clearly balance this against the emerging threat environment and the fact that most recent mass-casualty attacks have been domestic terrorism in origin and a concerning number have been ideologically motivated by racially motivated extremism or white supremacist extremism in particular. And given the FBI’s caseload and as the [FBI’s] director has testified,3 as the [FBI’s] assistant director [for Counterterrorism]4 has testified, the increasing prevalence for that type of motivation for attacks, we wanted to be very clear that that’s an emerging threat that we need to address.

CTC: You were developing this Strategic Framework before the August 2019 El Paso terrorist attack, which resulted in the deaths of six family members of DHS employees and many others.5 You’ve spoken about how it was “an attack on all of us, on our family.”6 Clearly with this new Strategic Framework, there’s a significant focus on the white supremacist threat. What is your message for the American people?

McAleenan: We wanted to be very clear in this Strategy that we recognize emerging threats from racially motivated violent extremism, and in particular white supremacist extremists in the United States. As I already noted, that’s borne out by the FBI’s caseload and current percentages, and it’s been the driving ideological factor in a number of high-casualty attacks, both in the U.S. and abroad in the last two years. So stating that with clarity, that was very important as a strategic direction to the Department of Homeland Security agencies and professionals. But also to show the American people we get it, and we’re addressing emerging threats as aggressively as we can.

CTC: As with a lot of these types of strategic-level documents, some questions are always going to be raised about funding and political support for the Priority Actions proposed in the Framework. How will the Department ensure that those actions receive the support they need? And what metrics do you use to determine the right balance of resources that need to be dedicated to tackling both the emerging threats you cite in the document and the remaining Islamist terrorism threat?

McAleenan: Very good questions. First and foremost, we took a step and I personally engaged with the chairman of both appropriations and our authorizing committees on an out-of-cycle request to bolster our new Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Office [TVTP] as well as to provide some advanced funding for new grants for prevention, especially on the domestic terrorism side. So, we did see the Senate Appropriations Markup included significant investment as we requested, but more broadly, as the President directed, we are looking at all resources necessary to address the emerging threat environment. We’ll be working through the Office of Management and Budget, and we’ll be presenting additional resource requirements to really advance the strategy in the coming budget year.

But in the meantime, we think we can do a lot with our existing resources and with the renewed strategy. First and foremost, the Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Office does have a coordination mandate to bring together the diverse capabilities of the Department—in CISA [Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency], in the U.S. Secret Service, in the Federal Protective Service, in intelligence and analysis as well as even FEMA on the ongoing security grant side to ensure that we’re applying those resources in a way that’s important to communities across the country and preparing for and being able to respond effectively to these types of targeted violence and mass attacks–the goal being to hopefully enable communities to identify potential threat actors that are on the path to violence and that they’ll create off-ramps as often as possible, understanding that we can’t prevent every attack.

We are coordinating and hopefully galvanizing and wielding a level of effort across multiple DHS components that already exist in a more effective way by deconflicting it, by coordinating it, and by prioritizing it on risk.

Output metrics can help us keep track of our efforts: how many types of threat assessments are we doing through our CISA Protective Security Advisors? How many exercises at the state and local level? How many active shooter trainings are being conducted? How many people are we reaching through U.S. Secret Service’s national threat assessment centers’ training and threat advisory efforts?

In the prevention space, what gets counted is more difficult, right? Because you’re not going to know that that individual that you trained at the local level—police, school resource officer, mental health professional—now has a better sense of what the threat indicators look like, who’s engaged and hopefully redirected a young, disaffected person who was on a path to violence. We’re not necessarily going to know how or if that worked. But we do believe that with the analysis of the 17 grants that we’re completing, the process we’re going to be undertaking, hopefully with some new grant funding, we’ll be able to target those efforts on programs that work.

Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan

CTC: In your remarks at the Brookings Institution launching the Strategic Framework, you said that there needs to a whole-of-society conversation about “how we can intervene as a community in advance” in response to content “helping accelerate a pathway to violence.” Would you be able to elaborate a little bit about that and talk about what additional authorities or capabilities may be required?

