Changes in the perception of the terrorist threat may bring the United States at a turning point. After two decades of an almost exclusive focus on the terrorist threat posed by the world jihadist organization and its supporters, the intelligence effort is now turning towards tackling domestic violent extremism. This may require rethinking the intelligence strategy.
Since September 11, the primary goal of domestic intelligence gathering has been to prevent terrorist attacks. This meant discovering and thwarting terrorist plots before they could be carried out. Fear of further September 11 attacks or even more alarming terrorist scenarios made prevention essential.
Rapid overseas action dispersed Al Qaeda’s leadership and intense international intelligence efforts reduced the possibility of new September 11. The United States has not suffered any other large-scale terrorist attacks from abroad. In contrast, self-produced jihadists, inspired by jihadist ideology, carried out low-level, albeit sometimes lethal, attacks. Most of these were isolated incidents. Moreover, most of the plots and almost all the attacks involved a single perpetrator who acted alone with limited capabilities and resources.
The campaign against self-produced jihadists is not a model for dealing with domestic violent extremists.
Authorities discovered and thwarted more than 80% of jihadist plots because local community councils, informant information or Internet data alerted the FBI or local police. Those who appeared to intend to commit violence were the subject of covert operations. In the twenty years after the September 11, U.S. jihadists killed a total of 105 people, including 49 in a single shooting at an Orlando nightclub. While each death is tragic, this was far less than many feared in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
Unlike jihadists, national political extremists have a potential constituency. Jihadist ideology never gained strength in American Muslim communities. The jihadists were isolated, acting independently. In contrast, the beliefs that motivate American national extremists, especially those on the far right, are rooted deep in Norh-American society. Informants may be more difficult to find and political divisions could limit intelligence operations.
The legal campaign against domestic extremism is not an attack on beliefs, nor a crusade to root out anti-government sentiments or end racism. These are issues of national interest. The goal of intelligence is to prevent group violence.
But it seems that most terrorist threats come from individuals or small conspiracies outside of larger movements. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was carried out by one man and an accomplice, neither of whom acted in a larger organization. Most current terrorists in the West are solitary actors motivated by extremist ideologies, seeking recognition by outdoing previous spectacular attacks.
Several programs have been implemented to identify and deter people who appear to be on the road to violence, but the success of retail intervention as a preventive strategy has not yet been demonstrated.
The current circumstances are different. Prevention of violent crime remains a goal, but expectations may need to be moderated. While intelligence could be a critical component of the U.S. counter-terrorism strategy, there are reasons why it may also be prudent to return to a more traditional approach focused on investigating violent crimes and reporting perpetrators to justice.