The Issue

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, at least 75 Islamist-inspired terrorist plots against the United States have been foiled thanks to domestic and international operation. In the war on terrorism abroad, Osama bin Laden and his deputies have been killed; the core of al-Qaeda has been flushed from Afghanistan and hounded in Pakistan (although tactical successes by the Taliban in 2015 show continued threat from terrorist groups in the region); and a number of affiliated groups across Southeast Asia, in part through U.S. counterterrorism assistance and cooperation, have been weakened. The U.S. has come a long way in terms of its readiness to prevent and combat acts of terrorism. Large investments in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the FBI, the intelligence community, state and local partners, and other government agencies have increased the U.S.’s ability to prevent terrorism before it strikes. While it is tempting to believe that the threat of terrorism has receded in light of these investments and improvements, the reality is that the threat is as present as ever. The “tides of war” have not receded, and new players have come to the game, namely, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), or ISIL, or Daesh.

While there were successes, many resulted from more than a decade of efforts to make sanctuaries unsafe, cause attrition in the cadre of terrorist leaders, preempt planning and operations, disaggregate networks, thwart terrorist travel and communications, and disrupt fundraising and recruiting. With the recent rise of IS and other terrorist groups, Islamist terrorist activity has not only increased around the world, but also in the U.S. As Congress and the Obama Administration wrestle with the difficult decision of where best to spend precious security dollars, success in the war against terrorism and preventing terrorist attacks during the past decade are important priorities.

Yet the Administration has distanced itself from the post-9/11 effort. Shortly after taking office, President Obama declared the Administration’s intent to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, restrict interrogation policies, and stop characterizing anti-terrorist operations as wartime conflict. President Obama banished terms like “Long War,” “Global War on Terrorism,” and “unlawful combatants.” He also refused to identify as Islamist the terrorist groups that use religion to justify the slaughter of innocents to promote a radical agenda, even though most Muslims use that term. Similarly, Congress has begun to trim some counterterrorism tools such the metadata program authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), section 215. These actions have left America ill-prepared to properly address the current threat that IS brings.

It is increasingly unclear to most Americans both whom we are fighting and why we are fighting them. The war on terrorism is not over. Terrorists who aspire to attack this country are as determined as ever, and they are more equipped to do so given that IS currently holds significant territory in Iraq and Syria and have an effective recruitment campaign. The U.S. needs to be prepared to fight a war of ideas against Islamist extremist ideology both at home and abroad. Further, the U.S. needs to continue to adapt to these ever-changing terrorist threats in order to win the long war against terrorism.

Additionally, while the reality of the threat posed by these terrorists is real and fully justifies U.S. action against them, the efforts of our intelligence and security personnel should never adversely affect the civil liberties of the citizens they are protecting. Finding the proper balance is a complex challenge and one that requires a national conversation. The effort to maintain the proper balance between physical security and protection of rights should be our paramount concern.


Enhance Domestic and International Information-Sharing Efforts. Efforts to increase information sharing between the U.S. and its allies while improving interagency communication between the Departments of State, Justice, and Homeland Security and the intelligence agencies are vital to protecting the U.S. from the continued threat of terrorism. One of the central failures leading up to the attempted Christmas Day terrorist attack was the lack of sufficient information sharing between entities across the government. Similarly, Boston police were not made aware that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was interviewed by the FBI based on Russian intelligence, which, while not a smoking gun in itself, would have been an important piece of the puzzle for Boston authorities to know and potentially investigate. At home, the U.S. should improve interagency communications and ensure that information is better shared throughout all levels of government—federal, state, and local. Internationally, the U.S. should seek (among other measures) to expand Passenger Name Record (PNR) data sharing as well as the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows pre-screened foreign travelers from member nations to travel to the U.S. without a visa. The VWP promotes national security by allowing U.S. officials to focus on higher-risk individuals and requiring greater information sharing between member nations and the U.S.