McAleenan: I think, first and foremost, a principle for us in the law enforcement context in the United States is we’re operating within a constitutional regime that is committed to First Amendment protections. We do not police ideology. Our goal is to prevent violence. That’s a different conversation in Europe and elsewhere where government authorities have more capability and authority to intervene on ideology. But that’s not the U.S. context. So how do we participate with the private sector, with non-governmental organizations, and again with communities to help make sure that regardless of the ideology, when there are indicators that suggest someone is on the pathway to violence, how do we find ways to address that especially when they’re talking about their intent before it becomes actualized? That’s a conversation we need to have, including on the role and responsibility of and opportunity available to key private sector players or academics or NGOs or community entities to intervene or to have a positive impact on someone who’s on a path to violence.

Let me just make a big picture point here. The new Strategy commits to a lot more transparency and to addressing these threats in accordance with our commitment to civil rights and civil liberties. And again, our DHS commitment is to protect our values as we work to protect the American people. That comes into play in some of the challenges on the domestic landscape where you’re addressing violence and not ideology. We want to be very clear about that in that the new efforts we develop are going to have to sit within our commitment to privacy and civil rights and civil liberties.

CTC: One of the most significant inclusions in the framework is the addition of targeted violence as a Homeland Security threat that needs to be countered.a You’ve noted more work is needed in nailing down the definition of this term,7 but it will regardless likely raise a number of questions about the DHS role in a new category of activities. How are you going to define DHS’ role in these types of domestic incidents, especially those in which the terrorism nexus or lack thereof is not initially clear? 

McAleenan: I think we’ve taken pains in the strategy that draw a distinction between those areas where we have a direct operational role—again on the international side, preventing access to the U.S., on the cross-border movement of materials or funding or individuals that are supporting a terrorist agenda—and those areas where we can, with our information sharing, with our training, with our threat assessments and preparation, empower communities to protect themselves and to identify and intervene against threat actors on a path to violence. So targeted violence is another area where we wanted to recognize that not all of these attacks that we’re seeing have a clear ideological motivation. Or in some cases, we’re seeing shifting ideological motivations and it’s affected [an] individual who’s already desiring to commit an act of violence. We want to empower communities to address that regardless of ideology and regardless of a connection to something that the Department has a direct operational authority to intervene on.

CTC: One of the four Goals in the Framework is the Prevention of Terrorism and Targeted Violence. The pre-incident space is a particularly challenging environment for DHS, given the already-established roles of other federal, state, and local law enforcement, as well as local government and community groups. As DHS increases its activities in this area, how will it prevent possible redundancies and ensure proper coordination with other entities that are operating in that space?

McAleenan: Good question. First, and just note at the federal level, I’ve met with both [FBI] Director Wray and the Attorney General to talk about the emerging threat of domestic terrorism and DHS’ support to the FBI that we provide on the investigative side. We’re very clear on our lane in the road there as well as how the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence and analysis directorate supports the open-source intelligence fusion products and pushing domestic terrorism information out through our fusion centers around the country. And that’s pretty well aligned. One of the specific directions of the Office of Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention is to look across all of DHS and identify opportunities with other federal government programs, but examine how we can best integrate with state and locals and NGOs. And they’ve already built significant bridges with, for instance, faith-based and religious organizations that are protecting houses of worship and schools across the country. And we are looking at how we support those efforts without taking actions that would complicate them.

At the community level, what we try to do is enhance our engagement. If you look at the Protective Service Advisors’ role from CISA in a community, they’re working with the county, the city, the police, mental health professionals, school districts, they’re trying to reach out to everyone involved, and they serve almost a personal deconfliction role in ensuring that everyone knows what resources DHS has to support them, what training and education materials there are, how threat analysis can be advanced—our school security recommendations, for instance, recommend that there’s a threat assessment capability at every school district and that it’s applied throughout the schools—those are the kind of expectations we have to look at the whole effort and empower the community as opposed to complicate it or overlap. There’s not enough focus on community engagement nationally already. That’s pretty clear by the last several years. We’re trying to increase that level of awareness and effort at every level.

CTC: The former director of the NCTC [National Counterterrorism Center] Nicholas Rasmussen and others have pointed out that far-right terror around the world increasingly has international dimensions.8 One aspect of this is contact between extremists across different countries and one aspect is inspiration. How is this shaping the U.S. government’s response?

McAleenan: The first area is an area where we expect our operational energies to play a more direct role. We’ll prioritize support to investigations, especially on the movement of money. National Targeting Center and its efforts on the counter-network side identify organizational connections between the extremist groups or those that are trying to motivate extremist violence internationally. So if it moves across borders and we can work with partners to address it, that’s an operational role that we’d like to provide alongside the FBI. In terms of the inspiration or the validation that we’re seeing happen in many cases very quickly on an individual who’s on a path to violence, that’s where that whole-of-community and private sector conversation from the U.S. perspective is critical. It’s also where we can draw from the perspective of some of our foreign partners, especially Five Eyes,b who have built up capabilities to address that kind of motivation to violence online.

CTC: Given this discussion of international dimensions, are we at the point where some of this terminology used by the U.S. government regarding domestic versus international terrorism has outlived its usefulness?

McAleenan: Well, maybe. You see us grappling kind of overtly with terminology in the Strategic Framework, and we’re calling for a new definition for targeted violence on the domestic side as well as an annual assessment of threats to the homeland. We are trying to work at these definitions. It’s also something the Department has asked the Department of Justice to look at in response to the El Paso [attack] and [the attack in August 2019 in] Dayton, whether there are any legislative updates that need to be considered as well.

CTC: You’ve referenced the key role the Office of Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention [TVTP] will play in implementing the goals of the new Strategic Framework. You established this in April9 “with an explicit focus and balance on domestic terrorism, including racially motivated violent extremism.”10 Could you give us a progress report on that and the resources allocated to this office?

McAleenan: The TVTP is led by an Assistant Secretary in our Office of Policy, Elizabeth Neumann. Right away, they got to work building on the foundations of prior efforts of the countering violent extremism side of the department, establishing an interagency role at the national level—with the FBI, with the Director of National Intelligence, with NCTC—and then working on building the connections to all of the various programs that I’ve been outlining among the DHS components that are already engaged in helping communities prepare for and prevent this type of violence. So, they were off and running already, since April, and what the attacks in El Paso did is really accelerate our efforts. I directed that we move forward our Strategic Framework development and issuance and rely on the TVTP to help coordinate and ensure we develop an implementation plan and pursue it aggressively.

CTC: In terms of the implementation, you’ve stated that you’ve wanted to move beyond a whole-of-government effort to a whole-of-society approach that gives prominence to the needs and leadership of states and local communities.11 How do you see that happening?

McAleenan: In a variety of ways. First of all, these trainings that I’m talking about, whether they’re an active shooter training that is led by Federal Protective Service at a mixed-use building in a mid-size city or specifically requested training that comes to our Protective Service Advisor at CISA, they already have a lot of touchpoints out there. So, what I’d like to do is have that be more structured, have that be more risk-based, and have it be expanded so that we have greater reach in the communities. And so, by pulling together, and we’ve done this already with our various briefings on DHS resources that are available and on our targeted violence and threat briefings, we’ve updated them based on what we’ve seen over the last two years. We’re surging that information out there right now, and what we expect to come back from that is a lot of interest, a lot of organizations, whether we’re talking to state and local governments, whether we’re talking to a school district, an NGO, or an entity that’s out in the community working with youth. We want them to know what we have to offer and ask for it. So that’ll be the kind of thing we’re measuring. Again, how many additional Protective Service Advisors have we been able to bring onboard? How many touchpoints have they made? How many trainings are we delivering? And what does that look like against our risk map for that community and against the types of structured engagements we want to have from the school district to the local first responders and police.

