Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, at least 42 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; al-Qaeda has been substantially defeated in Iraq, 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 also been routed. Overall, terrorist networks have been dispersed and reduced to using the Internet to make “open calls” to strike the West.
These successes, often trumpeted by President Barack Obama, resulted from 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, this record of success in the war against terrorism and preventing terrorist attacks during the past decade should not be ignored.
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.
- Preserve existing counterterrorism and intelligence tools, including the PATRIOT Act. Intelligence and investigative tools like the PATRIOT Act are essential to maintaining the security of the United States and combating terrorist threats. The PATRIOT Act’s provisions modernize intelligence and legal authorities, ensuring that terrorism investigators have the same tools as those that are available in criminal investigations and enabling them to focus more effectively on protecting against and preventing attacks. By using the PATRIOT Act’s “roving” surveillance provision, the intelligence community was able to prevent an attack on the New York subway system in 2009. Congress approved a short-term (one-year) extension of the PATRIOT Act, but the better course would be to make the act’s provisions permanent.
- Enhance domestic and international information-sharing efforts. Efforts to increase information sharing between the U.S. and its allies while improving interagency communications 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, as well as 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, which allows foreign travelers from member nations to travel to the United States without a visa and promotes national security by requiring greater information sharing with regard to lost or stolen passports.
- Plug gaps in stopping 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/or individuals before they begin. Until the terrorists are rooted out, the 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. At the very least, such suspicious travelers should not be able to move freely without greater 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, put more air marshals in the skies and airports, speed up the deployment of the Secure Flight program, step up implementation of REAL ID, and expand the Visa Waiver Program.
- Stay committed to Afghanistan to prevent its return as a terrorist haven and hold 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 al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden vindicates U.S. strategy in the region. It will be seen as a major success for the U.S. and show the world that America remains committed to its counterterrorism strategy. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, however, will continue to remain active. The U.S. must recognize that bin Laden’s death does not signal the end of the fight against global terrorism. It is a major development, but much hard work remains to be done.
- Create a lawful detainment framework for the incapacitation and lawful interrogation of terrorists. As of October 2011, the United States was holding 171 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 place a prohibition on 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.
- 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. 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 a reconstituted 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
- At least 42 terrorist plots targeted against the United States have been foiled since 9/11. The top five post-9/11 targets include:
- New York City: targeted at least 12 times.
- Military targets: targeted at least 10 times.
- Washington, D.C.: targeted at least 5 times.
- Diplomats and politicians: targeted 5 times.
- Religious facilities: targeted 4 times.
- From 1969 to 2009, there were 38,345 terrorist incidents worldwide. Terrorism directed at the United States accounts for only 7.8 percent of these attacks, but almost 43 percent of all attacks against military institutions are leveled against U.S. institutions, and 28.4 percent and 24.2 percent of all terrorist attacks against diplomatic offices and businesses, respectively, are aimed at U.S. institutions.
- As of October 2011, 608 detainees (out of 779) have been transferred from Guantanamo Bay. Of those 608, 81 are confirmed to have re-engaged in terrorist activity, and 69 are suspected of having committed terrorist or insurgent activity. Of those 150 men, 13 are dead, 54 are in custody, and 83 are at large.
- Contrary to the common misperception that most terrorists are illiterate or come from extreme poverty, studies have shown that terrorists often tend to be more highly educated and from wealthier families than the rest of the population of origin.
- Islamist terrorism is not a problem faced only by the West; it is a global problem requiring a global solution. From 2004 to 2008, non-Westerners were said to be 54 times more likely to be killed in an attack by al-Qaeda. The vast majority of al-Qaeda’s victims during this period were Muslim individuals in Muslim nations.
Selected Additional Resources
- Lisa Curtis, “After bin Laden: Do Not Retreat from Afghanistan,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3259, May 17, 2011.
- The Heritage Foundation Counterterrorism Task Force, “A Counterterrorism Strategy for the ‘Next Wave,’” Heritage Foundation Special Report No. SR-98, August 24, 2011.
- James Jay Carafano, “42nd Terror Attack Plot Highlights State-Sponsored Terrorism Threat,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3392, October 12, 2011.
- James Jay Carafano, Matt Mayer, and Jessica Zuckerman, “41st Terror Attack Plot Foiled by Local Law Enforcement and Intelligence,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3376, September 29, 2011.
- James Jay Carafano and Jessica Zuckerman, “40 Terror Plots Foiled Since 9/11: Combating Complacency in the Long War on Terror,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2604, September 7, 2011.
- Jena Baker McNeill and Jessica Zuckerman, “After bin Laden: Support the PATRIOT Act,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3260, May 17, 2011.
- Charles D. Stimson and James Jay Carafano, “Treating Terrorism Solely as a Law Enforcement Matter—Not Miranda—Is the Problem,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 2898, May 13, 2010.
Heritage Experts on Terrorism
Terrorism is not solely a law-enforcement matter. Too often, terrorism is treated as a matter of law enforcement, and investigations are hampered by criminal-law concerns, such as whether to read suspects their Miranda rights.
America is at war with an enemy that is committed to its destruction and willing to use any means to achieve its goals. During times of war, the traditional tools of criminal investigation and law enforcement do not always measure up to the task of thwarting the enemy. The overriding focus of our anti-terrorism policy should be to stop terrorist plots before they are acted on, rather than allowing law enforcement considerations (such as the need to preserve evidence and read suspects their Miranda rights) to trump aggressive interdiction of terrorists. Congress must provide the Executive with the tools to prevent attacks, including robust foreign intelligence surveillance authorities and a framework for terrorist detention, while holding the Administration to account when it treats terrorism cases as conventional law enforcement problems, which risks lost intelligence and lost lives.