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How to Conduct a Homeland Security Threat Assessment

January 9, 2024

The nation faces countless threats: from foreign and domestic terrorism to cyberattacks carried out by malicious nation-states to the distribution of illegal and dangerous drugs. Identifying and prioritizing these threats is essential to national security and public health and safety.

In its 2024 homeland threat assessment, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grouped the most direct and pressing threats to the nation into four categories: public safety and security, border and immigration security, critical infrastructure security and economic security. Several statistics provided by the department illustrate the scope and urgency of these threats:

  • Since January 2022, domestic terrorists have conducted three attacks resulting in 21 deaths, along with multiple nonlethal attacks, while law enforcement has disrupted a half dozen other plots. 
  • The number of deaths due to substance overdose in the United States has risen steadily over the last two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with nearly 107,000 in 2021 (the latest year for which data is available). Synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, have accounted for the vast majority of these overdoses. 
  • Nation-state adversaries have employed artificial intelligence (AI), and particularly generative AI, to produce false or misleading content designed to undermine U.S. interests. For example, a Chinese government-controlled news site used AI to falsely claim that the U.S. was creating biological weapons for use against China. 

The national security threat assessment reflects insights from stakeholders across the U.S. intelligence community. Sharing information with the public, as well as the federal government’s public sector partners, about potential threats is “a vital part of protecting our homeland from today’s evolving security challenges,” according to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas.

Understanding the purpose of a threat assessment and what goes into it is critical for those who aspire to a career in homeland security.  

What’s a Homeland Security Threat Assessment? 

The Homeland Threat Assessment — a comprehensive annual report from the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis — draws on information and expertise from various stakeholders, including counterterrorism experts, law enforcement, cybersecurity professionals, chemical facility inspectors and border security. The DHS homeland security threat assessment, which was first issued in 2020, is also the primary mechanism for sharing the terrorism threat level, replacing the National Terrorism Advisory System. 

DHS organized the 2024 Homeland Threat Assessment into four main sections that align with its core missions:

  • Public safety: Encompasses lethal threats from terrorism and illegal drugs as well as foreign misinformation, disinformation and malinformation campaigns 
  • Border and immigration: Covers direct threats to border security, including those from transnational criminal organizations and terrorists, as well as migration patterns that hinder the ability to identify and respond to such threats
  • Critical infrastructure: Includes both physical and cyber threats to infrastructure across various sectors, including transportation, energy and health care as well as election interference
  • Economic security: Encompasses threats from nation-states and financially motivated cybercriminals, including acts such as market manipulation, intellectual property theft and ransomware

The report also highlights the risks posed by climate change and natural disasters, risks that not only lead to loss of life and property damage but can also disrupt local economies, cause infectious disease outbreaks and strain law enforcement and emergency services. 

Purpose of a Security Threat Assessment

The homeland security threat assessment is an integral part of the DHS core mission to safeguard the nation from the many threats it faces. Sharing this information with the public serves to increase the general population’s awareness about the state of national security and heighten their vigilance against threats that may compromise it. 

Upon the release of the inaugural Homeland Threat Assessment in 2020, Chad Wolf, former acting secretary of DHS, noted, “Our ability to mitigate (national security) threats is predicated on our ability to understand them and to inform the American people.”

The security threat assessment also acts as a guide for the federal government’s partners at the state, local, tribal and territorial levels, as well as the private and nonprofit sectors, enabling them to develop more effective strategies and make more well-informed decisions regarding these security challenges.

DHS further aims to bolster national security through partnerships with various stakeholders, providing funding, resources and training to combat threats identified in the Homeland Threat Assessment. Recent efforts include the following: 

  • The U.S. Secret Service, a federal agency under DHS, provided more than 280 briefings and trainings through the National Threat Assessment Center to state and local law enforcement, government officials, educators, mental health professionals and others in the past year.
  • In 2022, DHS awarded more than $250 million for security enhancements at nonprofits that are at high risk of terrorist attacks.
  • DHS awarded $20 million to 34 organizations in 2023 through its Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention grant program. The funds are designed to help these organizations strengthen their communities’ capacity to combat targeted violence and terrorism.

Who Performs a Homeland Security Threat Assessment?

While the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis is primarily responsible for creating the threat assessment based on its intelligence analysis, the report reflects the expertise and insights of the 22 different departments and agencies housed within DHS, along with the DHS Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans, which spearheads the department’s threat identification and prevention efforts. This breadth of expertise ensures that the threat assessment is comprehensive, covering a wide spectrum of threats in various sectors, from transportation and border security to nuclear response and infectious disease.

How to Conduct a Homeland Security Threat Assessment

Conducting a homeland security threat assessment typically begins with a survey of the assets at risk, a broad assessment of potential threats to these assets and careful consideration of the different types of measures that can prevent attacks and vulnerabilities and/or mitigate their impact. A useful security threat assessment may be focused on broad national vulnerabilities or on a single asset or industry, but the following are some fundamental steps that would be used in either process:

  1. Identify the threat as well as a potential target.
  2. Seek gaps in information to gain a clear understanding of the threat. In the context of national security, this process necessarily involves a great deal of interagency communication and collaboration to ensure that stakeholders have a complete picture of the nature of the threat. 
  3. Assess the likelihood of a threat occurring as well as the vulnerability of potential targets.  
  4. Evaluate strategies for preventing, mitigating and responding to threats to identify vulnerabilities and make adjustments as needed. 
  5. Regularly reevaluate the threat assessment and mitigation/response strategies.  

Improvements to the Process

In a 2021 report, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think tank focusing on national security matters, noted that threat assessments similar to the Homeland Threat Assessment tend to reflect the policy inclinations and biases of senior leadership; this can cause them to overstate the importance of certain threats while downplaying others. 

The report discussed the importance of adopting a more rigorous and adaptable approach to identifying national security threats, noting that the “threat picture must be frequently updated in an era of continuous change.” CSIS explained that the methodology used to identify threats should consider two time frames: the immediate and the emerging. 

Prioritization of threats is another area in which threat assessments are often lacking, the report noted. Relying on national security stakeholders to grade threats based on factors such as probability, time frame and impact can greatly improve this process and the consequent report, helping to “better align resources to address or mitigate identified risks and to increase U.S. national security overall.”

Pursue a Meaningful Role in Homeland Security

A homeland security threat assessment is a window into the nation’s most pressing security concerns. Identifying these threats and sharing this information with the public is vital to national security, creating a more informed and more vigilant citizenry.

The threat assessment is informed by the expertise of countless homeland security stakeholders, including field agents, intelligence officers, cybersecurity analysts, transportation officials and border security. Those seeking to play a critical role in national security should consider pursuing a homeland security degree, such as Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (HSEP).  

Learn more about how the program can prepare you for a wide range of roles in national security.