Confronting the New Threat Landscape

Confronting the New Threat Landscape


This is the sixth in a series on the major policy ideas — from Left and Right — that should guide the next presidential administration's agenda. (For the opposing view, see Tim Connors, "Counterterrorism, Leadership, and the Next Administration.")


More than 15 years after the 9/11 attacks, the United States is safer, thanks to improved homeland security efforts, dedicated intelligence work, and relentless military campaigns against groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Under President Obama, the United States has built partnerships with other countries to help share the burden of dealing with terrorist threats, and has invested more in the intelligence and law enforcement cooperation that are central to preventing attacks. As a result of these efforts, the risk of a major attack against the United States that could kill hundreds of innocent Americans in a catastrophic attack on the scale of 9/11 has declined substantially. 

Yet, there is still much work to be done by the next administration to roll back terrorist threats with our partners overseas. This includes: working with partners to stabilize conflict zones in places, such as the Middle East, that are exploited by terrorist groups; enhancing intelligence and law enforcement cooperation; and strengthening lax gun laws in the United States that allow suspected or known terrorists to buy guns legally.

As the threat of catastrophic terrorism has subsided, a new and more diffuse global threat landscape has emerged. Terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and several Al Qaeda affiliates have exploited the civil wars raging across the Middle East in order to establish footholds and expand safe havens in countries including Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. From these locations, terrorists have plotted and trained for attacks against America’s allies in Europe and our partners in the Middle East. Attacks like the November 2015 Paris massacre and the March 2016 Brussels bombings represent a shift in terrorist tactics — one that is harder to detect because “lone wolf” attacks by individuals and attacks committed by very small terror cells are by their nature harder to prevent in advance.

Organized terrorist attacks like Paris and Brussels remain a greater threat in Europe and the Middle East than they do in the United States. Within the United States itself, however, the threat of self-starter terrorism — such as the San Bernardino and Orlando massacres — looms larger. Over the last year, these so-called “lone wolves” have proved increasingly deadly: 49 people were killed in Orlando, and 84 in a Bastille Day attack in Nice, France.

Lone-wolf attacks are difficult to prevent, because individuals often take inspiration rather than direction from terrorist groups overseas. Direct links between these groups and self-starting terrorists are often weak or inconclusive. That makes it difficult for national, state, and local law-enforcement agencies to take action to prevent attacks from taking place. The FBI, for instance, investigated Orlando mass murderer Omar Mateen on two separate occasions and concluded he did not represent a terrorist threat before he opened fire in the Pulse nightclub.

Moreover, self-starting terrorists may have more in common with non-ideological mass killers than is often assumed. An understandable focus on extremist ideology has left potential psychological and behavioral similarities between self-starting terrorists and non-ideological mass murderers under-examined. Indeed, psychological disturbance and a history of violent behavior appear to be a common thread in many self-starting terrorists, from Fort Hood terrorist Nidal Hasan Malik to attempted New York bomber Ahmad Khan Kahami.

But while it is difficult for law-enforcement and intelligence agencies to detect and prevent self-starting terrorists, there are steps the next administration can take to reduce the threat. First and foremost, the next administration can accelerate the defeat of the Islamic State and eliminate the main source of inspiration for self-starting terrorists. Islamic State propaganda encourages disturbed individuals to act on their violent impulses and provides a rationalization for their murderous actions. Already, setbacks on the battlefield have caused the flow of foreign fighters to the Islamic State to dwindle from a peak of 2,000 a month to just 50. Individuals otherwise inclined to terrorism may have second thoughts about sacrificing themselves on the altar of an increasingly failed enterprise like the Islamic State.

To be sure, defeating the Islamic State on the battlefield will not end the threat of self-starting terrorism. After all, al Qaeda remains an active — if reduced — threat despite its defeats on the battlefield, directing or inspiring attacks like the Fort Hood and Charlie Hebdo massacres. Moreover, social media allows the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups to propagandize even after they lose control over territory. But eliminating territorial control can go a long way toward subverting the ideological claims of terrorists.

Second, the defeat of the Islamic State and al Qaeda require the United States to work with partners to end the Middle East’s civil wars, as I recently argued in a new report with my colleagues at the Center for American Progress. These conflicts have given terrorist groups a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to impose their brutal rule on vulnerable and fractured societies across the region. Though the current U.S.-led coalition has put the Islamic State on the military back foot in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, the potential will remain for it group to regroup and regenerate if fighting in those regions does not come to an end.

Third, the next U.S. administration should build on the efforts of President Obama to strengthen partnerships with countries around the world to defeat terrorist groups. The United States needs to work with the militaries and intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to see progress in the fight against terrorist groups.

Fourth, the next administration should refocus its efforts at foiling violent extremism online more toward disrupting extremist behavior than countering extremist ideology. Online engagement should attempt to sow doubts about the extremist cause — particularly about whether a terrorist group and its ideology are really worth killing and dying for. It also means working with social media companies to identify and suspend accounts that encourage violence in the name of extremist ideologies — a tactic that has worked to curtail Islamic State social networks on Twitter.

Lastly, one step the United States should take to address the homeland security threats posed by terrorists is to strengthen notoriously weak gun laws. For instance, earlier this year, some members of Congress proposed a measure to ban gun sales to terrorism suspects on government “no-fly” lists. But the legislation failed to gain traction in the House or Senate. Though there are worthwhile criticisms to be made of the no-fly list, itself, it makes little sense to prohibit individuals from flying while also allowing them to buy guns.

The United States is safer today and has learned many lessons from the last 15 years through its efforts to combat terrorism. But the next administration must remain vigilant and adapt its approach to the changing threat landscape.


Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security strategy and counterterrorism policy. 


Author’s Recommended Reading:

Brian Katulis, Peter Juul, Rudy deLeon, Dan Benaim, Hardin Lang, Muath Al Wari, William Danvers, Trevor Sutton, William Wechsler, and Alia Awadallah, “Leveraging U.S. Power in the Middle East: A Blueprint for Strengthening Regional Partnerships,” Center for American Progress (October 2016).

Brian Katulis, “Assessing the Anti-ISIS Campaign After the First Year,” Testimony Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (September 16, 2015).

Brian Katulis, Rudy deLeon, and John B. Craig, “The Plight of Christians in the Middle East: Supporting Religious Freedom, Pluralism, and Tolerance During a Time of Turmoil,” Center for American Progress (March 12, 2015).

Hardin Lang, “Build on Obama’s Counterterrorism Successes,” U.S. News & World Report (September 9, 2016).


(Read the response by Tim Connors.)

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