by Gabrielle Toonen
Islamist terrorist groups have remained a salient threat to the United States since the deadliest terror attack in history, 9/11. Since then, many extremist groups have engaged in terrorism primarily in the Middle East and Northern Africa with a goal of reaching Western societies. To counter these menaces, the United States has adopted several policies including democratization and military approaches such as regime change and drone strikes. The goals of these tactics according to the National Strategy of Counterterrorism are to “Isolate terrorists from financial, material, and logistical sources of support, modernize and integrate a broader set of United States tools and authorities to counter terrorism and protect the homeland, protect United States infrastructure and enhance preparedness, and counter terrorist radicalization and recruitment” (Trump 2018). This leads to the question: Have US foreign policy responses to Islamist terrorist groups been successful in curtailing the actions of these groups? If not, what needs to be done?
“There is no better illustration of the scope and duration of America’s commitment to the Middle East than the fact that the US has bombed Iraq in every year of the last quarter century. From 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, and even today’s fight against ISIS, the United States has been an integral player in the region.” (Ashford 2020). This statement displays the US’s heavy involvement in the middle east due to the US’s counterterrorism policies initiated by President Bush and furthered by Obama and Trump in response to the September 11 attacks that reshaped our world. The September 11 attacks brought the extremities of Islamic terrorism to light and counterterrorism policies became center of the United States’ debates and agenda. The aftermath of the attacks caused the US to implement stricter foreign policies and security measures as well as engage in a nuclear confrontation with Iran, invade Afghanistan, attempt a regime change in Iraq, and declare a ‘war on terror’ that is still in place today. To display the landscape of the terrorist threat today I will include a statement from the Homeland Threat Assessment of October 2020:
“Foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs), including al-Qaida and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS), will maintain interest in attacking the Homeland but we expect the primary threat from these groups to remain overseas in the coming year due to sustained U.S. counterterrorism pressure. Nevertheless, these groups can adapt quickly and resurge, and terrorists overseas will continue to probe for vulnerabilities in U.S. immigration and border security programs. Collectively, vulnerabilities may create an illegal migration environment that FTOs could exploit to facilitate the movement of affiliated persons towards the United States.” (US Department of Homeland Security, 2020).
This statement demonstrates the threat Islamist terrorists present because of their continued interest in the US’s vulnerabilities as well as the need to pursue counterterrorism strategies to combat their highly dedicated strategists that are searching for faults in the US’s system. Suicide terrorist missions by Islamic extremist groups have rapidly increased over the past decade and 44 of the 60 worst terrorist groups embody an islamic extremist ideology. (Moghadam). Political Scientist Monica Toft states that 98 percent of religious terrorist occurrences promote an Islamic Ideology. Furthermore, the United States has spent over 1 trillion dollars on homeland security expenditures since 9/11. (Mueller, Stewart 2012). Why is addressing counterterrorism approaches important? This evidence of heavy spending on as well as the substantial security threat that Islamist terrorist groups pose in comparison to other groups displays how crucial it is analyze the legitimacy and suitability of the US’s foreign policies.
In this essay I will first discuss a brief history of the relationship between Islamist terrorism and the United States for the purpose of background knowledge, followed by an overview on the debate. I will then lay out a comprehensive exposition of my theory that the United States has not successfully curtailed the actions of Islamist groups with respect to alternative approaches. I will then detail why the empirical cases of Afghanistan and Iraq are relevant to support my thesis. Finally, I will conclude with some broader implications for the debate. I argue that the United States’ policies have not been successful in curtailing the actions of Islamist groups because they’re too reliant on military strategies and not focused enough on the root of the problem; ideology. With more de-radicalization programs, an emphasis on the ideology factor of Islamic terrorism, and a change in the narrative, the end of Islamic terrorism could be near, but without it, more groups will continue to act and new ones will rise while others fall.
Osama Bin Laden, born 1957, constructed an organization known as Al-Qaeda. The goal was to purify the muslim world through attacking the United States which he dubbed the “head of the snake”. Bin laden embraced fundamentalist Islam views with Sunni Alternatives and believed the United States to be the root of all problems due to the US’s support for Israel, the involvement in Iraq and the holy lands, as well as the overall principles embraced by the US. Bin laden used these ideologies to justify his actions of terrorism and violence. On September 11, 2001 Al-Qaeda committed the largest terror attack in history. Members of this organization hijacked airplanes across the United States and headed towards populated landmarks. Two planes hit the world trade centers resulting in total destruction. Another plane hit the pentagon in Washington D.C. The attacks were horrific and so significant that many believed post 9/11 to be a “new world” due to the drastic changes and security measures implemented. “For US foreign policy, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, mark another significant shift in the global context” (Scott 2020). The United States took a strong military approach to the Middle East in reaction to 9/11 and declared a war on terror that is still in place today, about 20 years later.
