How serious are threats to the US homeland?

National Counterterrorism Center Director Christopher Miller and FBI Director Christopher Wray testifiy before the House Homeland Security Committee during a hearing about 'worldwide threats to the homeland' on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 17, 2020. Chip Somodevilla/Pool via REUTERS
Editor's note:

A recent hearing on terrorism threats to the United States presented some good news, as well as some troubling details, write Daniel Byman and Seamus Hughes. This piece originally appeared in Lawfare.

The September 17 hearing on “Worldwide Threats to the Homeland,” as its title suggests, does not make for happy watching. And, indeed, statements by FBI Director Christopher Wray and National Counterterrorism Center Director Christopher Miller duly assess an array of dangers related to national security, including election interference, a more aggressive Russia and China, and emergent technologies. Most of their remarks, however, focused on terrorist groups and networks and the threats they pose. Although counterterrorism professionals are understandably prone to worry, there was some good news — as well as some troubling details — buried in their remarks.

The hearing occurred just after the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The scale of those attacks, and the U.S. response, has dominated the terrorism landscape ever since. But the directors are largely positive here, or at least less pessimistic than their predecessors. Wray warned that al-Qaida “maintains its desire for large-scale, spectacular attacks,” but that this has been true since well before 9/11. Wray noted that al-Qaida’s constant failure to succeed in a repeat of 9/11 or anything close to it on U.S. soil suggests that the U.S campaign against its leadership is highly successful. Similarly, Miller warned that the Islamic State still wants to attack the West — again, no real surprise — but also contends that counterterrorism “pressure has diminished the group’s ability to execute operations on the scale of previous attacks in Paris and Brussels.” So, like al-Qaida, capabilities continue to fall short of ambitions. Both directors were careful to acknowledge that al-Qaida and the Islamic State are resilient and warn that they could become more dangerous in the future. However, they asserted that sustained but modest counterterrorism efforts have proved able to limit the threat to the U.S. homeland.

The directors warned that al-Qaida and Islamic State affiliates and provinces in Yemen, the Maghreb, the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere all pose potential dangers. But they noted that leaders of these groups, too, have been killed or otherwise hit hard. Al-Qaida has suffered defections from its ranks in key theaters such as Syria, and Miller noted that their numbers in Afghanistan have “been reduced to a few dozen fighters who are primarily focused on their survival.” The primary threat these jihadist groups pose is to U.S. allies in the Middle East and the greater Muslim world, not the U.S. homeland. The threat to the homeland isn’t zero, however — al-Qaida’s Yemen branch had ties to the Saudi shooter who killed three U.S. sailors in Pensacola, Florida, in December 2019. Nevertheless, the death toll in the U.S. homeland has been far lower than feared in the years since 9/11.

The biggest danger the directors warned about is from lone actors who self-radicalize and act on their own. In early June, a New York man stabbed and shot at two New York Police Department officers in the name of the Islamic State. In 2019, a white supremacist acting on his own began shooting in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, ultimately killing 23 people. He was motivated by stopping what he had previously referred to as a Hispanic invasion of America. We’ve seen more white supremacist attacks since, but Wray warned that the most recent uptick is from anti-government violent extremists, some of whom have white supremacist views but many of whom, like the Three Percenters and boogaloos, see themselves as patriots fighting government “tyranny.” Members of these groups have been showing up at various protests in preparation for what they believe is an imminent civil war. Coronavirus and associated restrictions (and related conspiracy theories) are fodder for such groups. Even here, there is a silver lining, if not exactly good news. Journalists and extremism scholars often accuse law enforcement and the U.S. government of ignoring threats emanating from the far right, but the two directors’ testimonies indicated a focus within the federal government, at least at the practitioner level, on the danger and provided encouraging evidence that the relevant agencies are marshaling resources to combat the threat.

When politics exacerbates divisions, it worsens the problem of terrorism being seen as affecting only “them,” whoever that is.

As U.S. coronavirus deaths near 200,000, it’s important to remember that the danger of terrorism goes well beyond its typically small body count. White supremacists and anti-government extremists pose a danger beyond the innocent people they may kill, as horrific as those deaths are. This violence is particularly disturbing because these groups often operate according to philosophies that are merely more violent echoes of domestic shouting matches about the role of government and political disputes in general. And attacks by domestic actors can widen preexisting divisions. Attacks like 9/11 by foreign-based groups are seen as attacks on all Americans, while purely domestic attacks aligned with one part of the political spectrum are often portrayed as “them” being attacked, not “us.” “Them” can be Black or Hispanic people, the LGBTQ community, or adherents to a different political persuasion. After some domestic terror attacks, some Americans may rightly feel that they themselves are not threatened. Or these attacks can further entrench political resentment: Their “side” is mainly a victim of violence, but the other “side” is rife with it. And when politics exacerbates divisions, it worsens the problem of terrorism being seen as affecting only “them,” whoever that is.

Action by counterterrorism professionals at the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center is vital not only for keeping the country safe but also for allowing Americans to mobilize to discuss contentious issues and advocate for their preferred positions without the specter of violence hanging over them. Violence and the fear of it can contaminate politics, leading to the dismissal of different viewpoints as extremist and to calls for government crackdowns on legitimate dissent. At the same time, the more divided the country is, the easier it is for even small attacks to have a disproportionate effect on America and further weaken national cohesion.