Over the past three decades, the terrorism threat has evolved from the detonation of a bomb in the World Trade Center’s parking garage, to the use of jetliners as missiles against the epicenters of American power, to the transformation of a truck into a weapon of mass destruction against a crowd of civilians along France’s southern shore. While the U.S. counterterrorism budget has doubled since 9/11 to reach $16 billion , nearly half of this expenditure funds the Transportation Security Administration , despite the notable shift in the terrorism threat away from civil aviation and towards soft targets. With Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant proving profoundly agile and adaptive in the face of formidable countermeasures, the U.S. counterterrorism strategy remains stuck on the defensive, responding to evolving terrorist strategies, rather than anticipating and disrupting them.
In the 9/11 Commission Report , the “failure of imagination” was cited as an intrinsic weakness of the United States’ pre-9/11 counterterrorism strategy, along with significant gaps in inter- and intra-agency communications and capabilities. While the flurry of organizational reforms that spawned the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security and various mission centers addressed many of these vulnerabilities, the failure to imagine the unimaginable continues to undermine our nation’s counterterrorism prevention efforts. As President Trump embarks upon his ambitious inaugural promise to “eradicate radical Islamic terror from the face of the Earth,” he will need to prioritize imagination to forecast and materially combat burgeoning terrorist groups, along with their changing tactics and targets. However, before imagination can be wielded as an effective counterterrorism tool, a nuanced understanding of how the terrorism landscape has evolved is paramount.
Phase I: Al Qaeda and the Weaponization of the Airplane
The inception of the transnational terrorist threat in the new millennium arguably begins with the formation of Al Qaeda in 1988. In the 1990s, the late Osama bin Laden issued various declarations of holy war against the United States. His 1998 ruling is perhaps the most chilling: “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.” Rhetoric turned into action with Al Qaeda’s 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.
Despite these warnings, and known intelligence that Al Qaeda was flirting with the tactic of suicide pilots—including evidence of a failed Al Qaeda plot to fly an explosives-laden plane into the CIA headquarters—U.S. officials could not conceive that planes could be used as weapons. As noted in the 9/11 Commission Report , in the years, months and days leading up to 9/11, counterterrorism officials were confined by the habit of dismissing seemingly unimaginable scenarios.
Phase II: The Threat Adapts and Shifts to Soft Targets
By the time ISIL claimed its resurrection of the caliphate in June 2014, the United States had significantly bolstered its counterterrorism capabilities. The creation of new institutions and policies—such as the Transportation Security Administration, the Federal Air Marshal Service and the fortification of cockpit doors—enabled the United States and its allies to thwart numerous terrorist plots, most notably the 2001 shoe bomber , the 2006 liquid bomb plot and the 2009 underwear bomber .
In 2015, ISIL eclipsed Al Qaeda by executing more visible attacks against western European and U.S. interests, and the nature of the threat changed. Given that the U.S. counterterrorism methodology was largely tailored to the Al Qaeda threat, the United States scrambled to learn the new rules of engagement in the redefined terrorism landscape; as the United States channeled resources towards preventing Al Qaeda’s signature coordinated, large-scale attacks, ISIL sidestepped arduous countermeasures to attack smaller-scale “soft targets” around the globe, encouraging sympathizers worldwide to act on their own initative. The United States, along with western Europe, has struggled to shield densely populated areas from terrorism, as demonstrated by the 2015 Paris attack , the 2016 Brussels attack , the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting and the 2017 Istanbul nightclub attack.
Beyond the physical battlefield in cyberspace, the United States has similarly struggled to play from the offensive line in stemming the attraction of ISIL propaganda and interrupting the online radicalization of ISIL sympathizers. While several nonprofits and NGOs have made strong contributions to the “counter-narrative” campaign, the State Department’s counter-narrative campaign was widely criticized as ineffective in discouraging susceptible recruits from traveling to Syria. Given the growing number of ISIL sympathizers who are radicalized remotely and inspired to conduct attacks in their home countries, the need to counter ISIL’s ideological penetration of social media with imaginative and resonant countermessaging is as important as fighting the group on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria.
Phase III: Reading the “Signals” Imaginatively to Forecast the Future Threat