The tragedy of Sept 11, 2001 cast a long, dark pall on American life, one from which the nation is yet to recover completely. In the years following the attacks, the US witnessed an unprecedented and unparalleled expansion of law enforcement, military, and intelligence powers with the goal of detecting and annihilating terrorists at home and abroad. In 2002 alone, over 130 pieces of 9/11-related legislation were introduced in Congress, and 48 bills and resolutions were approved and signed into law. The USA Patriot Act, arguably the most substantial legislative change since 9/11, allowed law enforcement to use surveillance as an additional means to investigate suspected terrorism-related activities. These expansions had far-ranging implications not only on US foreign policy but also on domestic politics. The American public welcomed increased government surveillance and restrictions on civil liberties in exchange for security. Fear of terrorism has also permitted a massive expansion of executive authority, and the same anxiety has played a role in the durability of a nationalist view against immigration.
Nineteen years later, a drift has formed between public opinion and expert opinion on terrorism. A poll conducted by the PEW Research Center in Spring of 2020 shows that while 69 percent of the American public perceives terrorism as a major threat to the US, just 14 percent of scholars agreed (Figure 1). However, public opinion may be shifting too. Another PEW research poll from August shows that terrorism did not even make the ranking of top voter issues in 2020 (Figure 2), although this shift may be attributable to the pandemic. Overall, terrorism is seen as a receding threat today, and many policymakers and international relations theorists have argued that fewer resources should be devoted to it.
This view reflects the Trump administration’s objectives as it aligns with its “America First” agenda. The White House announced in November that it would pull thousands of US troops out of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia by January 15. As he faces the end of his presidency, Trump plans to use his remaining time in power to accelerate the withdrawal of US troops from counterterrorism conflicts around the world, criticizing these military interventions for being costly and ineffective. In addition to its scaling back of US troops overseas, the Trump administration has renounced US leadership and engagement through the United Nations and shown that it is no longer interested in playing a dominant role in shaping the UN’s counterterrorism system.
Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama recognized that the US could benefit from multilateralism and that the UN could reinforce US-led counterterrorism efforts. During the Bush administration, the US played a leading role in creating the Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee’s Executive Directorate, a group of UN experts that have spent the last 15 years working to identify gaps in countries’ counterterrorism capabilities and helping address them. Under the Obama administration, the US advocated for counterterrorism reforms that led to the creation of the UN’s Office of Counter-Terrorism, as well as the first Under Secretary-General position devoted to counterterrorism. However, Trump has not shared his predecessors’ appreciation for multilateral efforts. Since 2017, the US has paid sporadic attention to the intricacies of the UN counterterrorism system, vacating the leadership role for other countries like China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Hungary, Qatar, and Russia to fill.
Today, thousands of US troops are still deployed in Iraq and the Horn of Africa. Whether one decides to call it a “war on terror” or “countering terrorism,” this prolonged campaign seems far from over. However, as we near the end of 2020, America’s worst fears stemming from 9/11 have not been actualized. America never witnessed another catastrophic terrorist attack, and most homegrown terrorist plots have been discovered and foiled successfully. A 2014 report from the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Center of Excellence on the patterns of terrorism in the US suggests that terrorist attacks may not be as lethal as people perceive them to be. As to not overstate the threat of terrorism, it is necessary to look at the overall trend of terrorist attacks and understand them in a historical context. Of the 2,600 terrorist attacks that took place in the US between 1970 and 2013, 55 percent of them occurred during the 1970s. Over 3,500 people have been killed in terrorist attacks in the US during the same period, but the vast majority of deaths (85%) took place on September 11, 2001. The report also found that 91 percent of terrorist attacks in the US from 1970-2013 were not lethal.
In recent years, the counterterrorism debate has shifted decidedly towards the rise in racially or ethnically motivated terrorism, particularly white supremacist terrorism. In a report by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, the think tank found that white supremacisits orchestrated two-thirds of the terrorist attacks in 2020. In the Homeland Threat Assessment released by the Department of Homeland Security in October 2020, the DHS concluded that “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists–specifically white supremacist extremists (WSEs)–will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.” Unfortunately, the shift online as a result of the pandemic has been particularly pronounced among white supremacists, and homegrown hate groups may proliferate as people spend more time in virtual cesspools where extremism flourishes. However, the view from the White House is markedly different. Trump has regularly linked terrorism to immigration and mental illness and has championed that travel bans, decreasing refugee numbers, and cracking down on undocumented residents to protect Americans.
Almost two decades after 9/11, American support for counterterrorism has endured – the American public did not turn against counterterrorism campaigns as it did against the Vietnam war. Although Americans do not perceive terrorism to be as severe as they did in previous years, the threat still exists and may evolve, especially during this global pandemic era. As countries face the deepest global recession in eight decades, overall counterterrorism budgets will most likely decline, resulting in a decrease in Western assistance to local allies: many of whom are reliant on Western support for training, funds, and weapons to combat terrorists in their countries. With a drastic reduction in foreign aid, local partners will be less effective, possibly allowing terrorist groups to expand their operations and influence. However, terrorists face the same restrictions on travel and greater border security that has developed under COVID-19. Thus, the pandemic will likely disrupt terrorist operations and fundraising as well as further the localization of the jihadi terrorist threat in the Middle East and East and West Africa that has occurred in recent years.
The challenges that COVID-19 poses for counterterrorism are yet to fully materialize. The potential reduction in overall resources dedicated to counterterrorism calls for a re-evaluation of the efficacy and sustainability of current initiatives, including security-related foreign aid and the use of military force. Furthermore, most countries have embraced what is known as “vaccine nationalism,” in which countries prioritize their own needs at the expense of others for fear of running out of global supplies. Billions of doses of vaccines had already been reserved before any had been approved, and many wealthy countries had reserved enough to inoculate their populations multiple times. This increased nationalism around the world suggests that anti-terrorist efforts are more likely to be coordinated regionally as opposed to globally. However, the pandemic may also offer new opportunities to combat terrorism if countries are able to come together and implement a multilateral response to COVID-19. Increases in policy coordination and information sharing on health issues may result in more information and new means of sharing it overall, which will facilitate cooperation among Western and regional governments in their counterterrorism efforts.