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With every year that the 9/11 attacks recede into the past, it seems easier for the United States to move on from terrorism. That impulse has become all the more appealing in the wake of COVID-19, a pandemic that is killing more Americans every few days than were lost on September 11, 2001. Since that tragic day, there has been not one successful, externally directed, large-scale terrorist attack on Americans, and attacks by Islamist homegrown terrorists have declined, too. Several years have now passed since the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) perpetrated its horrific attacks in Paris and Brussels. In Iraq and Syria, the group’s so-called caliphate lies in ruins.
But it is important to remember that none of this happened by chance. As I saw in the final two decades of my 42-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, most recently as acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, the United States’ post-9/11 counterterrorism effort has been nothing short of extraordinary. That campaign is the closest the country has come since World War II to addressing a transnational threat with a whole-of-government, whole-of-society, and even whole-of-world approach. The U.S. government took the fight overseas, identifying and killing countless terrorist leaders. It used sophisticated screening to keep terrorists from slipping into the United States, and it made the country a difficult place to operate for terrorists who were already inside. It worked with the private sector to make cyberspace and financial networks less hospitable for terrorists. And it shared more information with more partners, domestic and foreign, than ever before.
Americans should think twice before undoing any of this. The terrorist threat is more diverse and diffuse than ever. Immediately after 9/11, it came mostly from al Qaeda operating near the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now, although the group has been substantially degraded, half a dozen of its franchises operate across the world. ISIS, too, has regrouped after losing its safe haven, and it now oversees more than 20 branches and networks. Both al Qaeda and ISIS are still trying to conduct attacks in the United States, and a number of Shiite actors are also poised to threaten U.S. interests. Meanwhile, the homegrown terrorist threat continues—not just from people inspired by radical Islam but also from non-Islamist extremists, particularly white supremacists, who account for most of the recent terrorist violence in the United States. In other words, a much longer fight lies ahead.
Terrorist organizations have proved stubbornly resilient. The East African group al Shabab, although subject to drone strikes, has killed Americans in its region, and reports that some of the group’s operatives have trained as airplane pilots suggest that its aspirations may go beyond its traditional operating area. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, although weakened, supported a radicalized Saudi air force officer over several years; in 2019, while training at a U.S. Navy base in Pensacola, Florida, he shot and killed three American sailors. ISIS’s branch in Afghanistan was forced from its safe havens there, but it still regularly conducts attacks that kill scores of people. More ominously, ISIS itself has regrouped in Iraq and Syria after the fall of its caliphate. Despite losing many of its key leaders, the insurgency has benefited from the Iraqi government’s preoccupation with COVID-19 and lack of postwar reconstruction in the Sunni-populated areas that supported it most. ISIS now operates in half the provinces of Iraq and Syria and is conducting increasingly sophisticated attacks.
And that’s just Sunni terrorism. Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based Shiite organization, will always bear close scrutiny, but beyond it, Iranian-sponsored Shiite militia groups, such as Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq, have upped their activities in response to the United States’ pressure campaign and 2020 assassination of the Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani. They periodically launch rockets at U.S. military and diplomatic facilities in Iraq. Should one of those rockets again claim an American life, as happened in late 2019, hostilities could spiral out of control.
Then there is the threat of homegrown terrorists. For several years, the Islamist variety ranked at the top of the U.S. counterterrorism agenda—people who lived in the United States and found radical Islam, generally through the Internet. The perpetrators of the mass shootings in San Bernardino, California, in 2015 and in Orlando, Florida, in 2016 swore allegiance to ISIS. But once ISIS lost its caliphate, some of its luster wore off among disaffected Muslims in the United States and Europe. That, combined with law enforcement interdictions, has reduced such homegrown attacks.
Now is not the time to declare victory over terrorism.
Over the last several years, however, the United States has seen a resurgence of non-Islamist leaderless terrorism. Left-wing anarchists and antifascists remain a violent threat. So do right-wing antigovernment militias. But the greatest cause for concern is white supremacist violence. With a long, sordid history in the United States, white supremacists have not gone away. According to the FBI, 2019 was the deadliest year for non-Islamist terrorist attacks since 1995 (when 168 people were killed in the Oklahoma City bombing), and by the Anti-Defamation League's count, 81 percent of the extremist-related murders in 2019 were committed by white supremacists. Many observers have labeled this phenomenon “domestic terrorism,” but white supremacist ideology reflects something of a global movement. Look no further than the manifestoes of the far-right terrorists Anders Breivik of Norway, Dylann Roof of the United States, and Brenton Tarrant of Australia, all of which express a shared paranoia about the future of people of European ancestry.
White supremacists have forged international linkages online, but the nature and depths of those connections are poorly understood. Even the number of attacks they commit in the United States is uncertain owing to data limitations. The United States has no domestic terrorism statute, so suspects are charged with other offenses, which means that the ideological motivation behind a particular crime may never be identified or cataloged. Similarly, it’s not even possible to count the number of white supremacists in the United States, much less differentiate between those whose activism goes no further than attending a march and those who are willing to commit violence. Right-wing extremism is probably still best characterized as a fringe phenomenon, but it is a fringe that is growing, and it is a fringe that has the megaphone of social media.
Such extremists take advantage of free speech, a right that complicates a response to the threat. Some observers have suggested that the U.S. government formally designate certain domestic groups as terrorists, creating a register similar to the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. But that would be of questionable legality for amorphous domestic groups; moreover, generally speaking, the white supremacists who have committed recent mass killings have not been members of any particular organization. Broader movements are even more challenging in this respect, because very different causes can fall under an expansive ideological umbrella. The “boogaloo” movement, a loose coalition of pro-gun, antigovernment activists looking to start a civil war, includes both individuals who identify as white supremacists and some who support Black Lives Matter. The “antifa” movement, a group of left-wing, antifascist activists, is similarly heterodox.
The United States’ social media companies face a similar challenge: they wish to protect free speech but also feel pressure to police their sites and take down hate speech and supposed terrorist content. Over the past few years, they have made substantial progress in removing the propaganda of some groups that the U.S. government has designated as terrorist organizations—chiefly al Qaeda and ISIS. But in the absence of such designations, it’s much harder to draw the line between what stays up and what comes down. Social media platforms have been innovative, sometimes using foreign countries’ lists of designated right-wing extremist groups to guide their decisions. But in general, they are being asked to do something very difficult: to strike a balance between policing hate speech and allowing political discussion. Each decision will inevitably elicit criticism from whichever end of the political spectrum feels aggrieved.
The United States’ fight against terrorism has bought the country time and space to deal with causes and not just symptoms. But early-stage prevention—of both Islamist and non-Islamist attacks—remains the weakest part of the counterterrorism agenda. By any objective standard, there are far more radicalized individuals now than there were on September 11, 2001, perhaps by a factor of three or four. Arresting and killing ever more terrorists is not a practical solution to the problem. Nor does the fervor seem likely to simply burn itself out. The United States needs to stop terrorists attacks well before they are executed, ideally addressing the grievances that give rise to them. In military parlance, it needs to get “left of boom.”
Radicalization is a complicated process. It can happen to both rich and poor, educated and uneducated. Yet even though poverty doesn’t cause terrorism per se, it does render populations vulnerable to radicalization, as do poor governance and human rights violations. The fact that ISIS operates in a quarter of all African countries—many of which are impoverished, corrupt, and autocratic—attests to its ability to exploit the disaffected. The world has struggled to address terrorism prevention for a number of reasons: uncertainty about its effectiveness, ill-conceived programs, pilot projects that cannot scale, inadequate follow-through, and a general lack of resources. Unless governments find the right combination of programs that support countermessaging, deradicalization efforts, economic development, good governance, and human rights—and fund them accordingly—they will continue losing the struggle against radicalization. Congress took a step in the right direction when it added $10 million to the Department of Homeland Security’s 2020 budget for a grant program that supports the efforts of state and local governments and nonprofits to identify at-risk individuals and counter extremist influence. But more can and should be done.
