There has yet to be another terrorist attack on the scale of that seen on September 11, 2001, but radical Islamic terrorism still permeates the U.S. mindset, with Americans feeling less safe now more than ever.
A recent poll by the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs found that 42 percent of Americans feel less safe now than they did before 9/11. Their concerns are warranted, as many terrorism analysts and policymakers agree that despite trillions of dollars of investment in national security, the threat is as high as ever.
“I don’t think we are any safer. We are more at risk,” David Scott Mann, a former Army Green Beret Lieutenant Colonel and terrorism analyst, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
Mann spent much of his 23-year career fighting the war that resulted from 9/11, but he admitted that he felt he left the fight incomplete. He noted that the war on terror is now entering its second generation, with a whole new crop of young people on both sides entering the fray. With a new generation of terrorists comes a new generation of terrorist organizations. While al-Qaida was decimated throughout the last 15 years, its splinter groups and global branches have become significant standalone threats.
ISIS, formerly al-Qaida in Iraq, was the first to fill al-Qaida’s void and established the Islamic caliphate al-Qaida has thus far failed to create. Amazingly, ISIS quickly became even more notorious in its love of death and destruction than its parent organization. Additionally, al-Qaida branches in Somalia, Algeria, and Yemen, along with the former Nusra Front in Syria and ISIS affiliate Boko Haram in Nigeria, have all engaged in deplorable acts of terrorism since 9/11.
“They are just getting warmed up,” said Mann, regarding the new generation of terrorist groups, especially ISIS. “[Expect] more complex attacks in three to five years.”
In a recent speech at the Intelligence and National Security Summit, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the audience he expects the U.S. to be in a “perpetual state of suppression for some time to come” regarding terrorism. Speaking during a panel at the same conference, director of the National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC) Nicholas Rasmussen noted the job of a terrorist is “getting easier” and more localized. Homegrown terrorists can now plan and attack the U.S. from within using modern technology, instead of engaging in large-scale covert actions like the attack on 9/11.
Many experts agree the primary reason groups like al-Qaida and ISIS have experienced success in the past 15 years is because they decentralized. Networks like those used by the 9/11 hijackers have been largely destroyed since 9/11, and large-scale attacks require significant logistical support. Terrorist organizations have realized that they can be equally effective in smaller, more frequent assaults. It is the ability of home-grown, individual terrorists to engage in attacks like the assault on Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in June that represent the threat of the future of terrorism. Mann warned against referring to these attackers as “lone wolves,” because encouraging followers to engage in localized attacks is exactly what ISIS has directed them to do. Calling them “lone wolf attacks” only distracts from the greater strategy ISIS has employed.
What’s now clear to counter-terrorism experts is that the U.S. needs a new strategy to fight the problem. The country needs to be “doing more to undermine the narrative,” said Rasmussen during the panel discussion. Stomping out terrorist organizations on the battlefield is important, but failing to counter the narrative will only result in groups like ISIS returning to their traditional terrorist roots. Michael Leiter, former director of the NCTC, joined Rasmussen on the panel and noted the U.S. government’s ability to build partnerships to counter the narrative is “somewhere between poor and atrocious.”
While the outlook on terrorism may appear bleak, there are weaknesses in the radical Islamic terrorism narrative that can be exposed. In the case of ISIS, Mann told TheDCNF that some local people harbor resentment towards the group due to the deplorable way in which they are treated, yet this is rarely harnessed by counter-terrorism policymakers. He noted the vision of becoming a radical jihadi is less appealing when there is an alternative viewpoint, and it is only a matter of creating it.
“Americans are the greatest storytellers in the world,” said Mann, adding that creating a story that exposes radical Islamic terrorism from an ideological standpoint could lead to an effective, more permanent solution.
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