Counterterrorism and homeland security are not the same thing. It is not surprising though that the two get intertwined and conflated. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was, after-all, created in the wake of the horrible terrorist attacks on 9/11. The twenty-two agencies that were brought together into what became DHS were, in part, tasked to keep America safe. But the counterterrorism mission begins and is largely fought overseas by the men and women of the U.S. military and intelligence community agencies across Europe and in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. While there is obviously overlap and connections between the two mission spaces, they are decidedly not the same. When they are unnecessarily fused together their missions can become muddled and their intended outcomes can miss the mark.

Inherently Reactive v. Active Preparation

At the most basic level, the operational and mission-related aspects of counterterrorism and homeland security demarcate a barrier between the two. The counterterrorism mission is largely reactive, even in taking preemptive measures. Its aim is to neutralize threats that pose a risk to U.S. interests overseas and in large part these threats or indication of such threats must materialize in order for counterterrroism-focused missions to be ordered.

Homeland security, on the other hand, places a large emphasis on preparedness and resilience. Because homeland security encompasses more than just counterterrorism, there are high-consequence, high-probability events like tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes and even volcanoes that can affect significant portions of a community. Those communities need to be prepared for those high-probability events and need to have the resilience to bounce back from them and return to their normal lives.

The two missions are clearly complementary, but very different. The United States needs both, but their discipline and doctrine serve different purposes. And once you understand the differences in their missions, the other contrasts become more clear.

Overseas v. Domestic

Other differences separate homeland security and counterterrorism. One core segment of the counterterror mission is carried out by the military and intelligence services overseas. These soldiers and officers are charged with making sure terrorists and their tools of destruction don’t cross the ocean or U.S. borders. This is a far cry from the domestic focus of DHS’s components like U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the U.S. Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Transportation Security Administration, the U.S. Secret Service, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. DHS components do have a significant international footprint and mission space and below the paper will explore places where the two parts of the diagram overlap and agencies can work together.

Top-down v. Bottom-up

Beyond the opposite geographic focuses of the agencies, there is a key distinction that divides the missions and the culture of what they are trying to achieve.

U.S. military (including the U.S. Coast Guard which is a component of DHS) and intelligence agencies have a strict and rigorous top-down culture. This culture is necessary to ensure that orders are carried out and procedures are followed in conditions that often strain the normal lines of communication, transportation and support. Further, the U.S. military and Title 50 intelligence agencies are really the only ones tasked with and capable of carrying out their missions. There is no shadow or replacement or private-sector Marine Corps or Central Intelligence Agency.

But homeland security and its attendant agencies and organizations operate in a completely different sphere. While individual law enforcement agencies may have a top-down organizational structure and culture, as a whole the parts and pieces of DHS operate in a bottom-up world if they are successful. They must interact with and preserve a relationship with the American public. While the military and intelligence community might have to do this in the context of a counter-insurgency operation, their time commitment is usually not indefinite, nor does it have the same complexity or legal requirements that homeland security officials have. Homeland security can, at times, include a mix of the public, private businesses and state and local law enforcement — all of whom homeland security officials must foster long-term relationships with. An airport is a great example to illustrate this point. The airport itself may be run by an independent airport authority whose safety and security is provided by local law enforcement. It also may have federal law enforcement in the form of CBP officers in addition to TSA screeners. Individual vendors within the airport must also consider providing security for their employees and the good or services they provide.

Where They Work Together

While it is important to recognize that counterterrorism and homeland security are not synonymous — and that they need their own strategies, policies, doctrine and culture — the two must work together in order to keep the American public safe.

The law enforcement information gleaned from the bottom-up nature of homeland security operations can be an important information node in the counterterrorism fight. This can best be seen in programs like the Immigration Advisory Program operated by CBP. This program places CBP officers at foreign airports during the processing of flights headed for the United States. These officers aid airline and security staff at the airport with the review of traveler information during the boarding and processing of U.S.-bound flights. This direct support of host-country personnel moves traditional homeland security functions overseas. It also provides a level of technical assistance to foreign partners to bolster their own border security. The more the United States searches for operational efficiencies with its partners, particularly through multilateral groups like the G7, the better prepared and resilient it will be when the need for counterterrorism action presents itself.

But operations are just one piece. These operations must be informed and guided by mutually-supportive counterterrorism and homeland security strategies. An isolated counterterrorism strategy will not be as effective as it could be without a reinforcing homeland security strategy, and vice versa. Two mutually-supporting strategies can help both policy makers and operators understand where they can lean on each other’s authorities to pursue to new partnerships, find operational efficiencies and fortify joint interagency actions and task forces. For example, under a broader national security strategy, these two strategies could stress the importance of foreign assistance and how to tailor it to different types of partners based on their capacity.  Or the strategies could each highlight how information and intelligence sharing can strengthen their ability to carry out their mission.

Popular culture has done its share to blur the lines that should exist between the policy and operational worlds of counterterrorism and homeland security. Television shows like Homeland and 24 conflate these two worlds and give the public an unnecessarily fictionalized view of this aspect of national security. That DHS was formed in the wake of 9/11 makes this convergence all the more likely in the public’s mind. But to most effectively safeguard the public, build community resilience, and support those who lead the counterterror mission, it is important to understand that there are differences between the two and how those differences impact the decisions made by policy makers.


Note: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, or opinion of the author’s employer, associates, clients, or other entities or individual associated with the author.

Image: France’s minister for Immigration Eric Besson speaks with a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent on September 2, 2010 during the launching of the U.S. Immigration Advisory Program at Roissy Charles De Gaulle airport, near Paris. (Photo by MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images)