The National Counterterrorism Center’s leader leans into collaboration and information sharing as the country’s national security focuses shifts to Russia and China.
The withdrawal of the Unites States military from Afghanistan in 2021 signaled the end of an era in American foreign policy. After two decades in which counterterrorism (CT) was the country’s top priority, the government and armed forces shifted their primary attention to threats posed by peer nations such as Russia and China.
Christine Abizaid was sworn in as director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in June 2021, amidst the runup to the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Her tenure marks a transition for the NCTC.
“Our country’s counterterrorism priorities, while critical, are no longer the driving force of U.S. national security. That’s something we should be really proud of. It’s a credit to the success of our CT community over the last 20 years,” Director Abizaid said during a keynote address at the GEOINT 2022 symposium.
Still, she warned, one major attack could undo much of that progress. “Our CT enterprise must learn to navigate against a persistent and committed terrorist threat, even as the rest of the U.S. national security community turns its attention to other major issues, especially strategic competition. Indeed, today’s threat landscape requires that the United States be agile and capable of deterring all manner of adversary,” said Director Abizaid.
Achieving that level of agility means learning to share CT information with a range of partners that includes federal agencies, state and local authorities, and allied governments, as well as private-sector companies. Director Abizaid pointed to instances when the NCTC shared threat information with U.S. Technology companies as an example of progress, as well as a new application called “aCTknowledge” that allows users across the country to access real-time unclassified intelligence related to terrorist activities. The app rolled out first to federal and military partners, but Director Abizaid said a broader rollout to state and local partners is coming soon.
Director Abizaid described such efforts as “leaning forward to produce products for audiences that don’t live in a top-secret world.”
Expanded data-sharing also places a greater priority on data security. That’s a natural focus for NCTC, given both its CT focus and its nature as an agency meant to facilitate inter-government collaboration.
“Privacy controls and privacy concerns, they have to be built into the design of any technology that we’re delivering,” Director Abizaid said in response to an audience question at the GEOINT 2022 symposium. “We actually swim in a sea of commingled data that’s really important for us at NCTC to make sure that we are segmenting appropriately, we’re minimizing appropriately, we’re handling appropriately. It’s a laborious process, and it can be a very manual process.”
To that end, Director Abizaid said that while NCTC’s compliance regime is among the intelligence community’s most effective, it could benefit from greater efficiency. She pointed to artificial intelligence and machine learning as technologies that could help NCTC more quickly and effectively process large amounts of CT data, including geospatial intelligence.
“Our ability to understand what sits in our databases and connect the dots—that’s going to be critical. And I think AI and ML will allow us to reveal and discover trends,” Director Abizaid said.
The key, she said, is more efficiently converting that sea of data into useful insight.
“Our foundational need [is] being able to structure the data in a way that allows you to process the data in the most effective way. It sounds boring, but it’s really important that we get really clean data, so we can do all the most important things with that data…in terms of real-time operationally relevant information.”
If Director Abizaid succeeds in gaining those insights and securely sharing them with trusted partners, she will have achieved her goal for NCTC as it begins its new era.
“I want NCTC to achieve the intention behind it when it was first formed, which is to be a melting pot for the CT community—so that very naturally, very informally, the way we do business is as a collaborative community,” Abizaid said. “A key focus of mine is making sure we’ve got representation from across the [intelligence community] in a way that really makes us better than our individual agencies alone would perform.”
The U.S. Space Force recently became the 18th member of the U.S. Intelligence Community. During a Wednesday keynote at GEOINT 2022, Deputy Chief of Space Operations for Operations, Cyber, and Nuclear Lt. Gen. G. Chance Saltzman explained why the Space Force is not just a new IC member, but also a vital one.