Foreign terrorist groups generally have less capability to orchestrate mass casualty attacks in the United States than at any time since September 11, 2001, because of the efforts of the United States and our partners to create and maintain an adaptive and effective counterterrorism (CT) enterprise. The U.S. government has painstakingly developed its ability to detect and disrupt plots at early stages, suppress the capabilities of terrorist networks, and deter or thwart potential attacks through defensive security measures, while safeguarding the privacy and civil liberties of the American people. Nevertheless, many terrorist adversaries still have the ability to inflict devastating human and economic costs. The CT enterprise is dedicated to preventing that harm from materializing and keeping the nation’s focus on other national security priorities. In this article, we aim to share details of what the overarching picture looks like by providing NCTC’s assessment of the current terrorism threat and highlighting key challenges for shaping a sustainable and nimble CT architecture going forward in a period of more constrained resources.a
The Evolving International Terrorism Landscape
When explaining the general state of the international terrorism threat, regardless of classification level or audience, we often highlight four broad themes that characterize our leading CT challenges: regional expansion of global terrorist networks alongside degradation of their most externally focused elements; the growing danger from state involvement with terrorism; the reality that lone actors are the most likely to succeed in carrying out terrorist attacks; and the risks posed by terrorist innovation.
Regional Expansion Amid Degraded External Threats: Probably most notable—and a change steadily achieved over the past two decades—is that the United States is safer because the overall threat from foreign terrorist groups is at a low point with the suppression of the most dangerous elements of Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s (ISIS’) and al-Qa`ida’s global networks. Thanks in large part to U.S. and regional partner CT operations, both organizations have suffered significant losses of key personnel, and sustained CT pressure is constraining their efforts to rebuild in historic operating areas.
These losses have been partially offset by an increased threat from ISIS-Khorasan in Afghanistan—which has become more intent on supporting external plots—and the expansion of ISIS and al-Qa`ida networks across Africa. ISIS-Khorasan’s increased external focus is probably the most concerning development. However, the branch has so far primarily relied on inexperienced operatives in Europe to try to advance attacks in its name and, in Afghanistan, Taliban operations have for now prevented the branch from seizing territory that it could use to draw in and train foreign recruits for more sophisticated attacks. Al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), despite its own losses of key personnel and resources, probably remains al-Qa`ida’s most dedicated driver of external plotting. Remaining senior members of the Yemen-based group continue to produce media reinforcing cohesion of al-Qa`ida’s global network as well as calls for attacks against U.S. interests globally.