Rethinking U.S. Efforts on Counterterrorism: Toward a Sustainable Plan Two Decades After 9/11

AuthorMatthew Levitt
PositionFromer-Wexler Fellow at The Washington Institute and director of its Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence
Pages247-275
Rethinking U.S. Efforts on Counterterrorism:
Toward a Sustainable Plan Two Decades After 9/11
Matthew Levitt*
INTRODUCTION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 247
I. RATIONALIZING COUNTERTERRORISM . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 249
II. COUNTERTERRORISM IN THE CONTEXT OF INTERSTATE COMPETITION . . . . 255
III. INVESTING IN ALLIANCES AND PARTNERSHIPS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 261
IV. (RE)BUDGETING FOR COUNTERTERRORISM . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 266
V. STRATEGIC RECOMMENDATIONS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 271
CONCLUSION. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 275
INTRODUCTION
Twenty years have passed since al-Qaeda terrorists carried out the attacks
of September 11, 2001.
1
During that interval, the United States has built a
counterterrorism bureaucracy to manage, resource, and operationalize the
nation’s intelligence, law enforcement, and military response to the threat
posed by al-Qaeda in particular, and terrorism more broadly. This counterter-
rorism enterprise has been remarkably successful from a tactical perspective,
foiling attacks and disrupting terrorist networks. But it has been less success-
ful from a strategic vantage point, given that more people today are radical-
ized to violent extremism than in 2001, representing a more diversified and
globally dispersed terrorist threat.
Countering terrorism remains one of the country’s top international security
priorities, but not the primary one. Domestically, countering terrorism still consti-
tutes a priority for agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and
Department of Homeland Security. But when it comes to fighting terrorism over-
seas, the national mood has shifted toward a focus on those groups presenting
threats to the homeland or Americans abroad, while addressing regional terrorist
* Matthew Levitt is the Fromer-Wexler Fellow at The Washington Institute and director of its
Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. A former deputy assistant secretary for
intelligence and analysis at the U.S. Department of the Treasury and counterterrorism intelligence
analyst at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Levitt teaches at Georgetown University’s School of
Foreign Service. This study benefited from the wisdom and insights of more than thirty
counterterrorism, intelligence, and national security experts who participated in a series of three virtual
roundtables the author organized under the Chatham House Rule to think through the various issues at
play. The study also benefited from not-for-attribution conversations the author held with current career
U.S. officials serving in several agencies and departments working on the counterterrorism mission set.
Special thanks go to Aaron Zelin and Katherine Bauer, senior fellows in the Institute’s Reinhard
Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, and to research assistants Samantha Stern and Lauren
Fredericks. © 2021, Matthew Levitt.
1. A shorter version of this paper was published by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy in
March 2021 as part of its Transition 2021paper series.
247
threats through intelligence and action by local partners. As the 2018 National
Defense Strategy makes clear, Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is
now the primary concern in U.S. national security.
2
This reflects both the rise of
Great Power and near power competition as strategic threats to U.S. national se-
curity and the success of Washington’s twenty-year investment in counterterror-
ism and homeland security.
At a time of growing partisan polarization, the need to rationalize U.S. invest-
ment in counterterrorism represents a rare area of bipartisan agreement.
According to one study, from fiscal year 2002 to 2017, the United States spent 16
percent of its entire discretionary budget on counterterrorism, totaling $2.8 tril-
lion or an average of $186.6 billion annually over fifteen years.
3
Great Power
competition aside, the nation faces an array of critical challenges at home—from
the public health and economic challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, to
social and racial justice issues, infrastructure needs, climate change, and more—
all of which demand significant investment at a time of shrinking budgets and a
fast-growing federal deficit. Moreover, having appreciated the amount of time,
money, and blood the United States is willing to expend to counter their inexpen-
sive terrorist plots, U.S. adversaries believe that terrorism works.
4
Leaders in both the Democratic and Republican Parties also stress the need to
end forever wars,focus counterterrorism resources on protecting the U.S.
homeland, and rely on foreign partners to take the lead—with U.S. support—on
addressing terrorism in their neighborhoods. The terrorist threats facing the
United States are more dispersed today than they were on September 11, 2001,
but there is now general agreement on the need to adopt a more sustainable pos-
ture on the counterterrorism mission.
First, this paper will discuss the need to rationalize U.S. counterterrorism pos-
ture, as terrorism poses a consistent but not existential threat to the homeland.
The goal should be to reduce terrorism to a low-level threat that law enforcement
can address as it does other localized violent threats. Next, it will consider coun-
terterrorism in the context of interstate competition, emphasizing that with proper
strategic planning, the two efforts can be mutually reinforcing, not mutually
exclusive. However, this paper will emphasize that this framework will require
that the United States invest in its alliances and partnerships, particularly as we
look to repair our damaged credibility. In doing so, the United States can right-
size its counterterrorism strategy by shifting from U.S.-led, partner-enabled mili-
tary counterterrorism missions to partner-led, U.S.-enabled missions, when possi-
ble. This will require significant re-budgeting, and therefore this paper will
2. U.S. DEPT OF DEF., SUMMARY OF THE 2018 NATIONAL DEFENSE STRATEGY OF THE UNITED
STATES OF AMERICA: SHARPENING THE AMERICAN MILITARYS COMPETITIVE EDGE 1 (2018), https://
perma.cc/5FGD-DNTK.
3. STIMSON CENTER, COUNTERTERRORISM SPENDING: PROTECTING AMERICA WHILE PROMOTING
EFFICIENCIES AND ACCOUNTABILITY 7 (2018), https://perma.cc/Q5YK-DPPG.
4. David Francis, Here’s Osama bin Laden’s Letter to the American People, FOREIGN POLICY (May
20, 2015, 10:43 AM), https://perma.cc/M8GW-3K9Q.
248 JOURNAL OF NATIONAL SECURITY LAW & POLICY [Vol. 12:247

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT