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The Issue

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 terror attacks.

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. As Congress and the Trump Administration wrestle with the difficult decision of where best to spend precious security dollars, success in the war against terrorism and preventing terrorist attacks should remain priorities.

Osama bin Laden and many of his deputies have been killed. Since 9/11, the U.S. has disrupted terrorist safe havens, caused attrition in the cadre of terrorist leaders, pre-empted planning and operations, disaggregated networks, thwarted terrorist travel and communications, and disrupted fundraising and recruiting.

In some crucial ways, however, the Obama Administration distanced itself from the post-9/11 effort. Shortly after taking office, President Obama declared his Administration’s intent to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay and restrict interrogation policies. Similarly, Congress began to trim some counterterrorism tools, such as the metadata program authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), section 215.

Just as significantly, President Obama refused to characterize anti-terrorist operations as wartime conflict. Terms like “long war,” “global war on terrorism,” and “unlawful combatants” were banished. His Administration failed to spell out to most Americans whom the U.S. is fighting, and why. President Obama also refused to identify as Islamist the terrorist groups that use Islam to justify the slaughter of innocents and to promote an anti-Western and anti-democratic agenda.

These actions have left America ill-prepared to address the current jihadist terror threat. The U.S. needs to be prepared to fight a war of ideas against Islamist extremist ideology both at home and abroad. Al-Qaeda remains a potent threat in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. New players have come to the game, namely the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), which has captured huge amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria, and subsequently declared a caliphate there.

With the rise of ISIS, Islamist terrorist activity has not only increased around the world, but also in the United States. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, there have been at least 95 Islamist-inspired terrorist plots against the United States.

The war on terrorism is far from over. Terrorists who conspire to attack this country are as determined as ever and—given that ISIS continues to hold significant territory in Iraq and Syria, has financial resources, and has an effective recruitment campaign—they are increasingly equipped to do so. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda has integrated itself into broader Sunni insurgencies in Syria and Yemen, amplifying its potential to recruit and present itself as a mainstream Sunni force. The U.S. needs to adapt to these ever-changing threats in order to win the long war against terrorism.

Doing so while retaining basic liberties for Americans is crucial. While the reality of the threat posed by these terrorists is real and fully justifies U.S. action against them, the efforts of U.S. intelligence and security personnel should not excessively 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 is a vital, ongoing concern.


Enhance Domestic Information Sharing. Efforts to improve interagency communication between the Departments of State, Justice, and Homeland Security and the intelligence agencies, as well as information sharing with state and local governments, are vital to protecting the U.S. from ongoing terrorism. For instance, 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 about 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.

Expand International Information Sharing. 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 counterterrorism and security information sharing between member nations and the United States. The U.S. must continually look to improve the information sharing that is occurring via the VWP.

Improve Vetting Systems. 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 by expanding the Visa Security Program and PATRIOT programs, which apply extra DHS resources to high-risk visa applications. For flight, DHS should focus Federal Air Marshals on higher-risk routes while making it easier for pilots to join the Federal Flight Deck Officer program that allows trained pilots to carry firearms. DHS should also update its intelligence-sharing and information-sharing platforms, such as the Transportation Security Administration’s Secure Flight and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s TECS, to prevent terrorist travel. Congress should shift these various systems toward a person-centric view of vetting that allows security and intelligence personnel to more easily access the relevant information the U.S. has about a visitor.

Renew the U.S. 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. Afghan security forces continue to need U.S. and NATO support in the form of air strikes, intelligence, training, and battlefield advice. Continued pressure on the Pakistani government to shut down Pakistan-based terrorist groups, such as the Haqqani Network, is also essential, as are efforts to work with other nations to halt terrorist financing and eliminate terrorist safe havens.

Similarly, the rise of ISIS has created an additional haven from which terrorists can operate. ISIS’ ambitions surpass that of a traditional terrorist organization. It controls large areas in Syria and Iraq, giving it the resources to undertake significant terrorist operations, both unconventional and conventional. The U.S. needs a comprehensive strategy for defeating ISIS and dismantling its proclaimed caliphate in the Middle East. The U.S. could provide advisers, as well as air, logistical, airlift, intelligence, surveillance, search and rescue, and other support, yet should also press Turkey, other NATO allies, Saudi Arabia, and Gulf allies to contribute significant ground troops and special operations forces to defeat ISIS on the ground.