Since the September 11 attacks, Islamist terrorist organizations continued to rise all over the globe primarily in the Middle East and now Northern Africa. In Iraq Al-Qaeda attacked mosques and markets killing thousands of innocent civilians. The Islamic State, a jihadist group, also known as ISIL, ISIS, and DAIISH, replaced the Iraqi insurgency and began attacking Europeans killing hundreds at festivals, theaters, and airports. The US began to target the IS with airstrikes in addition to backing Kurdish militias which helped eliminate a large majority of territory held by the IS. Although the IS was mostly annihilated in 2009, the organization revived due to Shia oppression and the Syrian civil war. Al-Qaeda, the IS, the Taliban, and Boko Haram remain the most threatening groups for the United States, however, there are several regional affiliates to them. To display more recent attacks and attempts, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula attacked a US embassy in Yemen and attempted to bomb a flight headed to Detroit, The Pakistani Taliban attempted to bomb New York City, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb kidnapped tourists and held them for ransom, Boko Haram attacked the United Nations Headquarters and kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from Chibok, and Al-Shabab is believed to be responsible for the truck bombing killing hundreds in Mogadishu. Due to regional conflict in Africa, state inflicted casualties, and terrorist attacks, 30,000 people have been killed and millions have been displaced in Africa. Ultimately, Islamist terrorist groups are a consequential threat and produce more casualties in comparison to any other terrorist group. (Piazza, Lafree 2019).
Counterterrorism methods to combat ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other Islamist terrorist organizations prove to be challenging because it’s a battle against a concept rather than a state. New Islamist terrorist groups have emerged, morphed into others, or slipped into new locations. Many scholars and individuals believe that the United States has been successful with their counterterrorism efforts towards Islamist terrorists because of the lack of attacks on US soil and the amount of terrorists killed via military action. However, even if an enemy is taken out by a drone or an air strike, the ideology that individual embraced will live on. Conventional hard power is no longer adequate in curbing the actions of Islamist extremist groups. New approaches are needed because this is a new kind of warfare, one that will require extensive religious and ideology education, de-radicalization programs, still mixed with military action.
Military operations and interventions in the Middle East have made terrorism and Islamic extremism significantly worse. In response to 9/11, The United States pursued war-like
strategies for combatting terrorism because the attacks were viewed as an act of war. This resulted in an invasion of Iraq and actions to help overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan. The theory behind this hard power being deployed is that foreign regime change would stop states from harboring terrorists and obtaining weapons of mass destruction while establishing a democratic government that would be friendly to the United States. Although terrorist groups have now branched off into many organizations today, President Bush after 9/11 made it clear who the enemy was and that was Iraq. This was not necessarily a consensus with the rest of the world. However, his adamancy towards Iraq helps explain his policies that were put into action almost instantly. Kuniharu Kakihara in “The Post-9/11 Paradigm Shift and Its Effects on East Asia” says that “President Bush’s invitation to join the coalition to fight terrorism was a half- threat couched in terms of the dualist proposition “you’re either with us or against us, Good or Evil.” This has become the foreign policy foundation of the Bush administration and is echoed in The National Security Strategy of the United States, also called the “Bush Doctrine.” Incidentally, the new Bush Doctrine clearly states that the US reserves the right to pre-emptive and independent action in the war on terrorism.” This statement conveys the ideology behind crafting the counterterrorism methods that the US would embrace. Bush’s objective was unilateral, neoconservative, and troop intensive with 15,200 troops in Afghanistan and 130,600 troops on the ground in Iraq. (Kakihara 2003). The neoconservative involvement in Iraq in 2003 produced a spiral effect that led to a civil war between Sunnis and Shia and “opened a Pandora’s Box of suppressed communal hostility that had been brewing for decades.” (Saiya 2018). In Iraq weapons of mass destruction were never found which damaged the United States’ reputation in the international community because of how easily Bush would employ force and take a severe risk based on limited information and intelligence. In addition, this neoconservative foreign policy change that the US embraced undermined counterterrorism strategies because it inadvertently fueled Islamist insurgencies and the risk of civil war. This is evident in both cases of Iraq and Afghanistan where conflict was never fully resolved, even 18 years after the declaration of the war on terror. (Saiya 2018). “Despite the deaths of over 6,500 US service members (and an estimated 300,000 civilians) in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as costs of more than $3.4 trillion, the Middle East is no more stable, democratic, or prosperous than it was two decades ago. In fact, it is hard to argue that well-intentioned US involvement in the Middle East has not worsened