Maybe you've noticed fewer mentions of "orange" or "red" level threats in recent years, or perhaps you just assumed we were in the clear. But the truth is that color-coded threat warning system, which depending on your politics was either a touchstone or a punchline of the Dubya presidency, was replaced in 2011 with a shiny new one.
It was a change that largely went under the radar, probably because the new system was never triggered — until now.
On Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin that it would activate the updated National Terrorism Advisory System for the first time.
The DHS stressed that the activation was not in response to any specific threat, but that as a result of heightened global terrorist activity, U.S. officials would be stepping up law enforcement and increasing FBI investigations into terrorism-related activity.
"With the rise in use by terrorist groups of the internet to inspire and recruit, we are concerned about the 'self-radicalized' actor(s) who could strike with little or no notice," a summary posted to the department's website reads. "Recent attacks and attempted attacks internationally and in the homeland warrant increased security, as well as increased public vigilance and awareness."
The advisory system replaced the color-coded threat assessment chart that came into being shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The old chart, with fluctuating colors based on the level of terrorist threat, was widely criticized as an ineffective tool for the general public, but experts told Mic that the new system was pretty much more of the same.
Per the DHS website, the current system alerts citizens of threats in three ways: bulletins ("describes current developments or general trends regarding threats of terrorism"); elevated alerts ("warns of a credible terrorism threat against the United States") and imminent alerts ("warns of a credible, specific and impending terrorism threat against the United States"). But some experts are unconvinced this system is any more viable than its predecessor.
"It's not a big deal," Paul Pillar, a professor at Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies, told Mic. "The notification itself is so vague that it basically just amounts to saying that terrorism happens to be a major public concern these days."
According to Pillar, there was little the average American could or should do with the information beyond only the most peripheral changes to their day-to-day routine. "Maybe I'll have my face slightly less in my cell phone," he said.
A source within the Department of Homeland Security told Mic that the alert was strangely nebulous. "The new system was designed to only raise when there was a credible threat," the source, who wished to remain anonymous, told Mic. "It doesn't really seem to follow what we intended the [alert system] to do. It seems to be more of a general err of caution over the holidays continuing on for the next six months."
Still, the bulletin does have some value — according to Pillar, resource-strapped local law enforcement could use it as a guide. "They don't have the intelligence and the information to be able to make their own assessments," he said. "So it makes sense for them to have a system where, if the feds are saying, this then we'll do that."
The warnings come as the nature of the terror threat in the U.S. is in a state of flux. Where once al-Qaida operated as a centralized organization using its own operatives, ISIS has completely upended that approach by focusing its radicalization efforts on citizens of their target countries via social media.
In confronting that threat, there are no easy answers. "We could take out ISIS in Syria and Iraq with a massive military effort tomorrow, but that would not prevent another San Bernardino shooting," Pillar said. Rather than taking a Ted Cruz "find out if sand can glow in the dark" approach, Pillar said defeating ISIS would come down to traditional police work and striking an ideal balance between privacy and security.
"The short answer is traditional domestic means, as opposed to bombing somebody on another continent," he said.