Improve the Prevention of Terrorist Travel. The problem in stopping terrorist travel is not airport screening per se; attempting to turn every airport into another Maginot Line or Fort Knox is going to fail at some point. Instead, the best way to discourage terrorist plots and travel is to frustrate groups and individuals before they begin. As long as terrorism exists, free nations have to do a better job of thwarting terrorist travel. Would-be murderers like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the Detroit-bound Christmas bomber) and Hasan Edmonds (a National Guardsman who planned to travel to join IS and plotted with his cousin, Jonas, to attack a military base near Chicago) should not be allowed near an airliner, and the best way to accomplish this goal is to ensure that potential terrorists are carefully investigated by intelligence analysts and law enforcement before they ever get to the airport. Of course, security at the airport and on airplanes is also important because it is the last line of defense, and suspicious travelers should be subject to greater but appropriate levels of scrutiny, inspection, and surveillance. In order to plug the gaps in preventing terrorist travel, the U.S. should improve visa security coordination between the Departments of State and Homeland Security, support the Federal Flight Deck Officer program that allows trained pilots to carry firearms, continually improve intelligence and information-sharing platforms such as the Transportation Security Administration’s Secure Flight and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection TECS with which to prevent terrorist travel, step up implementation of REAL ID, and expand the Visa Waiver Program.

Renew our Commitment to Afghanistan and Middle East Partners to Prevent the Creation of Terrorist Havens and Hold Other Countries Accountable for Their Support of Terrorists. Terrorism is a global threat that requires a global response. To help combat this threat and stop terrorism at its source, the U.S. should foster continued support for NATO and U.S. counterinsurgency strategies in Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban from regaining influence in the region. The fall of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz to the Taliban in September 2015 demonstrated that the Afghan security forces continue to need U.S. and NATO support in the form of air strikes, intelligence, training, and battlefield advice. Afghan forces were able to regain control of Kunduz, but other key urban areas remain under threat from the Taliban. Continued pressure on the Pakistani government to shut down Pakistan-based terrorist groups such as the Haqqani Network is essential, as are efforts to work with other nations to halt terrorist financing and eliminate terrorist safe havens. The U.S. needs to recognize that bin Laden’s death did not signal the end of the fight against global terrorism. It was a major development, but much hard work remains to be done.

Similarly, the advent of the Islamic State has created an additional haven from which terrorists can operate. IS has surpassed that of a traditional terrorist organization and now effectively controls large areas in Syria and Iraq, giving them the resources to undertake significant terrorist, unconventional, and conventional operations. Claiming responsibility for the attack in Paris, IS has also inspired numerous other plots including at least 11 in the U.S. in 2015. The U.S. needs a comprehensive strategy for defeating IS that includes a more robust military campaign, increase in collaboration with allies, and combatting the foreign flow of fighters into Syria.

Create a Lawful Detainment Framework for the Incapacitation and Lawful Interrogation of Terrorists. As of November 2015, the U.S. was holding 107 detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Under the international law of armed conflict, or law of war, and as recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. has the authority to detain enemies who have engaged in combatant actions, including acts of belligerence, until the end of hostilities to keep them from returning to the battlefield. Military detention, authorized by Congress and properly calibrated to protect our national security, will enhance our ability to prosecute this war. Congress should prohibit future attempts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center and work with the Administration to ensure that a lawful detainment framework is created and implemented to deal with “unlawful combatants” (individuals engaged in armed conflict against the U.S. who do not qualify for prisoner-of war-status under the Geneva Conventions).