regional outcomes.” (Ashford 2020). The potential benefits did not outweigh the costs in the cases of regime change attempts in the middle east. The US’ invasions of sovereignty has not put the United States in the goodwill of other states either. “Military occupation by foreign troops of lands considered holy will likely have the opposite effect, giving extremists and their constituencies a common enemy in the United States.” (Saiya 2018). Too much hard power, as deployed through these military operations, has effects on neighboring states as well. “Pakistanis think that the US has brought instability to the region and lacks due respect for its territorial integrity. The lack of trust is compounded by the ‘accidental’ deaths of Pakistanis during military operations including civilians” (Eadie 2016). It is not possible to combat and curb the actions of Islamist terrorist groups when the counterterrorism strategies are exacerbating conflict and inviting more enemies to the United States. However, it shouldn’t be said that no military action is necessary. Covert military operations are still vital to counterterrorism and eliminating Islamist terrorist groups, but regime change has not been the answer and too much reliance on hard military power hasn’t been either.
Airstrikes and drones have been more recently used with the purpose of isolating terrorists from each other and other resources. Yet, these military approaches have not been successful in stopping Islamist terrorist groups from growing and taking action. General David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, said that the United States “cannot kill its way to victory”. This is exactly right. This asymmetric war on terror is unique and although drones have successfully killed several terrorists, the problem is much larger than that. While accomplishing this the US may have won a battle, but the US has lost valuable information to win the war. “Whenever the United States kills a suspected terrorist, it loses the chance to find out what he was planning, how, and with whom—or whether he was even a terrorist to begin with.” (Cronin 2013). The US’s drone attack policy is unsuccessful because it eliminates the ability to interrogate terrorists. Arrest and interrogation is key to undermining Islamic extremists and curtailing their actions because these groups act behind the scenes. This is asymmetric warfare where extremist groups are not faces of a state but foreign adversaries. Therefore, simply eliminating a target is not an effective strategy. Furthermore, “Drones do not capture hard drives, organizational charts, strategic plans, or secret correspondence, and their tactical effectiveness is entirely dependent on the caliber of human intelligence on the ground.” (Cronin 2013). The US’s counterterrorism military strategy has been insufficient because there has not been enough access to the information needed to stop and deter Islamist terrorists. A counterterrorism military operation in Yemen ordered by President Trump resulted in more than a dozen civilians and a Navy Seal to be killed. This also indicates how the United States is not getting to the root of the problem and more problems are arising.
The US aims to reduce the amount of individuals engaging with the Islamic State via social media which is often the primary means of recruitment and funding. “Social media platforms and encrypted messaging systems have given the jihadists unprecedented access and communication privacy, a boon to their quest for recruits and ability to plot and coordinate in secrecy.” (Nathanson 2017). ISIS, one of the most successful terrorist organizations, utilizes an online magazine known as the Dabiq to recruit individuals from all over the world to join their movement. They encourage these people to travel to the Caliphate but then return home to inflict violence locally. The US has not countered the social media aspect of Islamic terrorism because thousands of men have left their homes, including US citizens, to join these organizations after being compelled via social media. Kurt Eichenwald notes that “terrorists use social media as their primary means of global incitement, fund-raising and recruitment. Young potential murderers obtain almost all of their information about the world from these ideological bubbles, rarely seeing sources that contradict or undermine the exhortations to violence.” This exhibits how prominent social media is as a tool for Islamist terrorist groups. The Islamic state’s propaganda displays the west as the root of all evil and joining the IS will save an individual from this evil. To some, this righteous campaign could be compelling which is why these social media sites and conversations need to be handled. Furthermore, algorithms gather information about a user and suggest more outlets and information that will appeal to them based on their browsing and viewing history. So, an individual infatuated with an Islamic Extremist ideology can easily head down a narrow path leading them into the hands of a terrorist group’s propaganda. Social media has the ability to fuel Islamic extremist ideologies and facilitate recruitment. The US needs to adapt a comprehensive and coherent policy to negate the online discussion. This could look like top media sites such as facebook and twitter identifying islamic extremist groups and shutting them down. Or this could go hand in hand with de-radicalization. An informed-trained individual could enter conversations to refute the extremist ideas, counter the anger, and prevent the escalation of recruitment. Engaging in the online extremist community could have positive effects on curbing recruitment into Islamist terrorist groups. (Nathanson 2017).