Address the Threat Posed by State-Sponsored Terrorism. The Obama Administration did not pay sufficient attention to the threat of state-sponsored terrorism. It is well past time for the U.S. to take stronger measures to deal with these threats. The Trump Administration should designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization, impose sanctions on its numerous front companies, apply sanctions to any non-Iranian companies that do business with the IRGC’s extensive business empire, and work with Congress to impose additional sanctions on Iran for its support of terrorism. The Administration also should tighten sanctions on Iran’s terrorist surrogates, particularly Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestine Islamic Jihad. It should work with allies to intercept the flow of Iranian arms to these terrorist groups and crack down on their illicit criminal activities, which help fund their terrorist campaigns. Congress also should block the sale of U.S. commercial airliners to Iran, which has used such aircraft to transport troops, equipment, and arms to Syria in support of Iran’s aggressive intervention there.

Facts and Figures

FACT: Islamist terrorism presents a major problem for the United States.

  • At least 97 terrorist plots have targeted the United States since 9/11, most of which were foiled by U.S. law enforcement.
  • Of the 97 terrorist plots since 9/11, 40 were sting operations with at least 198 combatants arrested or killed in connection to the incident.
  • The top five post-9/11 domestic targets include the U.S. military (24 plots), mass gatherings (23 plots), New York City (20 plots), mass transit (10 plots), and law enforcement or religious targets (eight plots).
  • Over the course of 2015 and 2016, the United States experienced 29 Islamist terrorist plots. This was more than any other two-year period since 9/11, and more than in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 combined.
  • Of the combatants who engaged in plots in the United States, at least 27 had attended terrorist training camps, and 26 of the plots were inspired by ISIS.

FACT: International terrorism continues to pose a threat to United States and Western interests.

  • From 1970 to 2015, there were 135,441 terrorist incidents worldwide, of which 21,504 occurred in North America and Europe.
  • In 2015 alone, 12,250 terrorist attacks occurred around the world.
  • From 9/11 until the end of 2015, the non-Western world (everywhere except Western Europe and the Western Hemisphere) experienced 68,606 terrorist attacks. Of these, nearly 55 percent (37,396) targeted private, infrastructural, educational, media, or religious individuals and institutions.

FACT: ISIS has terrorist affiliates around the world.

  • Terrorist groups across the globe have pledged support to ISIS and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This includes those based in Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
  • As of December 2015, the number of foreign fighters who had traveled to Syria and Iraq was between 27,000 and 31,000.

FACT: ISIS has directed or inspired a series of attacks in Europe that led to the death of American citizens.

  • ISIS has directed or inspired almost 150 plots in Europe since January 2014.
  • These plots have led to more than 1,400 serious injuries and 300 deaths.
  • Four of the ISIS-directed or ISIS-inspired attacks in Europe have led to American deaths.

FACT: Thirty percent of detainees released from Guantanamo Bay are known or suspected to have re-engaged in terrorist activity.

  • Twelve former Guantanamo Bay detainees have carried out attacks that led to the deaths of Americans based in Afghanistan.
  • As of June 2017, 41 detainees from 13 countries were still housed at Guantanamo Bay, five of whom have been approved for transfer to a third-party country or repatriation.

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 Stimson, Steven P. Bucci, John G. 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.

Lisa Curtis, Luke Coffey, David Inserra, Daniel Kochis, Walter Lohman, Joshua Meservey, James Phillips, and Robin Simcox, “Combatting the ISIS Foreign Fighter Pipeline: A Global Approach,” Heritage Foundation Special Report No. 180, January 6, 2016.

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

David Inserra, “Considering the Laptop Ban: Risks, Costs, Benefits, and Alternatives,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4710, June 1, 2017.

David Inserra, Paul Rosenzweig, Charles 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, “How President Trump Can Improve U.S. Syria Policy,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4661, March 3, 2017.

James Phillips, “U.S. Should Encourage a Political Settlement in Yemen to Defeat Al-Qaeda and Contain Iran,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4712, June 5, 2017.

James Phillips, “Where the Fight Against ISIS Stands, and How the U.S. Can Win,” Heritage Foundation Commentary, March 21, 2017.

Robin Simcox, “Al-Qaeda Still Threatens Europe: How the U.S. Can—and Should—Help,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3161, October 24, 2016.

Robin Simcox, “The Threat of Islamist Terrorism in Europe and How the U.S. Should Respond,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3142, August 1, 2016.

Charles Stimson and Hugh Danilack, “The Case Law Concerning the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force and Its Application to ISIS,” Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum No. 203, April 17, 2017.