Even if the United States enacts all these preventive measures, however, there will always be some people who are determined to carry out a terrorist attack. What has changed now is that these terrorists are taking advantage of sophisticated technology. They use social media to spread propaganda and transfer knowledge. They communicate with one another through encrypted chats. They fund operations with cryptocurrencies. They create fraudulent travel documents of remarkable quality to slip through borders. They fly drones to conduct reconnaissance and deliver explosives. And they learn how to make weapons—even chemical and biological ones—by looking up instructions online.
Tech-savvy terrorists are invariably one step ahead of law and policy, and the problem is only going to get worse. Think ahead just five years. Hundreds of new foreign cryptographic products could flood the market. Three-dimensional printing could mature to the point where people could download and create their own viable weapons. “Deep fake” technology—which allows people to create false yet convincingly real-looking videos—will likely become increasingly available. The United States cannot freeze its thinking in 2020.
All this compels the U.S. government to maintain and upgrade its intelligence tools. The United States has been surprised before by groups’ shifting ambitions. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was thought to be primarily regionally focused, until Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab worked with the organization and tried to detonate explosives in his underwear aboard a flight landing in Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009. The same was true of the Pakistani Taliban, until Faisal Shahzad attempted to set off a car bomb in Times Square the next year. Now, the United States must contend with an ever-greater number of terrorist branches, networks, and franchises. That increases the amount of information that must be collected and analyzed, and both tasks will be harder as the United States withdraws forces from Afghanistan and the Middle East and as counterterrorism declines as a national priority.
Moreover, as terrorists become more adept at hiding their identities through fraudulent passports, the United States must upgrade its watch list and screening system to incorporate biometrics that establish one’s identity with certainty. And as an ever-growing haystack of information conceals ever-smaller needles, the intelligence community will need to figure out how best to use technology to process all this data (including data gleaned from social media). In this, artificial intelligence will be key, but so will attention to legal and privacy-related concerns.
As ever, Washington will have to work closely with allies, the private sector, and state and local governments. Counterterrorism requires enormous amounts of cooperation, but in some ways it feels as if Washington is returning to its pre-9/11 approach. In the post–Edward Snowden era, information sharing has become harder as departments and agencies have clamped down to prevent leaks. Meanwhile, the two organizations tasked with ensuring an integrated approach across the federal government have been degraded as the Trump administration has pushed responsibilities to individual departments and agencies. The National Security Council has less senior-level counterterrorism expertise than at any time since 9/11, and the National Counterterrorism Center, which also draws experts from across the federal government, has been subjected to continued cuts as various departments and agencies second fewer officers to it.
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a stark reminder that the United States must prepare for a wide range of national security threats. Accordingly, it’s important to keep the terrorism threat in perspective. Terrorism will always be a tactic used by some disaffected people. Despite every effort, attacks will occur, and people will die. But terrorism won’t be an existential threat so long as the country avoids changing its very nature by overreacting to it. That’s why the United States must build resilience.
But the country must also make a sober calculation of risk, focusing on the evolving threat and taking prudent steps to mitigate it. Terrorism isn’t going away, and in some ways it is a more complicated threat than it was 20 years ago. So the United States needs to sustain and build on the hard-fought advances it has made. Washington will need to find a way to pursue its interests overseas without making terrorism worse—keeping enough military forces abroad to collect intelligence and conduct raids and strikes, while supporting prevention programs, as well. Washington will also need to develop a toolkit to address all forms of political violence on U.S. soil, while candidly acknowledging that they stem from deep-seated trends in society.
COVID-19 took the United States by surprise and proved to be an exceptionally difficult challenge. In much the same way, the evolving terrorist threat will test the country’s ability to bring all elements of national power to bear against a maddeningly complex problem. Now is not the time to declare victory.