In 2004 the 9/11 commission report was released. The report stated that Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden were responsible for the horrific attacks, however, it presents limited reasoning for why the attacks were perpetrated. The counterterrorism strategies pursued since the attacks worked to take out a distinguished enemy, when the enemy was an idea rather than a person. Stuart Hall, a leading theorist of ideology, defines ideologies as “the frameworks of thinking and calculation about the world – the “ideas” people use to figure out how the social world works, what their place is in it, and what they ought to do” (Stuart 1985). Stuart then examines how ideologies are put to use. He believes they are maintained by social organizations, family, education, and religious organizations. Three examples of organizations that promote a fundamentalist ideology include the Taliban, the IS, and Gush Emunium. Although their versions of this ideology differ in ways, fundamentalists “share a belief in a religious-political reality that they have conceived has existed in the past or will emerge in the future. Fundamentalism is to a large extent a reaction against modernity; it exists in opposition to the perceived evils of the model world.” (Faherty 2003).
The commonality of these Islamist extremist groups is why their needs to an emphasis on ideology for counterterrorism practices. Islamist terrorists use this ideology as a basis and justification for attacks and violence imposed on innocent civilians. This is a contemporary conflict, and current US foreign policy and counterterrorism methods do not include an informed religious analysis. This is ironic because of how large of a role religion plays in Islamic extremism. Since the conflict goes hand in hand with religion, then the solution may as well. Nilay Saiya, Professor of political science at the State University of New York, says that “Mainstream foreign‐policy approaches and the theoretical frameworks on which they are based remain secular in orientation and ill‐equipped for dealing with many of today’s religiously based security problems.” There has not been enough of a focus on combating the extremist faith ideologies and an overemphasis on freezing assets, intelligence gathering, and military operations. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated that “When I was Secretary of State, I had an entire bureau of economic experts I could turn to and a cadre of experts on non‐proliferation and arms control. With the notable exception of Ambassador [at Large for International Religious Freedom] Robert Seiple, I did not have similar expertise available for integrating religious principles into our efforts at diplomacy. Given the nature of today’s world, knowledge of this type is essential”.
US counterterrorism policies have not successfully curtailed Islamist terrorist groups’ actions because there hasn’t been a proper connection between religious ideology and terrorist organizations. Although there has been increased incorporation of religious training within the government, it still remains mostly absent with foreign policy. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan the United States could have achieved a better outcome if there was “increased religious literacy” among American diplomats because the lack of understanding of Islam complicated operations. (Saiya 2018) First, The US should devise an effective counterterrorism strategy that includes training on the mind of an Islamist terrorist with religious consciousness. In addition, establishing a trusting relationship with faith leaders in foreign states would serve the US well because of their impact on extremism taking place abroad. This combination of training and relationship building could allow for better communication and more informed counterterrorism policies.
The fact that the chance of being killed via a terrorist attack is so low, but the fear of it is so high is a very valid argument for demonstrating how the US has been successful in curtailing Islamist terrorists. The US has killed several terrorists, prevented attacks, and stopped attacks. John Mueller and Mark G Stewart take this stance and argue that the terrorism fear is delusional because the amount of terrorists is small and their ability to commit large scale attacks is low. They state that “the vast majority of even the craftiest terrorist conspirators fail to carry out their plot”. In counterargument to this, however, comes a statement from New America, which reads:
“Despite the U.S. being a hard target, there have been direct attacks that failed to successfully kill Americans. in addition to the deadly 2019 attack by Al-Shamrani. For example, the 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot by Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab—who was trained and directed by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—failed only because the explosive didn’t work. The Times Square bomb plot by Faisal Shahzad, who in 2010 managed to place a car bomb in Times Square undetected after training with the Pakistani Taliban, which again did not detonate properly, is another example. Despite these cases, the most likely threat continues to be lone individuals or pairs inspired by jihadist ideology without the type of extensive plotting, communication, or travel activity that would tip off the layered counterterrorism defense system.”
