Americans are safer from terrorism, but new threats are arising

Getty Images

Just how safe are we? The question has not left the minds of most of us for very long, at least not since 2001. With today’s breathless coverage of often vile news, I think many Americans viewed last month’s anniversary of the 9/11 attacks as an opportunity to commemorate and to reflect. For me, there were memories of putting the National Security Agency on a war footing as reports trickled in of a plane hitting the second tower in New York. I thought of Tim Maude with whom I had served in Germany, who was later head of Army personnel and was killed as American Airlines flight 77 plunged into the southwestern wedge of the Pentagon.

That basic question — are we safer now than we were then? — was never far from mind. FBI Director Christopher Wray gave a rather somber assessment on the anniversary of that day: “People think of the 9/11 threat, they think New York, they think DC. Today’s terrorism threat is everywhere, coast to coast, north, south, east, west. It’s not just big cities.” He added that today’s threats come not just from Al Qaeda but from other terror groups, sleeper cells, and “homegrown” extremists.

{mosads}At about the same time that Wray was giving his assessment, I was on a stage in Colorado answering the same question — are we safer today? — and I didn’t hesitate to respond that we were. My panel mates, former Pakistani ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani and National Security Council veteran Elliott Abrams, agreed with me as I traced an imaginary threat curve in the air in front of us.

Holding my right hand high, I depicted the great but unappreciated threat the day before 9/11, and then drew a steady decline in danger through 2011, progress that I attributed to the surprisingly consistent policies of two very different presidents, George Bush and Barack Obama. The rise of ISIS in 2011 pushed the threat line back up again, but never to the levels before 9/11, until once again two very different presidents, this time, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, crushed the ISIS caliphate.

I reminded the Denver audience that the last successful terrorist attack in the United States had been nearly a year before with the Halloween killings of eight people along a bicycle path in Manhattan by a lone terrorist who rented a van as his tool of destruction. That was a tragedy, I conceded, but it was not a catastrophe, and it might broadly represent the limits of what our enemies can do to us at the moment.

They would, of course, much prefer the complex mass casualty, but necessarily slow moving, attack against an iconic target, however, this is beyond their current capacities because of all the things we have done. But we, too, have our own limits. Even with my background in electronic surveillance, detentions and interrogations, I confessed that I was unable to suggest any new tools, laws or authorities that would give us any appreciably better odds of stopping an attack like the one in Manhattan last year. We are in a kind of stasis, I concluded, where the bad guys currently can’t do much worse but we also can’t do much better.

This might explain Director Wray’s sobering judgment, because these kinds of attacks are more squarely in his law enforcement lane than in the lanes of diplomats, policymakers, or military and intelligence officers. In fact, those forces we enlisted in 2001, especially the armed forces and the intelligence community, to combat Al Qaeda and its successors, are consciously shifting their weight away from the near obsession we have had with terrorism in favor of other important missions. Each February, the director of national intelligence briefs Congress on worldwide threats. It has been years since terrorism has been at the top of the list. That place is now generally reserved for dangers in cybersecurity.

Last December, President Trump’s national security strategy codified the shift powerfully enough for Defense Secretary James Mattis to announce in his own strategy that “we will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists, but great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.” Even uber hawk national security adviser John Bolton called for “increased emphasis on non-kinetic means” when rolling out the administration’s new counterterrorism strategy this month. Gina Haspel, the new CIA director, rounded out the changing emphasis by prioritizing the need to better succeed against the “hard targets” of nation states, especially Russia and China.

In Denver, Ambassador Haqqani, Abrams and I were appropriately cautious about the future. We all warned of the potential emergence of “Terror 3.0” after Al Qaeda and ISIS, perhaps in a digital cyberattack form. We all agreed that we had to finish the job in Syria and stay around after a military victory there in order to change the facts on the ground that birthed ISIS in the first place. We were adamant that any language that describes this conflict as essentially Islam against the West — recall candidate Donald Trump’s “I think Islam hates us” line — mischaracterizes the conflict and risks lengthening it by strengthening the favorite terrorist narrative of undying enmity between Islam and the modern world.

So, clearly, there still is work to be done and issues to be argued, which we will surely do. But, just for a day, last month’s reflection on a national tragedy gave us a chance to dwell on our shared identity and to recognize that, even in these caustic times, we are still capable of progress in the most fundamental of tasks to protect the American homeland.

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and of the National Security Agency. He is now a visiting professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies.”

Tags America Barack Obama Donald Trump Government James Mattis Terrorism

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video