Two decades have passed since the 9/11 attacks, and some now declare that the 9/11 era — in which U.S. national security policy has focused on defeating terrorist groups — may be over. Americans want a logical progression with their wars, a clear beginning and end. World War II was the best example of this, and even the Cold War had an identifiable ending. Unfortunately, in the years since 9/11, the threat of terrorism has not been eliminated, although it has changed. As Deputy White House Homeland Security Adviser Russ Travers recently said in an interview, “… Twenty years ago, we were looking primarily at a threat that emanated from a little piece of real estate along the Afghan border. … So you’ve got this entire array: You got centrally directed attacks, you’ve got enabled attacks, you’ve got inspired attacks, all of which we needed to deal with.”
There has been a great deal of success in the fight against terrorists. We have not had a major attack on our homeland since 9/11, which is not purely good luck. The U.S., government and people, pulled together to ensure this would be the case. There was a focused effort to break down government silos between agencies responsible for responding to terrorist threats, so they would work together efficiently.
Unfortunately, there is more to be done. The U.S. Intelligence Community’s (IC) Annual Threat Assessment, presented to Congress earlier this year, states, “We assess that ISIS and al Qaeda remain the greatest Sunni terrorist threats to U.S. interests overseas; they also seek to conduct attacks inside the United States, although sustained U.S. and allied CT pressure has broadly degraded their capability to do so.” While the terrorist threat is no longer a “page one issue” for the IC, it remains a concern.
Terrorist attacks have fluctuated over the past several years, but the threat remains acute. For example, ISIS attacks in Syria and Iraq have declined. At the same time, its attacks in Sub-Saharan Africa have increased. As of 2019, 41 percent of deaths connected to ISIS attacks were in Sub-Saharan Africa. The demise of the ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq has caused ISIS to become more diffuse, relying on regional affiliates. ISIS operations in Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo have received terrorist designations by the Biden administration. Southeast Asia — the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, to varying degrees — also has proven to be fertile ground for ISIS.
Al Qaeda (AQ) has been diversifying for a number of years. Post 9/11, the successful effort to disrupt, dismantle and defeat AQ in Afghanistan and elsewhere has made its central leadership much less potent. The killing of Osama bin Laden was a significant blow to a centralized AQ operation. There are affiliates, such as AQ in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), that have been very aggressive toward the U.S. and globally. Vladimir Voronkov, under-secretary-general of the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism, made this point about AQ: “It has pioneered a dangerous transnational model of regional franchises that exploit local fragilities and conflicts.”
Many experts have expressed concern about an increased terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan. The tragic attack on U.S. military forces and others during the airlift of U.S. personnel and Afghans from the Kabul airport underscores the lethality of the global terrorist threat from ISIS. It is important to point out that, as despicable as this attack was, ISIS in Afghanistan — or ISIS-K, as it is more commonly called — appears to pose no immediate threat to the U.S. homeland.
Terrorism expert Daniel Byman points out that AQ’s ability to launch attacks from Afghanistan and Pakistan is limited, and the Taliban has reason to prevent any AQ ambitions to attack U.S. interests because of the negative reaction by the U.S. to such attacks: “The risk of an al Qaeda comeback is real, but Afghanistan’s reversion to its pre-9/11 role as a safe haven for jihadi terrorism is unlikely.” An article in the New York Times notes that the intelligence community believes the terrorist groups in Afghanistan do not pose an immediate threat to the U.S.
The greater threat of attacks on the U.S. homeland comes from domestic extremist groups. Russ Travers also said in his recent interview: “… By any objective standard, the vast majority of attacks that we’ve seen over the last four years has fallen into really two categories — either what the bureau calls racially/ethnically motivated extremism, principally white supremacist, or, in the past year, it’s been more militia violence.”
There is a global network of these groups as well. Some subscribe to the “Great Replacement Theory,” which is rooted in French nationalism, that the white race is being replaced by non-whites. Anders Breivik, the right-wing terrorist who slaughtered 77 people in Norway in 2011, and Brenton Tarrant, who murdered 51 people in a New Zealand mosque in 2019, serve as inspiration for extremists. Also, U.S. groups such as QAnon and the Proud Boys have international connections. The right-wing extremist movement, which is more diffuse than its jihadist counterparts, is growing and, in the case of the U.S., responding to these groups is more difficult because the laws governing them are not as clear as those that cover international groups.
As the U.S. approaches the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we must remain vigilant in dealing with the threat of terrorism. A recent Department of Homeland Security bulletin explains why: “The homeland continues to face a diverse and challenging threat environment leading up to and following the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, as well religious holidays we assess could serve as a catalyst for acts of targeted violence. These threats include those posed by domestic terrorists, individuals and groups engaged in grievance-based violence, and those inspired or motivated by foreign terrorists and other malign foreign influences.”
There is no clear ending to the fight against terrorists — right-wing extremists, jihadists and others. Instead, the goal must be to ensure that over the next 20 years, the U.S. remains successful in pushing back against those who would use terrorism as a means to their political ends. As former Secretary of Defense James MattisJames Norman Mattis20 years after 9/11, we've logged successes but the fight continues Defense & National Security — The mental scars of Afghanistan House panel advances 8B defense bill MORE said when he was commander of U.S. Central Command: “No war is over until the enemy says it’s over. We may think it [is] over, we may declare it over, but in fact, the enemy gets a vote.”
William Danvers is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School and worked on national security issues for the Clinton and Obama administrations.