|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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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