Calibrated Counterterrorism: Actively Suppressing International Terrorism.
The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) is the U.S. government's lead agency for integrating, analyzing, and sharing international terrorism information. As the Director, I am privileged to see the inner workings of the whole counterterrorism (CT) enterprise, not just that of NCTC. It is clear to me that Americans at home and abroad would be confronted with a more severe terrorism threat if it were not for the sustained and focused efforts of the entire U.S. CT community over the past 22 years. As we approach another 9/11 anniversary, I asked senior analysts from NCTC to share more with the public and academic community about the constant, behind-the-scenes work of CT professionals across the government. It is my hope that, through this product, others can gain a greater degree of insight into what this community regularly confronts in its mission to protect innocent civilians from persistent terrorist adversaries. --Christine Abizaid, NCTC Director Foreign terrorist groups generally have less capability to orchestrate mass casualty attacks in the United States than at any time since September 11, 2001, because of the efforts of the United States and our partners to create and maintain an adaptive and effective counterterrorism (CT) enterprise. The U.S. government has painstakingly developed its ability to detect and disrupt plots at early stages, suppress the capabilities of terrorist networks, and deter or thwart potential attacks through defensive security measures, while safeguarding the privacy and civil liberties of the American people. Nevertheless, many terrorist adversaries still have the ability to inflict devastating human and economic costs. The CT enterprise is dedicated to preventing that harm from materializing and keeping the nation's focus on other national security priorities. In this article, we aim to share details of what the overarching picture looks like by providing NCTC's assessment of the current terrorism threat and highlighting key challenges for shaping a sustainable and nimble CT architecture going forward in a period of more constrained resources. (a)
The Evolving International Terrorism Landscape
When explaining the general state of the international terrorism threat, regardless of classification level or audience, we often highlight four broad themes that characterize our leading CT challenges: regional expansion of global terrorist networks alongside degradation of their most externally focused elements; the growing danger from state involvement with terrorism; the reality that lone actors are the most likely to succeed in carrying out terrorist attacks; and the risks posed by terrorist innovation.
Regional Expansion Amid Degraded External Threats: Probably most notable--and a change steadily achieved over the past two decades--is that the United States is safer because the overall threat from foreign terrorist groups is at a low point with the suppression of the most dangerous elements of Islamic State of Iraq and alSham's (ISIS') and al-Qa'ida's global networks. Thanks in large part to U.S. and regional partner CT operations, both organizations have suffered significant losses of key personnel, and sustained CT pressure is constraining their efforts to rebuild in historic operating areas.
These losses have been partially offset by an increased threat from ISIS-Khorasan in Afghanistan--which has become more intent on supporting external plots--and the expansion of ISIS and al-Qa'ida networks across Africa. ISIS-Khorasan's increased external focus is probably the most concerning development. However, the branch has so far primarily relied on inexperienced operatives in Europe to try to advance attacks in its name and, in Afghanistan, Taliban operations have for now prevented the branch from seizing territory that it could use to draw in and train foreign recruits for more sophisticated attacks. Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), despite its own losses of key personnel and resources, probably remains al-Qa'ida's most dedicated driver of external plotting. Remaining senior members of the Yemen-based group continue to produce media reinforcing cohesion of al-Qa'ida's global network as well as calls for attacks against U.S. interests globally.
More Aggressive State Involvement with Terrorist Activity:
We anticipate that rising global strategic competition will lead to increased state support to terrorist actors as a foreign and security policy tool. The end of the Cold War, the subsequent rise of a U.S.-centered global order, and the forceful U.S.-led global response to al-Qa'ida's attacks of September 11, 2001, helped suppress the kinds of state support for terrorism seen in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet, the increasingly brazen and persistent activity of the Iranian government during the past four years, including support for terrorist operations inside the United States, exemplifies the spectrum of challenges still posed by state support to terrorism. Iranian intelligence and security services--which have pursued several dozen lethal plots and assassinated at least 20 opponents across four continents since 1979--are advancing plotting against the United States, other Western interests, and Iranian dissidents more aggressively than they have at any time since the 1980s.
The Iranian government has become increasingly explicit in its threats to carry out retaliatory attacks for the death of IRGC-QF Commander Qassem Soleimani in 2020. Iranian officials have created lists of dozens of current and former U.S. officials that it blames, including as primary targets a series of former senior U.S. government officials it holds primarily responsible for Soleimani's death.
Militant groups aligned with the Iranian government periodically conduct rocket and unmanned aircraft system (UAS) attacks against U.S. facilities in Syria and have threatened to resume more complex or frequent attacks in Iraq. From 2003 to 2011, the Iranian government and Lebanese Hezbollah supplied explosively formed projectiles that killed 196 U.S. personnel in Iraq and wounded 861. The potential threat posed by the provision of more lethal and sophisticated capabilities by the Iranian government remains a serious concern for U.S. personnel in the...
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