Story highlights

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says lone wolfs could strike without warning

Johnson also worried about terrorist organizations' social media campaigns

Homeland Security turns to religious, community groups to fight extremism, he said

CNN —  

Lone wolf terror attacks remain a significant threat within the United States, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Sunday, and could occur without warning.

“We have to be vigilant against an independent actor here in the homeland who might choose to strike at any moment,” Johnson told CNN’s Barbara Starr in an interview at the Reagan National Defense Forum Sunday.

The threat posed by these potential attackers is nothing new. But Johnson’s concerns show how challenging counter-terrorism has become.

Just a few years ago, U.S. officials pursued a group that followed more predictable recruitment patterns.

“Core al-Qaeda was a relatively traditional command and control structure where someone would be recruited, they train at an overseas camp and then they’d be sent to commit a terrorist attack,” Johnson explained.

“The new phenomenon that I see that I’m very concerned about,” Johnson continued, “is somebody who has never met another member of that terrorist organization, never trained at one of the camps, who is simply inspired by the social media – the literature, the propaganda, the message – to commit an act of violence in this country.”

Johnson added that, while the U.S. government has largely been successful in disrupting plots hatched by terrorist cells abroad, catching individuals who are not formally connected requires them to take a different tactic – relying heavily on state and local law enforcement.

The Department of Homeland Security is also turning to religious and community organizations in its fight against extremism, Johnson said.

“I’ve made this a personal part of my agenda” he said, “by traveling to a lot of community-based organizations around the country, many of them Islamic based, and the dialogue is interesting.”

“We have to build trust across the spectrum of issues,” he continued. “I don’t want to just go there and say, ‘I’m here to talk about countering violent extremism. What can you do to help me?’”

Crucially, said Johnson, the government has to offer a competing message to the young men who might otherwise be drawn in by the extremist rhetoric they see online. This as groups like ISIS develop increasingly sophisticated social media and propaganda arms that strive to recruit western jihadists.

“I think that some men, some young men may be inclined to turn in that direction,” said Johnson. “We’re seeing that obviously and so we have to offer a counter narrative. We have to offer a counter vision and so we need public participation in that.”