September 11, 2016 marked the fifteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania that killed almost 3,000 people. The nation observed the anniversary with ceremonies and reflection. In November, SPIA Professor of Practice Jim Moran convened a panel of experts on Capitol Hill to reflect on whether America is safer from a terrorist attack today than it was on 9/11.
Much has changed in America—and in the world—in the last fifteen years. The federal government established the Department of Homeland Security and has broken down barriers between intelligence agencies. Abroad, new and established terrorist groups have devised creative ways to support attacks in the U.S., most notably using social media. With these and other developments in mind, the SPIA panel set out to answer a number of questions:
- How has the terrorist threat evolved in the last 15 years?
- Is the U.S. doing a better job now at preventing terror attacks before they occur?
- How should we address the sources and causes of terrorism, both at home and abroad?
- And how should the threat of terrorism affect our approach to law enforcement and border security?
The number of Americans killed annually by terror attacks in the years since 9/11 (including by Islamic extremists, white supremacists, other hate groups, and eco-terrorists) is actually quite low—fewer than 60—but has been accelerating since 2013, noted panelist Ariel Ahram, associate professor of government and international affairs at SPIA. The vast majority of victims of Al Qaida/Islamic State terror attacks are Muslims abroad. General Mark Kimmitt, who served as in the Army as well as at the Departments of Defense and State during the George W. Bush administration, took a pessimistic view of the battle against Islamic extremism abroad. Pointing to various radical ideologies in Islam dating back decades—long before 9/11—Kimmitt argued that the U.S. is engaged in a generational “long war” that will be difficult to end as long as the U.S. maintains strategic interests and military force in the Middle East, where our presence is often not welcome. The coalition needed to fight the Islamic State (IS) abroad is a difficult one, Dr. Ahram pointed out, because global and regional players, as well as non-state militias, have multiple motives and objectives: stakeholders in one theater can become spoilers in another.
America’s defenses against another 9/11-style attack have been significantly strengthened, observed panelist Monte Hawkins, Senior Director for Transborder Security at the White House’s National Security Council. The “work horse” stopping foreign terrorists from entering the U.S. is the Terrorist Screening Database, commonly known as “the watchlist,” which did not exist on 9/11. On that day, Hawkins noted, the government had intelligence that the attackers sought to harm us, but it still allowed them to enter the country.
Another improvement, the recently-established “borders out” screening policy, allows U.S. officials to share information about terror suspects with security officials in foreign airports, to keep them from ever boarding a U.S.-bound flight. The Transportation Security Administration, which did not exist before 9/11, now also has the ability to ensure foreign airports’ security procedures are sufficient before allowing them to send flights directly to the United States.
With improved airport security and intelligence sharing, the nature of the threat has evolved. A foreign terrorist group can now “crowdsource” terrorism—recruiting sympathizers online who are already inside the United States. Panelist John Carlin, who recently stepped down as the Assistant Attorney General for National Security, described the Islamic State’s (IS) slickly-produced advertising campaigns that explicitly target young people, many under the age of 21. After recruitment, IS then provides instructions to these “homegrown violent extremists” for mounting an attack. The attack may or may not be successful, but as Carlin pointed out in another forum, the attacker only has to succeed in one place at one time, while the defender must defend against all vulnerabilities at all times.
Carlin described how law enforcement has had to undertake a fundamental shift in its approach to terrorism to deal with these homegrown actors—using an “all tools” approach to stop terrorism before it happens, not just prosecute it after the fact. Federal prosecutors and law enforcement agencies at all levels now share intelligence information and engage in undercover operations to stop potential fighters before they travel abroad to fight or train and return, or stage an attack inside the U.S. Government is also partnering with technology companies to present a counter-message for individuals who might be attracted by extremist recruitment. For example, Google recently launched a program that places ads alongside results for common keywords that people attracted to IS search for; the ads link to English and Arabic YouTube channels featuring videos that may counter IS’s messaging—like testimonials from former extremists, imams denouncing IS’s corruption of Islam, and clips filmed inside the group’s caliphate in Northern Syria and Iraq, showing the horror and brutality of life under IS. To further limit IS recruitment, Professor Ahram argued we should avoid stoking xenophobia that fuels the perception that America is hostile to Muslims.
Associate Professor Patrick Roberts of SPIA closed the discussion by asking the audience to look at terrorism from another angle: what would they be willing to pay to be a little bit safer? Noting that the risk of death by terrorist attack is vanishingly small, how much should America invest for a small reduction in probabilities that are already extremely low? Human beings have a tendency to focus on worst-case scenarios and absolute rather than relative risk. Roberts recommended the federal government take a “risk management” approach to terrorism—assessing and prioritizing threats based on their probability and potential consequences, and assigning resources accordingly.