Address the Threat Posed by State-Sponsored Terrorism. The Administration has not given sufficient attention to the threat of state-sponsored terrorism. On June 28, 2011, the White House released its “new” National Strategy for Counterterrorism. The 19-page document makes exactly one reference to Iran and none to Syria. The subject of state-sponsored terrorism is virtually ignored. It is well past time for the U.S. to take proactive measures to deal with these threats. Iranian-supported terrorism is potentially as significant a threat to U.S. interests as al-Qaeda. Even though Iran remains the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism, the Obama Administration pushed through the new Iran nuclear deal that will enable Iran to get nuclear weapons. In addition, this deal with Iran is likely to lead nervous countries in the region to seek their own nuclear weapons, fueling a cascade of nuclear proliferation that will undermine U.S. security interests in the volatile Middle East and provide Iran with even more resources to fund its many terrorist activities around the world.

Facts and Figures

  • From 1970 to 2014, there were 141,966 terrorist incidents worldwide. Just over 23,000 occurred in North America and Europe. In 2014 alone, 13,463 terrorist attacks occurred around the world, causing at least 32,700 deaths and more than 34,700 injuries.
  • At least 75 terrorist plots targeting the U.S. have been foiled since 9/11, largely prevented by U.S. law enforcement. The top five post-9/11 domestic targets include the U.S. Military (19 plots); New York City (16 plots); mass gatherings (13 plots); mass transit (eight plots); and critical infrastructure, commercial aviation, and politicians (six plots each).
  • So far in 2015, the U.S. has foiled at least 11 Islamist terrorist plots against the U.S. homeland, more than any other year since 9/11, and more than in 2012, 2013, and 2014 combined.
  • From 9/11 until the end of 2011, the non-Western world—everywhere besides Western Europe and the Western Hemisphere—experienced 28,904 terrorist attacks. Of these, nearly 60 percent (17,153) targeted private, infrastructural, educational, media, or religious individuals and institutions.
  • As of November 16, 2015, 658 detainees from Guantanamo Bay have been transferred: 532 detainees pre-January 22, 2009, and 126 detainees post-January 22, 2009. Of those transfers, at least 117 (17.8 percent) have been confirmed as re-engaging in terrorist activity, and 79 (12 percent) have been suspected of re-engaging in terrorist activity. In total, 107 detainees are still held at Guantanamo Bay.
  • According to the House Homeland Security Committee, the number of foreign fighters who have gone to Syria stands at more than 25,000, which is more than triple the number from a year ago.

Selected Additional Resources

Steven P. Bucci, “Visa Waiver Program Improves Security,” testimony before the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, Committee on Homeland Security, U.S. House of Representatives, March 17, 2015.

Steven P. Bucci and David Inserra, “The Rising Tide of Migrants and Refugees: Due Diligence and Adherence to Law Required,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4472, October 20, 2015.

James Jay Carafano, “PRISM Is Essential to U.S. Security in War Against Terrorism,” Heritage Foundation Commentary, August 6, 2013.

James Jay Carafano, Charles “Cully” Stimson, Steven P. Bucci, John Malcolm, and Paul Rosenzweig, “Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act and Metadata Collection: Responsible Options for the Way Forward,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3018, May 21, 2015.

Lisa Curtis, Charlotte Florance, Walter Lohman, and James Phillips, “Pursuing a Freedom Agenda Amidst Rising Global Islamism,” Heritage Foundation Special Report No. 159, November 17, 2014.

Michael P. Downing and Matt A. Mayer, “Preventing the Next ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorist Attack Requires Stronger Federal–State–Local Capabilities,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2818, June 18, 2013.

David Inserra, “Congress Should Expand Trusted Traveler Programs and Private Airport Screeners,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4359, March 3, 2015.

David Inserra, “Terror in Paradise: 73rd Terrorist Plot Highlights Need to Act,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4449, August 4, 2015.

David Inserra, Paul Rosenzweig, Charles “Cully” Stimson, David Shedd, and Steven P. Bucci, “Encryption and Law Enforcement Special Access: The U.S. Should Err on the Side of Stronger Encryption,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4559, September 4, 2015.

James Phillips, “ISIS vs. Al Qaeda: The Good News and the Bad News,” Heritage Foundation Commentary, January 21, 2015.