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20 Years of Counterterrorism: Are We Getting Safer?


The Global War on Terror cost American taxpayers over $8 trillion. Nearly 1 million people lost their lives in post-9/11 war zones.

In the past 20 years, the US has relied on overseas military interventions and tried enhanced interrogation techniques. It has experimented with security assistance to partners and explored programs to prevent and counter violent extremism. It has vacillated from a hardline stance of no sympathy for terrorists to negotiations with the Taliban.

But have all these measures, programs, and interventions made us safer from the terrorist threat?

Counterterrorism in Afghanistan

If you look at Afghanistan, America’s achievements might seem rather bleak. The Taliban is back in power, and as the group unveiled its new government, the world saw a number of positions filled with individuals on the UN Sanctions List.

Mohammad Hassan Akhund, a close associate of Mullah Omar, was named prime minister, while Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of the founder of the Haqqani Network which is a designated foreign terrorist organization in the US, became new interior minister. Individuals connected to terrorist activities are not only walking free, but are also getting access to power in the Taliban’s government.

Al Qaeda has been jubilant about the Taliban’s return to power. In a statement, it congratulated the Taliban: “This victory has demonstrated what the Islamic nation is capable of when it unites, takes up arms and fights in the Way of Allah to defend its Religion, its sanctities, its lands and wealth. These events prove that the Way of Jihad is the only way that leads to victory and empowerment.”

A Taliban fighter
A Taliban fighter walks past a beauty saloon with images of women defaced using spray paint in Shar-e-Naw in Kabul on August 18, 2021. Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP

According to UN estimates, Al Qaeda continues to be present in at least 15 Afghan provinces, with the Haqqani network a primary liaison between the group and the Taliban.

One pressing concern today is that Al Qaeda will become more empowered using the safe haven of Afghanistan under the Taliban once again. After all, despite the post-9/11 setbacks, Al Qaeda has remained strong. The group took advantage of the Arab Spring and benefited from the ensuing tumult in the region, especially in Syria where it came to compete with ISIS.

Furthermore, the group’s desire to attack the US has not waned. In 2019, Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen claimed the terrorist attack on the US naval base in Pensacola, Florida. According to the FBI’s assessment, Al Qaeda’s propagandists continue to seek to inspire similar attacks against America and its allies.

ISIS

Similar to Al Qaeda, ISIS has also celebrated the US withdrawal from the region, albeit in a different manner. ISIS framed the departure as its own win, which has undoubtedly raised the group’s profile among jihadi circles. Further, the group’s supporters celebrated the deadly blast outside the Kabul airport, claimed by ISIS-Khorasan.

Similar to Al Qaeda, ISIS refuses to be defeated. After losing its last stronghold in Baghuz in 2019, ISIS has managed to rebound and continues to pose a threat to the US. According to the UN Security Council, the group “has evolved into an entrenched insurgency” and has shown “resilience despite heavy counter-terrorism pressure from Iraqi authorities.”

It maintained membership as big as 10,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq, and continued to spread propaganda online. In the US, this propaganda might reach those that were inspired by ISIS but had no opportunity to travel to Syria and Iraq. These aspiring foreign fighters are virtually impossible to track but might sporadically attack, just like Kujtim Fejzulai did in Austria when he went on a shooting rampage in Vienna.

Resurgence of Far-Right

To add to the list of persistent threats, America is now facing a resurgence of far-right terrorism. The country has been so busy trying to fight jihadists abroad that it has missed the red flags at home that indicated that far-right domestic terrorism is on the rise.

Today, far-right terrorism poses a greater threat in the US than foreign-linked jihadi terrorism. Far-right extremists have been particularly emboldened by the January 6, 2021 events.

As FBI Director Christopher Wray warned, the attack on the US Capitol could serve as “an inspiration to a number of terrorist extremists.” The availability of online propaganda and the laxed gun laws make it a particularly combustible environment for the proliferation of far-right attacks.

Have We Failed Counterterrorism?

Back in 2001 we had to worry about one group — Al Qaeda. Today, we have a whole host of jihadi adversaries, plus the comeback of far-right extremists. So have we failed at counterterrorism?

The answer is not as clear-cut. There have been some notable achievements in securing our homeland. First of all, the US has eliminated such terrorists as Osama bin LadenAbu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and Anwar al-Awlaki.

Osama Bin Laden
Al Qaeda’s former leader Osama Bin Laden hid in Afghanistan with the Taliban’s help ahead of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Virginia. Photo: AFP

Second, rigorous visa vetting procedures and no-fly lists make it extremely difficult for terrorists from outside to get through our borders. According to a 2018 study on the effects of the screening reform, the rate of vetting failure was “1 for every 379 million visa or status approvals from 2002 through 2016.”

Third, measures to stem out financing of terrorist activities have greatly complicated illicit transfers of funds. If before September 11 terrorists made use of such charity foundations as the Benevolence International Foundation or the Global Relief Foundation, today they can at best count on informal financial systems, such as the hawala network.

Achievement in Counterterrorism

Perhaps the most notable achievement in counterterrorism has been the fact that the US has staved off a repeat of September 11. Contemporary terrorist attacks in the US are pale in comparison to 9/11: they are small in scale, rarely orchestrated from overseas, and mostly perpetrated by a single individual, so-called lone wolves. The vast majority of recent jihadi-motivated terrorist attacks have resulted in death tolls in the single digits.

Mohammed Alshamrani killed three people at Pensacola, Sayfullo Saipov killed eight people in the Manhattan truck attack, and many others failed to inflict fatal injuries. More deadly attacks such as the Orlando nightclub or San Bernardino shootings remain rare.

Further, mass-casualty shootings are hardly representative of the failures of counterterrorism. Rather, they are a direct consequence of America’s gun laws. It would be an oversimplification to pronounce post-9/11 counterterrorism a failure, as we have reduced the impact of terrorist attacks to everyday criminal activities. 

Long Way Ahead

At the same time, the US clearly has a long way ahead and some pressing challenges to resolve. We need to tackle far-right extremists before they claim the same number of victims or more than Al Qaeda did on September 11.

To do so, we need to transfer the counterterrorism lessons from jihadi groups to domestic threats. We need to apply terrorist designations to far-right extremists, use the same financial tools we use against international terrorists, and cut off far-right extremist international connections.

When it comes to international terrorism, today, more than ever, we need our allies and partners. We might never be able to defeat Al Qaeda and ISIS, but together with allies and partners, we can disrupt them enough to prevent large-scale terrorism.

We need to increase international cooperation in counterterrorism and exercise credible commitment to those willing to stand with us in the fight against terrorism. Just like 20 years ago, terrorism remains a transnational threat and we cannot fight it alone.


Dr. Elena Pokalova is Department Chair of International Security Studies Department and Professor at the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University, Washington, DC. She is an expert in security issues, with a focus on terrorism, counterterrorism, and ethnic conflict.

Dr. Pokalova has a vast record of publications with her articles featuring in journals such as Terrorism and Political Violence and Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. She has regularly contributed her expertise to such media outlets as the Voice of America and Stratfor.

Her book Chechnya’s Terrorist Network: The Evolution of Terrorism in Russia’s North Caucasus explores the developments in terrorism and counterterrorism in Russia. Her book Returning Islamist Foreign Fighters: Threats and Challenges to the West examines the return home of Western foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq. The book analyzes the challenges returnees pose to their home countries and the major approaches in addressing them.

Dr. Pokalova has worked on a number of CVE projects in multiple countries and has served as an advisory board member for several organizations.

The opinions in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Defense Department or the U.S. government.


The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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