Today, the United States is safer than it was 10 years earlier, the day before the attacks of September 11, 2001. But we are not as safe as we could be. The 9/11 Commission concluded in its July 2004 report that the attacks revealed a failure in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management. In the years that followed, the U.S. government’s response to the challenge of international terrorism has been considerable. The Department of Homeland Security was created, combining 22 agencies with a workforce of over 200,000 people and an annual budget topping $50 billion. 263 organizations have been either redesigned or established. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center were created to advance the difficult task unifying intelligence gathering and sharing efforts across the intelligence community. The intelligence budget has more than doubled from 2001 to over $80 billion. Significant reforms were introduced and implemented, resulting in the disruption of many terrorist plots and bringing to justice many terrorist operatives.
Just as America’s counterterrorism efforts adapted, terrorists’ tactics have also evolved. The attacks on 9/11 may have been carried out by al-Qaeda, but the threat today is not merely from one centralized terrorist group. Bin Laden became the ideological leader of a jihadist movement that spawned many organizations throughout the world, many of which operated without his direction, and will continue to operate now after his death. Al-Qaeda 2.0 has seen the creation of affiliates from North Africa, to the Persian Gulf, to the Philippines and Indonesia. Today, the most substantial foreign al-Qaeda threat is in the Arabian Peninsula, where American-born Anwar al-Awlaki continues to play a leading role. It was in Yemen where explosives were packed into toner cartridges and shipped on Fed Ex and UPS cargo flights to synagogues in Chicago. While the October 2010 plot failed, it demonstrates that terrorists are able to test U.S. counterterrorism efforts in new and innovative ways. This is bound to continue.
Today, the greatest threat to American national security comes from al-Qaeda’s strategy of diversification, or attacks carried out by a variety of perpetrators from different ethnic and national backgrounds. This includes the troubling rise in the recruitment of American citizens and residents—the homegrown terrorist who often engages in a process of self-radicalization. Threats to cyber-security and critical infrastructure systems also remain real and current dangers.
While effective counterterrorism strategy requires a focus on disrupting the capabilities of those who would attempt to harm Americans, it must be understood that Islamist terrorism is not merely about individuals; it is the result of a murderous ideology. Winning the war of ideas is as critical as disrupting and detaining terrorists if the Global War on Terror is to be won in the future.