These facts demonstrate that luck, not policy prevented several terrorist attacks. Furthermore, the US has not been successful because thousands of men are still joining these Islamist terrorist organizations and plotting to inflict violence and harm. As shown above, actions are still being taken on American soil and abroad. When the US takes out an enemy, a new enemy takes their place. The US will not be able to claim success until Islamist terrorist groups are unable to act. This is why I argue that the US has not adequately curtailed Islamist terrorists. There hasn’t been enough focus on ideology, religion, or de-radicalization and there has been too much attention given to hard power militarily.
Suggestions and Recommendations
It would be in the best interest of the United States to implement de-radicalization programs. These are programs that target the root of terrorism: ideology. Professor and academic Jessica Stern suggests that “in the long term, the most important factor in limiting terrorism will be success at curtailing recruitment to and retention in extremist movements.” Foreign efforts should be considered because the US can recognize and learn from the successes and failures of these programs. Great Britain, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Egypt, Singapore, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Jordan and Indonesia have all conducted similar de-radicalization programs which have been proven to be effective, but of course not 100 percent successful. (Eichenwald 2015). The Saudi government has had plenty of success with a de-radicalization program. It embodies religious re-education, vocational training, art therapy, physical activity, psychological counseling, and extensive surveillance. Over 4,000 radicalized militants have gone through this program and successfully reintegrated into society. To complement this de-radicalization program the Saudi government has embraced prevention methods and a non-governmental organization called Tranquility. The purpose of this is to monitor online websites and the Islamic Terrorist groups’ recruitment methods to prevent further recruitment. This counterterrorism approach has also been successful as the Saudi government was able to arrest 5 individuals who were potentially at risk for joining an Islamist terrorist group. At the Netherlands Institute for multicultural developments, supervisors guide adolescents to resist radicalization and terrorist recruitment. These students are taught to turn concerns and feelings of exclusion into optimal social action. These cases can serve as a basis for potential programs that the United states could utilize. As Stern discusses in How to De-radicalize Islamist extremists a persistent problem in the United States is that there is not enough legal evidence to convict potential terrorists. Therefore, methods and programs for prevention could combat this complication. Individuals detained could be severely dangerous but may be released due to a lack of usable evidence, so if these actors were to go through a de-radicalization program, they may be released with a less extremist, terrorist oriented ideology.
There is no doubt that the war on terror is persistent and challenging. I have argued that the counterterrorism policies imposed by the US have not been successful in curbing Islamist terrorists’ groups actions. However, it is time to change the narrative. “This is by design: The architects of terrorism deliberately stoke fear, using it to attain psychological effects that far exceed their actual ability to kill or destroy.” (Metz 2019). If it bleeds it leads. Terrorists rely on instilling fear within individuals. The fear factor is contingent to a terrorist group’s success. This does not suggest that the threat of terror is invalid nor that the war on terror is over, but it implies that it is time to change the narrative as a new approach to counterterrorism. Metz believes that “That’s why the United States should conceptualize its conflict with the Islamic State not as a war where the outcome is decisive victory, but as persistent threat management.” (Metz 2019). Altering the perception of the “war on terror” as threat management instead of a nation at war is a plausible counterterrorism approach. This could result in Islamist terrorist groups to gain less attention which could equate to less recruitment. In addition, it puts counterterrorism into a more realistic perception. There is not just one or two Islamist terrorist groups that need to be defeated; its a tenacious ideology that can only be mutated with multiple policies working simultaneously.
The war on terror does not take place on traditional battlefields. This is a war unlike any other. The history of the United States’ counterterrorism policies displays that too much hard military power will not suffice. The long involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan displays that we cannot “fundamentally change the economy of extremism”. (Metz 2019). Regime change operations and over-reliance on drones and air strikes has not adequately curtailed the actions of Islamist terrorist groups because these extremist groups still exist and the threat is persistent as seen by their continuous recruitment and attacks carried out or attempted. Furthermore, when one group falls, another group will rise because Islamic terrorism is not state lead, its ideology lead. The United States would do well to implement programs geared towards de-radicalization and religious training amongst necessary military strikes. This could combat the terror imposed by several Islamist terrorist groups now and forever. This also sets a precedent for well informed counterterrorism methods. The conventional methods of military power do not successfully curb the rise of Islamist terrorist organizations or their meticulous plans to impose violence and harm to innocent civilians. The United States should continue to utilize modest military tactics to demonstrate strength over islamic extremists, while implementing democratization programs, religious education on terrorism, public diplomacy programs, and displaying terrorism in a new light: threat management.
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