CTC: Big picture, there are growing calls for cost cutting in counterterrorism. How do you strike a balance between ensuring there remains enough focus on the terrorism problem to prevent complacency and to ensure continued success while also preventing unnecessary overhyping of threat?

McAleenan: I think we’ve got to be pretty clear in how we talk about it, having a balance in our public dialogue and making sure, for instance, while we’re worried about the security of our southwest border and addressing a regional migration crisis, that we’re also aware that there are security threats that could be embedded in that crisis and headed toward our border, making sure people understand the dual nature of the challenge operationally. The other thing, you create bureaucratically organizational units that are dedicated to certain aspects of the threat. You look at an entity like the National Targeting Center or an Intelligence and Analysis Directorate, and they will have specific counterterrorism experts, even specific organizational experts informing and supporting the broader risk assessment done by those units or the products provided by the analysts. So there’s both structural efforts as well as rhetorical efforts you can undertake to make sure you keep your focus, you prevent the type of worst-case scenario and high-casualty attacks that you were created to prevent, but also make sure you’re animating and driving across your entire mission set, including facilitating lawful trade and travel, which is a critical responsibility element as well.

CTC: From your personal perspective, of all the different threats we just talked about what’s the one thing at the top of your list, what’s the one thing that keeps you up at night given the variety of different threat actors out there?

McAleenan: So, we took pains in the Strategic Framework not to rank or prioritize the threats, but to describe the emerging threat landscape as we see it. From a DHS perspective and from a leadership perspective, the thing that you always want, and I think I answered you similarly a year ago, is you want to effectively address known threats that are within your operational authorities and capabilities. So, what keeps me up at night is thinking about whether there’s another ounce of management time, another resource that we could apply to the problem, another intelligence product we could push out to our field so that we might be able to stop something. This is what keeps me motivated to push our organization to stay on their toes.     CTC

Substantive Notes
[a] For the purposes of the DHS Strategic Framework, “targeted violence refers to any incident of violence that implicates homeland security and/or U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) activities, and in which a known or knowable attacker selects a particular target prior to the violent attack. Unlike terrorism, targeted violence includes attacks otherwise lacking a clearly discernible political, ideological, or religious motivation, but that are of such severity and magnitude as to suggest an intent to inflict a degree of mass injury, destruction, or death commensurate with known terrorist tactics. In the Homeland, targeted violence has a significant impact on the safety and security of our communities, schools, places of worship, and other public gatherings.” “Department of Homeland Security Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security, September 2019, p. 4.

[b] Editor’s note: The Five Eyes (FVEY) is an intelligence alliance of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

[1] See Paul Cruickshank and Brian Dodwell, “A View from the CT Foxhole: An Interview with Kevin McAleenan, Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection,” CTC Sentinel 11:8 (2018).

[2] “Department of Homeland Security Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security, September 2019.

[3] Matt Zapotosky, “Wray says FBI has recorded about 100 domestic terrorism arrests in fiscal 2019 and many investigations involve white supremacy,” Washington Post, July 23, 2019.

[4] David Shortell, “FBI is investigating 850 domestic terrorism cases,” CNN, May 8, 2019.

[5] “A strategic framework for countering terrorism and targeted violence: A conversation with Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin K. McAleenan,” Brookings Institution, September 20, 2019.

[6] Kathy Gilsinan, “DHS Is Finally Going After White Supremacists. It’s Not Going to Be Simple,” Atlantic, September 20, 2019.

[7] “Department of Homeland Security Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence,” p. 14.

[8] Joshua A. Geltzer, Mary B. McCord, and Nicholas Rasmussen, “The Christchurch Shooting: Domestic Terrorism Goes International,” Lawfare, March 19, 2019.

[9] “Acting Secretary McAleenan Announces Establishment of DHS Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security, April 19, 2019.

[10] Allan Smith, “Trump downplays background checks push after Odessa mass shooting,” NBC News, September 1, 2019.

[11] “Acting Secretary McAleenan Announces Establishment of DHS Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention.”

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