Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists.” David Sterman is a policy analyst at New America’s International Security Program.
In August 1988, nine men met in Osama Bin Laden’s house in Peshawar, Pakistan, to start a group that would end up playing a dramatic role in shaping the United States of the early 21st century. They called the group al-Qaeda, which means “the base” in Arabic.
As a result of its terrorist activities, the US would see the most lethal attack ever on its homeland, would embark on a war that has already lasted for 17 years, would spend an estimated $2.8 trillion to protect itself from attack, according to a recent Stimson Center report, and would see its politics changed in fundamental ways that endure today.
In the wake of that founding meeting, al Qaeda records show, the “work of al-Qaeda commenced on September 10, 1988,” 30 years ago Monday.
Twenty years ago last month, al-Qaeda made its intent to wage global war on the United States unmistakable when it bombed the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killing 224 people.
Seventeen years ago on Tuesday, al-Qaeda killed 2,977 people in the United States.
Against the backdrop of this history of violence, what is the threat to the United States today from jihadist terrorists?
In a new report, New America finds that since the 9/11 attacks, the jihadist threat has changed substantially.
Avoiding further attacks
Al-Qaeda has not successfully directed a deadly attack inside the United States since that day 17 years ago. Nor has any other jihadist foreign terrorist organization.
That represents a major success for the United States’ counterterrorism effort since 9/11. Few analysts in the months and years after the attacks would have predicted that the United States would be so successful in avoiding attacks.
Thanks to the hard work of law enforcement and intelligence agencies and the military, as well as the public’s greater awareness, the threat to the homeland today is far more limited than it was on 9/11. This has certainly come at a price – trillions in spending, unprecedented security measures at airports and public venues, and roiling public debate over immigration and law enforcement.
Yet, the United States still faces a new and different jihadist threat: individuals motivated by jihadist ideology, but with no operational direction from a foreign terrorist organization. Such individuals have carried out 13 lethal attacks and killed 104 people in the United States since the 9/11 attacks, according to research by New America.
The rise of al-Qaeda’s breakaway faction, ISIS, took this threat to a new level. Three-quarters of the people killed by jihadist extremists in the United States since 9/11 have been killed since 2014, the year ISIS declared its caliphate. Eight of the 13 lethal attacks in the US since 9/11 occurred in that time period, and seven were motivated in part by ISIS’ propaganda. In 2015, an unprecedented 80 Americans were accused of jihadist-terrorism-related crimes, almost all inspired in some way by ISIS, according to New America’s research.
Yet even at its height of power in Iraq and Syria, ISIS did not direct a lethal attack inside the United States.
With the territorial collapse of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the threat to the United States has waned further. The number of jihadist terrorism cases involving Americans has declined every year since its peak of the 80 cases in 2015. As of the end of August, only eight Americans had been charged with jihadist-terrorism-related crimes in 2018.
Despite much fear over the threat posed by “foreign fighters” – those Westerners who joined ISIS and other militant groups abroad – few Americans succeeded in joining ISIS. Fewer still returned. There is only one known case of an American who fought in Syria or Iraq plotting violence after returning to the United States, and no returnee has actually conducted an attack.
However, Americans should not expect the threat to disappear with the collapse of the territorial caliphate. This lesson was illustrated when Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year-old US permanent resident from Uzbekistan, killed eight people in a truck attack on a Manhattan bike path in October 2017, the same month ISIS’ self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa was liberated by the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
Indeed, the jihadist terrorism challenge the United States faces may not be entirely propelled by jihadist ideology. Many of the jihadist attackers had personal issues including histories of nonpolitical violence and mental health problems, and some appear to have been influenced by multiple ideologies and not just jihadism.
The United States also faces the threat of public violence motivated by ideologies other than jihadism including far-right violence, which has killed 73 people since 9/11.
What to do – and what not to do
So what should the United States do?
One thing it should not do is embrace the immigration-centric counterterrorism approach promoted by the Trump administration and encapsulated by the travel ban, which the President should end. The threat today is “homegrown” and not the result of foreign infiltration.
Nineteen foreign hijackers who entered the United States on non-immigrant visas, carried out the 9/11 attacks. That image of the threat has colored threat perceptions since. Yet since 9/11 just under half of 449 jihadist extremists charged in the US were born citizens and 84% are citizens or legal permanent residents. About three in 10 are converts to Islam.
The travel ban would not have prevented a single deadly attack since 9/11 nor would it have prevented the 9/11 attacks.
What the United States should do is take the respite provided by ISIS’ territorial collapse in Syria and Iraq to reassess and answer fundamental questions regarding its counterterrorism approach.
The Trump administration has not publicly released a strategy for countering terrorism, and the United States continues to wage war based on a now 17-year-old Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), whose relevance to ISIS, a group that split off from al-Qaeda and many of whose members were not born or were young children at the time of the 9/11 attacks, is questionable. The Trump administration should release a counterterrorism strategy, and Congress should pass an updated authorization for the use of military force.
The Trump administration has reportedly made substantial changes to policy regarding counterterrorism strikes, devolving authority to commanders and removing the requirement that targets pose an “imminent threat” to Americans. The administration should release its new guidance regarding strikes, as the Obama administration eventually did by releasing its Presidential Policy Guidance on counterterrorism strikes.
The United States has spent $2.8 trillion on counterterrorism efforts, including for the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, since 9/11 – almost 15% of the government’s discretionary spending over the same period – and has no unified accounting of its expenditures, as documented by the Stimson Center. The US should conduct an assessment and audit of the amount of money spent on counterterrorism efforts since the 9/11 attacks.
Addressing these fundamental issues will be essential as – despite its territorial losses – ISIS and even al-Qaeda demonstrate resiliency, in large part buoyed by persistent instability in the Middle East and North Africa.
ISIS managed to direct five attacks in Europe since 2014, killing more people in those five attacks than jihadists have killed in the US since 9/11.
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Aviation remains a key target. ISIS killed 224 people when it snuck a bomb aboard a flight from Egypt to Russia in October 2015.
The increasing use of drones by terrorist groups and the effective adoption of vehicular ramming by a variety of groups point to the innovative potential of America’s terrorist adversaries.
More than a quarter of Americans are too young to remember the 9/11 attacks and one in five were not even born at the time, as the Washington Post reported, but the attacks continue to define much of how the US military, intelligence community and law enforcement do business. And they continue to influence American politics in fundamental ways.