President George W. Bush appointed Fran Townsend to the position of a homeland security advisor. She served in that role from 2003 to 2008 moving forward. She came to the White House from the United States Coast Guard, where she held the position of assistant commandant for intelligence.
Here, Townsend weighs in on the evolution of terrorist groups, both foreign and homegrown. Townsend also emphasizes the importance of engaging the American people to keep the United States safe and secure.
On Christmas Day 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab unsuccessfully attempted to detonate a bomb hidden in his underwear while aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253. Later known as the Underwear Bomber, he was sentenced to life in prison. “In the wake of that Christmas Day attempt, John Brennan, my successor, came out and explained that the connection to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was somewhat surprising to them,” says Fran Townsend. “This had been a regional group that suddenly targeted the American homeland. After the Christmas Day attack, we had the attempt in Times Square, and the administration came out and explained that the TTP [Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan] — the Pakistani Taliban, which had also been a localized regional group — and again they had been surprised that it had expanded to make an attempt directly on the homeland.”
Terrorist Groups Joining Forces
“I think what we [have] is difficulty getting into the decision cycle of an attack. Because suddenly you find groups that don’t share a membership, but they share a belief in particular tactics; they may share a belief in similar targets in terms of targeting American interests whether it is at home or abroad,” explains Townsend. “And suddenly you find these like-minded in different ways, these groups come together to share either training, tactics, money, or people. It becomes much harder. You are no longer targeting a single group, but instead, you are targeting this matrix network of groups that have certain things in common.”
Fran Townsend experienced that firsthand during her time in the Bush White House. “We began to see it,” she explains. “We began to see things, like a consolidation of efforts. We saw a group in North Africa, the GSPC [Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat], align itself with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. And so you began to see these alliances around the world, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in Indonesia— all these groups began all of a sudden this, I won’t say strange alliance, but more of this confluence of events. We understood that they had real priority for those who were either American or had American travel documents.”
How did they handle it? “We were working with our British colleagues, in particular, to look at travel patterns around the world,” explains Fran Townsend. “And we understood that this network was forming, and we were watching it very closely.”
Are the intelligence communities somehow at fault for even allowing these types of terrorist federations to occur? “I don’t think so,” says Townsend. “The Obama administration was incredibly aggressive against al-Qaida in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The more you put pressure on the core of the network, the more likely you are to see a natural reaction. It started in the Bush administration and frankly stepped up in Obama’s administration, against the network's core, and I think that is a big part of it.”
Fran Townsend on the Importance of Partners
“We have always understood that our relationships with our foreign partners are incredibly important. And let’s be honest, not all foreign partnerships are created equal. Not all partners have got the equal capability. Some are more powerful, some are more transparent, and some are more consistent than others,” says Townsend. “As you see these loose affiliations strengthen and the homegrown threat rise, you have to rely more on your partners for indications and warnings before an attack. But in addition, you have got to rely more on state and local partners because, particularly with the homegrown threat, the people that are the most likely to see an anomaly in a state and local community are your local police forces and sheriffs. And so it underscores the importance of that relationship.”
Frances Townsend: ‘It’s Not About Scaring People’
However, Fran Townsend feels there’s room for improvement. “I believe we have got to do a better job engaging the American people,” she says. “Look, we are a victim of our own success in some ways. We haven’t seen a major attack in the United States since 9/11. We have seen an increase in attempts, but even those attempts, when you compare it to the scale of 9/11, where more than 3,000 Americans were killed, we see a guy with a bad bomb in his underwear that doesn’t go off, or a bomb insufficiently put together in Times Square. I think people take a sort of unjustified comfort in that. It’s not a matter of scaring people, but it is more a matter of emphasizing to them that the threat continues to be real and even states and local [communities] will not be successful without the help of the American people.”
According to Townsend, the worst thing possible would be Americans running around every day frightened about the next attack, “because that is not effective,” she explains. “What you want to do is be able to talk to people so that they can be prepared in their own minds for what I think is inevitable. There have been a number of very well-known attempts, and eventually, one of these will be successful. So I think part of the engagement is talking to the American people and preparing them for what may be the eventuality of the next attack.”
Townsend explains, “If there is another attack, part of the reason you want to talk to them is to begin to understand even a successful attack, on the scale of a Times Square or Detroit bomber, while tragic, if someone is hurt or killed, when you compare that to the level of effort or success on 9/11 that al-Qaida saw, then this is a failure for them. If that’s the best they can do, the mission failed. So you’re not going to be able to say that amid a crisis, you need to be able to talk to the American people about what terrorism is and what it is likely to look like going forward. And I don’t think we do a very good job at that. I think part of it is enlisting their help, but then you have to tell them what you want from them. Be specific, because it is not just this sort of generalized ‘be afraid and call the police;’ you need to tell them what you need them to look out for.”