In the fifteen years since 9/11, US Government counter terrorism (CT) efforts have become more sophisticated and complicated, but so too has the enemy. The United States was ill prepared for the kind of attack suffered on that day, but it recovered quickly and responded to this new, asymmetric threat. But just as the US has responded so too have terrorist groups. The threat has morphed into something more diffuse and in some ways more sophisticated than the one that confronted the US and the world fifteen years ago.
First and foremost, we have hardened the homeland against potential attacks. In an excellent article in The Atlantic, Steven Brill discusses measures that have been taken to make the American people more secure. This includes creating a new government department--Homeland Security (DHS)--whose primary task is to keep Americans safe.
More funding has been put into transportation safety, particularly air travel. More money has been allocated for cargo screening. There are outreach programs to state and local communities. Last year, DHS created an Office of Community Partnership, overseeing a $50 million countering violent extremism (CVE) program. DHS also has an intelligence operation that connects its mission to others in the intelligence community. While the Department does not always get the highest marks for effectiveness, the focus is on improvement of the Department not elimination.
The FBI and law enforcement in general have become even more focused on stopping potential terrorist threats. Brill points out that nearly half of the FBI's agents work on national security issues, and the Bureau's budget has almost tripled since 9/11. There is better connection with state and local law enforcement, and there is more connectivity with the intelligence community.
The intelligence community has also changed. The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) now has the oversight role that the Director of Central Intelligence once had. The head of the CIA is now the DCIA, limiting the role to overseeing the work of the CIA and not other government intelligence operations. A National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) has been created, which helps to coordinate CT efforts across the government. Again, this transformation does not always receive the highest marks, but it has, at least, improved coordination among government agencies working on CT issues.
There has been improvement in working with friends and allies overseas. The CIA has always had relationships with its counterparts internationally, but there is now a more focused effort to broaden contacts, share information and have law enforcement and intelligence agencies work together more closely with their international partners. The most important effort is with Middle Eastern allies like the Jordanians, Egyptians and Saudis, but also with the Europeans, where there is a particularly strong bilateral intelligence connection with the British and French. There have been efforts in Africa and Asia as well, especially with regard to the broader CT strategy that includes CVE.
A Metastasizing Threat
But just as the efforts of the US and some of its friends and allies have hardened, so too has that of the enemy--the global terrorist network. In 2001, the focus of our CT efforts was on Al Qaeda (AQ). It had no peers only nodes or affiliates. Usama bin Laden (UBL) was the number one target for the US. The war in Afghanistan was about getting bin Laden and defeating AQ. While the US Government under both the Bush and Obama Administrations made getting UBL the priority, they also began to focus on AQ nodes that emerged after 9/11--Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), headquartered in Yemen but with a global reach; Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI); Al Shabab, operating in Somalia; Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); which focused on North Africa; and Boko Haram, whose main terrorist activity is in Nigeria.
While the loyalty of these groups was to AQ central leadership--UBL and his number two, Ayman al Zawahiri--they had a great deal of independence, AQAP in particular. One of AQAP'S leaders, who was later killed, Anwar Awlaki, wanted to intensify attacks in the West. His recruitment techniques were more sophisticated and included putting his sermons online and creating an online magazine, "Inspire", that was accessible and practical, offering such articles as instructions on how to make a bomb.
The transformation of the terrorist threat took a turn for the worse after the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011 and the Islamic State emerged as a threat. It is sometimes referred to as ISIS, ISIL, IS or Daesh. Its genesis comes from another AQ related group AQI. AQI was for a time a formidable presence in Iraq under the leadership of Abu Musab al Zarkawi, but when he was killed in 2006 and his successors also killed or arrested, its effectiveness was for a time diminished.
AQI established Al Nusrah shortly after the Syrian civil war broke out when it went to fight in Syria alongside the rebels trying to overthrow the Assad government. Al Nusrah formally split in 2014, with one group keeping the name, Al Nusrah, and staying loyal to AQ. (Al Nusrah recently formally split with AQ, renaming itself Jabhat Fateh al Sham.) The other group went its own way and swearing loyalty to AQI's successor, ISIS. This group focused on forming a caliphate, claiming territory in Syria and Iraq. Its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi broke with AQ leadership both with respect to the focus on a caliphate and the brutality of its tactics against anyone, Muslim or not, that did not agree and adhere to its doctrine.
Like Al Awlaki, Baghdadi and other ISIS leaders took a more sophisticated approach with recruitment, using social media, and offering money, women and paradise to its recruits. It has raised money through various means, including taxing those who suffer under its rule and selling oil on the black market, and holds a significant amount of territory, which it administers. It is now losing ground in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere, but it is expanding its operations in other ways operationally by establishing cells in places like France and Belgium and using social media to inspire attacks globally.
Just as the US and its allies have become more sophisticated in its CT efforts, so too has the enemy. Making matters worse, a pressing concern for law enforcement in the US and internationally are so-called lone wolf attacks undertaken by individuals who operate independently of any organization but are inspired by ISIL and AQ.
An Evolving Response
As the threat evolves, so too must the response. At home this means working on making DHS more effective and better integrated internally and with other government agencies. DHS Director Jeh Johnson has done a great deal to reach those goals, but his successor will need support to continue and intensify the work that has been started.
The intelligence community is also adapting to the changing threat. DNI Clapper has done a good job in defining the role of his office. DCIA Brennan is reworking how the CIA operates, trying to help it implement its mission even more effectively. The White House and State Department have done outreach to friends and allies, helping with CT capacity building and CVE programs to stop the terrorist threat before it starts, as well as to make sure once it is eradicated it does not come back. They have also put increased emphasis on fighting ISIS in particular through social media. The propaganda war is as important as the military battle.
Clearly more can always be done. In particular, we should increase our involvement with Europe, which has suffered an increased number of jihadist attacks in the last two years. NATO is creating a senior position devoted to intelligence. The terrorist threat in Africa is growing, and there should be an intensified effort to help those nations that are most vulnerable. There should be increased outreach in South and Southeast Asia where the threat is becoming more of a problem. Such an effort would include capacity building, intelligence sharing and CVE programs. Planning for the day after terrorists are defeated militarily in places like Syria and Iraq is an essential piece of the CT effort, and conditions must be created that will prevent a return of ISIS to the areas it once controlled.
An intelligence surge is an excellent idea. As the IC adapts--DCIA Brennan's efforts are an example--it will need sufficient resources to carry out its mission. Former DCIA Panetta intensified efforts to recruit a work force that could operate more easily in regions where the threat was the greatest. Increased human intelligence (HUMINT) is key to helping the IC be more effective, and there should be sufficient funding and support for the efforts the CIA is undertaking to increase HUMINT. Signals intelligence (SIGINT) is equally important and deserves sufficient support and resources. It is also worth considering if there are ways to exploit the differences between AQ and ISIS.
We have come a long way since 9/11, but so have terrorist groups. We have made ourselves more secure, but ISIS and AQ are doing their best to make us less so. As the terrorist threat continues to evolve and adapt, so must we. There is a blues song that says the devil ain't a legend, the devil's real. The terrorist threat remains very real, and we have to be unrelenting, creative and patient in our efforts to defeat all terrorist groups.