After Orlando: How to Confront the New Face of Terror

Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force.

Responding to the latest trends in terrorism.

Even before Orlando, there was a case to be made for another 9/11 Commission. A particular reason for that recommendation is that America no longer faces the terrorists of 9/11. There was plenty of evidence to suggest the face of the global Islamist insurgency had come to look very different from what confronted the world over a decade ago. The list is long—from ISIS getting a state to Al Qaeda on the internet, and terrorist travel in an age of refugees and foreign fighters.

When it comes to the threat we are seeing on the American homeland, we have a lot of evidence of what works and what doesn’t against this new wave of global Islamist terrorism.

The New Face of Terror

The United States has a unique terrorist profile all of its own.

An assessment of the threat to the United States drawn from a database and timeline maintained by The Heritage Foundation tracks known Islamist-related terrorist plots aimed at the United States since 9/11 according to publicly available records. All the statistics provided below are drawn from an analysis of this data.

1. The frequency of plots has dramatically increased. There have been twenty-two successful or interrupted terrorist plots in the United States since 2015.

2. Plots are overwhelmingly emanating from the home front. Twenty-one out of twenty-two involved American nationals. All involved a homegrown element.

3. ISIS has become the most dominant influencer—by far. At least eighteen out of twenty-two contained affiliation/support for/inspiration from ISIS.

4. The threat is getting deadlier. Five out of the eleven successful Islamist-related terrorist attacks have been in the last twelve months, resulting in the greatest loss of life from Islamist terrorism on U.S. soil since 9/11.

The trends are clear—more threats, more from inside America, more related to ISIS, more deadly.

Beyond these trends there remains an admixture of plots. Among the most recent plots: five targeted military installations; four targeted law enforcement; nine targeted public gatherings like malls, a beach or bars; and four targeted religious buildings or schools.

In particular, it turns out the distinction between “lone wolf” and other small groups organizing attacks is unhelpful as an organizing principle for counterterrorism operations. There are few truly lone-wolf–type actors, akin to Theodore Kaczynski (the Unabomber), who operated virtually “off the grid” for two decades. Most terrorist attacks, including Orlando, involved contact with other individuals.

Fighting Back

What we know for sure is what has been working to thwart the current face of terror. Trends suggest that counterterrorism methods, particularly where local, state, federal and international partners work well together and share information, are the most reliable and consistent means to stop terrorist plots.

Thirteen out of twenty-two thwarted attacks were interdicted by using “sting”-type law enforcement operations to uncover terrorist conspiracies. In sixteen out of twenty-two, other forms of law enforcement investigations were instrumental in detecting and stopping attacks.

Trend analysis also suggests a manner to examine the Orlando terrorist attack—and determine what additional measures might be taken or modified to better prepare to preempt terrorist attacks.

Mode of Attack

Preventing terrorist access to weapons is often suggested as a means of reducing risk. Since the inception of the national homeland security enterprise, the guiding principle has been to adopt a risk-management approach—evaluating criticality, vulnerability and threat to make a determination of what measures are most efficacious, efficient and cost-effective. Risk management is much more than just looking at vulnerability. In a free and open society of almost 320 million in a country the size of a continent, Americans face almost infinite vulnerabilities. We can’t make Americans safe and secure by undermining their freedoms and liberty in unending efforts to childproof the country. Risk management helps us plot the best course.

The use of weapons in terrorist attacks is a case in point. Guns, of course, are used in armed attacks (also called mass shootings). This is not a new tactic. Increasingly, since the horrific terrorist attack in Mumbai, India in 2008, we have seen terror groups emulate versions of this tactic. But guns, just like planes, pressure cookers and many other instruments of everyday life, are used by many Americans for all kinds of reasons. The best approach, as with all aspects of terrorism, is take a risk-managed approach.

If the current system can be strengthened, it might well be better to focus on the person, rather than guns. Agencies might review the process of how they assess information, make determinations and share data (such as investigative officials, if an individual who has been on the government’s Known and Suspected Terrorist list applies for a firearm).

Means of Terrorist Travel

General bans on international travel are also frequently suggested in the wake of terrorist attacks—even though the most recent attack originated here with targets in the same communities as the terrorists. While it makes perfect sense to develop policies, procedures and tools to prevent terrorists from exploiting legal authorities for international travel, general bans on specific populations as a tool to prevent terrorist travel has not proven effective. Terrorists travel in small numbers and have sought to exploit every means of international travel, both legal and illegal.