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U.S. Counterterrorism Center Chief Responds To Manchester Suicide Attack


As the investigation into the Manchester attack continues, American intelligence and counterterrorism officials are working closely with their British counterparts. Nick Rasmussen is director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center. Thank you for joining us.

NICHOLAS RASMUSSEN: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Do you find the ISIS claim of responsibility to be credible?

RASMUSSEN: I guess what I would say is I want to be cautious. We're at an early stage. And of course this is a British-led investigation. This involved their citizens on their territory, and I would not want to get out ahead of our British friends and partners. But I will say it does bear some of the hallmarks of ISIS claims in the past.

SHAPIRO: Given what we know about this attack so far, does it fit patterns that you've been following?

RASMUSSEN: What I would say there is that we are of course concerned and have been for some time about potential attacks against soft targets in Europe, in many conflict zones around the world but also in Europe.

SHAPIRO: Soft targets like concert halls, shopping malls, et cetera.

RASMUSSEN: Certainly. And again, we've seen in previous instances that terrorist actors have taken advantage of soft targets, whether it's areas outside of an airport security area, train stations, trains themselves and even stadiums or concert halls as we saw in the Paris attack as well. So yes, it's clear that terrorists do take account of security preparations when they think about where they can achieve maximum damage with their attacks.

SHAPIRO: What kind of evidence are investigators looking for at this point - for example, explosives that ISIS is known to have used, things like that?

RASMUSSEN: I would imagine that they're of course looking to develop whatever forensic information they can on the nature of the explosive device. And that might or might not tell us things about the providence of the technology or how the device was constructed. It is of course true that we've seen a lot of information kind of published on the open web by terrorist organizations about how to create explosive devices. And so this - unfortunately and sadly, this kind of information is widely available to extremists of all sorts.

SHAPIRO: And so ultimately, whether somebody takes this widely available information and decides to stage an attack of their own accord or whether they are instructed by ISIS to carry out an attack, does that make much of a difference from an intelligence point of view?

RASMUSSEN: That's a good question. And I would certainly argue - and I've certainly thought about this in the context of attacks here in the homeland - whether an attack is carried out by some lone individual or someone with ties to a formal terrorist organization probably doesn't matter much to the victims of such a horrific attack. And I can do nothing but offer my sympathy and prayers for people who have suffered.

But those kind of connections do matter from an intelligence and law enforcement perspective, though, because they tell us what we have to do to try to disrupt future attacks. The strategies and tactics we would use to disrupt various kinds of terrorist attacks - they look different. The kinds of things we do to identify and disrupt lone-wolf actors are not necessarily the same kinds of things that we would do to disrupt a formal terrorist network of the sort we've been dealing with ever since 9/11. Unfortunately, right now we're in the business of trying to deal with both kinds of threats. And that puts a lot of pressure on our law enforcement capabilities.

SHAPIRO: Does this event raise concerns about copycat attacks including perhaps in the U.S.?

RASMUSSEN: I guess I would say in a broad sense yes because the concern about soft targets is one that we've had and certainly are dealing with here in the United States as well. On the other hand, I think we have a much smaller population of potential extremists here inside the United States than many of our European partners do living in Europe.

SHAPIRO: An investigation like this in which, as you say, the U.S. is playing a supporting role requires a lot of intelligence sharing. What is the state of intelligence sharing with the U.K. and other allies, especially in light of recent reports about the president disclosing classified information?

RASMUSSEN: I guess what I would say is that our intelligence sharing relationship with the United Kingdom is as strong as you could possibly imagine. I've seen nothing other than forward movement in that intelligence sharing relationship for quite some time. You know, I often say when I'm meeting with my British partners that I don't need to think about what I'm allowed to say to my British partners because we literally operate off the same informational basis. We look at the same intelligence. We evaluate the intelligence in much the same way. And we share common objectives around the world. So it's hard to imagine a closer intelligence relationship than that which we share with London.

SHAPIRO: Nick Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, we appreciate your taking the time to speak with us on this very busy day.

RASMUSSEN: Thanks very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAUSCHKA'S "RODE NULL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.