Necessary Counterterrorism Conversations

With the shift in national security priorities to near-peer competitors like China and Russia, and with the Islamic State’s (IS) loss of most of its territory in Iraq and Syria, policymakers do not discuss terrorism as frequently as they once did. While there has been a change of emphasis, there are a few conversations on terrorism that policymakers still should have with the public. This commentary suggests four topics for those necessary conversations.

1) Terrorists almost certainly will strike the United States again.

Terrorists remain intent on and capable of attacking the homeland, as exemplified by the over 3,000 FBI terrorism cases open nationwide. The July 2, 2018 arrest of an individual planning to attack a fireworks show in Cleveland, Ohio demonstrates this threat.

  • The FBI has open terrorism cases in all 50 states. FBI Director Christopher Wray described the cases by saying, “This is in big cities and small towns. It’s a real problem.”
  • The judicial system's convictions and sentencing reflect that terrorism is widespread. In June, for example, judges sentenced IS associates in Alabama, Ohio, New York, and Virginia while two more pled guilty in Florida and New York. Courts also convicted two individuals in Colorado for supporting the Islamic Jihad Union.

The evolution of terrorist plots—from organized, centrally controlled, sophisticated operations against hard targets to inspired individuals acting independently using simple tactics against soft targets—increases the likelihood that a terrorist may go undetected. Furthermore, the shifting of government resources away from terrorism to near-peer competitors may further limit insight into plotting.

  • At the turn of the century, terrorist plots typically emanated from a group and were conducted in a conspiratorial manner, meaning that terrorists were in contact with other terrorists. The connectivity of the terrorists to a group and to each other created an opportunity to gain insight into the plotting. Terrorist groups now largely aim to inspire homegrown violent extremists to conduct attacks independently instead, limiting opportunities to identify and stop them.
  • Terrorists changing tactics to simple methods—such as using guns, knives, vehicles, and other common items—from larger and more complex attacks also makes plot detection more challenging. The House Homeland Security Committee reports that IS-linked plots against the West since 2013 include 58 cases using edged weapons and 21 using a vehicle as a weapon.
  • Detection opportunities may also decrease as assets are refocused on other problem sets. Since 9/11, terrorism was the primary national security focus, resulting in increased intelligence collection. While some government agencies—like the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC)—will continue to primarily focus on terrorism, other government assets will shift focus to near-peer competitors.

2) U.S. forces are engaged in counterterrorism activities in 76 countries.

In October 2017, the public learned the heartbreaking news that U.S. soldiers died while supporting counterterrorism missions in Niger. For many, that was also the first time they realized the United States had troops in that country, suggesting that there needs to be a broader discussion about where the United States is fighting terrorism and why. The U.S. military is conducting counterterrorism activities in 76 countries, but only a minority are combat operations.

  • U.S. military activity in those 76 countries includes one or more of the following: air and drone strike operations (7 countries); combat troops (15 countries); bases, facilities, or contingency locations (44 countries); and training or assisting the host country (58 countries), according to a Brown University Study .
  • Since 2001, successive U.S. administrations have endeavored to improve foreign security forces, arguing that they advance U.S. national security objectives. As the December 2017 National Security Strategy notes, “We will help our partners develop and responsibly employ the capacity to degrade and maintain persistent pressure against terrorists.” DOD is still establishing assessment, monitoring, and evaluation output for these partner capacity-building efforts though, so it is too early to judge concretely how well they are doing.

3) The United States spent the time, resources, and political will to get very good at disrupting terrorists. However,it has not yet made similar investments in preventing people from becoming terrorists, and the threat will likely continue to grow until it does.

For the past 17 years, the main U.S. counterterrorism focus has been to illuminate and disrupt the threat by removing terrorists while identifying and disrupting attack plans. This approach can be credited with preventing another large-scale attack on U.S. soil. However, for all the laudable success, terrorism continues to be resilient and widespread. As a country, we need to discuss whether our goal is only to disrupt terrorists or if we also want to prevent people from radicalizing and mobilizing at home and abroad. If it is the latter, then we ought to discuss the political will, resources, and patience needed to build prevention capabilities.

  • Lieutenant General Michael Nagata described the required policy support for prevention efforts by saying, “We do not yet know all of the prescriptions, approaches, skills, capabilities, or organizational models best suited to strategically succeed non-kinetically, and it will only be through the kind of ruthless experimentation we were once willing to endure in our kinetic journey that we will learn how to be equally successful in preventing terrorism. This will ultimately determine if we are able to learn to prevent the creation of new terrorists as well as if we are able to kill or capture them today.”
  • Terrorism prevention receives 0.1 percent of the U.S. government’s counterterrorism budget. As the outgoing director of the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point noted, despite a constant refrain from senior leaders, that “We cannot kill our way to victory…we have invested the most resources in killing and capturing terrorists all over the world, often at the expense of other non-kinetic programs.”

4) Terrorism is not, however, an existential crisis unless we take actions that undermine our values in our response to an attack.

If terrorists conduct an attack in the United States, it is not an existential crisis unless our response makes it one. In the years since 9/11, international terrorists have killed 103 people in the United States, according to a New America study. Every single loss is a tragedy. Terrorists, however, have not presented a threat to our country’s existence.


Although terrorism is no longer at the forefront of policymaking conversations with the public, the country would benefit from continued dialogue on the topic. Terrorism remains a threat, and U.S. forces continue to be engaged globally in the fight against terrorism. If we want to prevent terrorism, we will need to shift some resources and provide more support to try different approaches—such as non-kinetic options—to get ahead of the problem. Even if terrorists manage to conduct another attack on the homeland, we need to maintain perspective; terrorism is not an existential crisis.

Sarah Bast is a visiting fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Sarah Bast