Terrorism

Talking Points

  • Since 9/11, at least 56 domestic Islamist-inspired terrorist plots have been foiled, and four have succeeded. Together with the continued activity of terrorists abroad, these 60 plots should remind the U.S. that terrorism is still alive and well.
  • Intelligence programs and tools are critical to stopping terrorist threats before they ever pose a danger to the U.S.
  • Controversial intelligence tools should be carefully examined to guarantee that American’s liberties are being respected. At the same time, the U.S. must ensure that its intelligence agencies have as many legal tools at their disposal as they need to keep the U.S. safe.
  • The U.S. must rededicate itself to working with allies to combat terrorism and its sponsorsabroad.
  • At home, the U.S. should prioritize greater sharing of information, both among federal agencies and between federal agencies and state and local law enforcement agencies.

The Issue

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, at least 56 Islamist-inspired terrorist plots against the United States have been foiled thanks to domestic and international cooperation. 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; and a number of affiliated groups across Southeast Asia, in part through U.S. counterterrorism assistance and cooperation, have been weakened. But overall, while terrorist networks have been damaged, they have not been defeated, and the “tides of war” have not receded.

These successes, often trumpeted by President Barack Obama, 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. As Congress and the 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.

It is increasingly unclear to most Americans both who it is that 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. The U.S. must therefore be prepared to fight a war of ideas against Islamist extremist ideology both at home and abroad. America must 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 must 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 must be our paramount concern.


Recommendations

  1. 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. 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 United States 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.
  2. Improve the prevention of terrorist travel. The problem in stopping terrorist travel to the U.S. 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 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) should not be allowed near an airliner, and the best way to accomplish this goal is to ensure that potential terrorists are carefully vetted by intelligence analysts 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, speed up deployment of the Secure Flight program, step up implementation of REAL ID, and expand the Visa Waiver Program.
  3. Renew our commitment to Afghanistan to prevent its return to a terrorist haven 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. Continued pressure on the Pakistani government to shut down Pakistan-based terrorist groups is essential, as are efforts to work with other nations to halt terrorist financing and eliminate terrorist safe havens. The elimination of Osama bin Laden vindicated U.S. strategy in the region. It was a major success for the U.S. and shows the world that America remains committed to its counterterrorism strategy. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, however, will remain active. The U.S. must 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. Developments in Syria have now raised new concerns.
  4. Create a lawful detainment framework for the incapacitation and lawful interrogation of terrorists. As of October 2013, the United States was holding 164 detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Under the international law of armed conflict, or law of war, and as recognized by our Supreme Court, the United States 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 United States who do not qualify for prisoner of war status under the Geneva Conventions).
  5. 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. The iron triangle of state-sponsored terrorism—Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah—is potentially as significant a threat to U.S. interests as al-Qaeda. Iran remains the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism. In addition, transnational criminal cartels in Mexico are increasingly taking on the character of terrorist networks.

Facts & Figures

  • From 1970 to 2011, there were 104,689 terrorist incidents worldwide. Terrorism directed at the United States homeland accounted for 2.3 percent of these attacks.
  • At least 60 terrorist plots targeting the United States 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 (16 plots); New York City (14 plots); mass gatherings (nine plots); mass transit (eight plots); and critical infrastructure and Washington, D.C. (six plots each).
  • After 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 July 15, 2013, 603 detainees from Guantanamo Bay have been transferred: 532 detainees pre-January 22, 2009, and 71 detainees post-January 22, 2009. Of those transfers, 100 (16.6 percent) have been confirmed as re-engaging in terrorist activity. In total, 164 detainees are still held at Guantanamo Bay.
  • U.S. citizens are being recruited to join al-Qaeda and its affiliates. At least 10 Americans have joined jihadists in Syria, and between 2007 and 2010, over 40 Americans travelled abroad to join Somalia’s al-Shabaab.

Selected Additional Resources

Heritage Experts on Terrorism


  • Steven Bucci

    Director, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies


  • James Jay Carafano, PhD

    Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies


  • Charles Stimson

    Manager, National Security Law Program and Senior Legal Fellow

To talk to one of our experts, please contact us by phone at 202-608-1515 or by email.