Assessing the Terrorist Threat in the United States

July 27, 2016
Assessing the Terrorist Threat in the United States
Risa Brooks
Risa Brooks Non-Resident Fellow in Security Studies

In the last two years, the United States has experienced several deadly shootings by those who have professed allegiance to the militant groups Al Qaeda and Daesh/Islamic State. These include the December 2015 shooting of county workers by a married couple in San Bernardino, a shooting in July 2015 in Chattanooga that killed five U.S. Navy personnel and most recently, the June 2016 mass shooting and murder of 49 patrons at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. In the aftermath of these events, one might draw the conclusion that the threat of so-called “homegrown” terrorist attacks—those perpetrated by American citizens inspired by overseas groups, but acting autonomously—is on the rise in the United States. Daesh and Al Qaeda certainly have been intensifying their efforts to promote these independent terror attacks by their sympathizers.

Yet, while these attacks have been truly horrifying, it is unclear that they indicate an upward trend in the terrorism threat facing the country. The challenge to Americans posed by homegrown terrorists has been limited and appears likely to remain so.

At first glance, data on how many individuals have been accused of terrorism crimes in 2015 might seem to suggest otherwise. Charles Kurzman, whose annual reports track the number of Muslim-Americans associated with violent extremist plots, found that there were 81 people charged with such offences in 2015. This figure represents an increase from 25 individuals accused in 2014  and exceeds the average of 26 in the years since the September 11 attacks. It is also higher than the previous record year of 2009, in which 43 individuals were associated with terrorism activity.

Worth noting is that Kurzman’s data includes all those accused of any terrorism related offence. This is a common way of counting terrorism cases in the United States, but the approach can lead to a misleading understanding of the nature of the threat. It treats as equivalent cases involving individuals who are accused of a variety of different activities. It groups those that leave the country to join Al Shabab or ISIS and those who give money or material support to overseas militant groups, alongside individuals who may aspire to an act of violence in the United States. Yet, the motivations for these acts are quite different. It does not automatically follow that someone willing to give money or seeking to fight in Somalia or Syria will also seek to plot an attack within the territorial United States.

Focusing just on the threat within the country’s territorial borders, according to Kurzman, in 2015 there were 28 people accused of plotting an attack in the United States. Some of these, however, do not appear to fit a basic threshold of being developed plots, which Petter Nesser argues require that the perpetrator has identified a target and taken steps to acquire weapons. The plots also vary in complexity and potential lethality, and in whether they aim at civilians or military/police targets. The list includes, for example, a case of an individual accused of brandishing a knife at a police officer, as well as several involving an unspecified plot to attack a military base that is exposed before the individual has taken steps to carry out the plan.

In addition, some of the increase in the number arrested for plotting attacks in the United States may be the result of the methods employed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the federal law enforcement entity in charge of domestic counterterrorism in the United States. To start, there has been increased effort and changes in FBI practices to locate instances of potential terrorist undertakings. For example, in December 2008, the Justice Department offered new guidance to its federal agents, allowing them to undertake “assessments” without first establishing a factual basis first as to why someone should be evaluated on suspicion of terrorist activity.

If the FBI has been intensifying its efforts to find those predisposed toward ISIS sympathies, we might then expect to see more cases being exposed.  Studies in epidemiology show that when resources are increased for detection of a disease, the rate of its occurrence in a given population also often increases. This is not due to changes in the underlying rate of infection, but in identification and reporting of suspected cases. The same might hold true for terrorist activity. In fact, we know that the FBI has engaged in thousands of assessments each year since 2009, a significant number of which appear to turn into investigations. According to FBI Director James Comey in fall of 2015 the government was, for example, tracking more than 900 individuals on suspicion they may engage in terrorist activity, with 80 percent suspected of being ISIS related.

The use of “sting operations” may in turn explain why and how these investigations result in an increase in the reported number of homegrown plots. These sting operations involve using informants recruited by the FBI or agents to go undercover and engage those suspected of potential extremism, befriending them and in many cases supplying resources for an attack. These tactics have become increasingly central in the FBIs counterterrorism toolkit. A detailed analysis by the New York Times reveals that in the last two years the FBI has dramatically increased the use of these tactics in ISIS suspected cases (they are not common practice in Europe). Two of every three terrorism related prosecutions now involve sting operations.

These tactics are controversial, in part, because they raise serious questions about whether the individuals involved would actually have advanced their plots, whatever their stated intentions, without law enforcement’s intervention. The agents employ safeguards to ensure they are not legally “entrapping” the individuals. But that does not mean they do not play a pivotal role in inducing aspiring militants to take action. Research has shown how important interpersonal relationships are in motivating individuals to employ violence. The undercover agents and informants are supplying that in the guise of acting as co-conspirators. They are also providing weapons and logistical support that many of these people might lack the capacity to acquire on their own. Investigations that might have otherwise have resulted in no or lesser charges against individuals, consequently, are advanced into full-blown plots. The number of terrorism related arrests linked to plots in the United States increases.

Indeed, the affidavits and court filings related to those arrested on terrorism offences in the United States raise questions about whether many individuals charged had the wherewithal or ambition to carry out attacks without the inducements and companionship provided by law enforcement. This has been true of many terrorist “wannabees” in the United States since the September 11 attacks.

Finally, even if homegrown terrorist activity tied to militant jihadism has been on the rise, it is unclear that the trend will persist. The attraction to joining ISIS may be waning with a steep decline in the number of Americans seeking to travel to the region and a decline in adherents as evident in social media tracking, according to Director Comey, and reported by Kurzman. Moreover, according to the New America Foundation’s data, in the entire first half of 2016 there have been just three—as compared with 28 total in 2015—incidents involving jihadists plotting attacks inside the United States.  The year 2015 therefore may prove to be an outlier in terms of the numbers of Americans engaging in jihadist inspired terrorist activity (as was 2009).

If the San Bernardino or Orlando attacks are not actually indications of a growing terrorism threat, however, what are we to make of such horrifying and deadly events? One way is to see them is in context of the growth of mass shootings in the United States. A study by the FBI of “active shooter” situations found that in the early 2000s the country averaged about 4-6 per year, while in more recent years, the average has been closer to 15-20 events annually. Another analysis finds that from 1982 through February 2016 there had been 80 shooting sprees involving three or more fatalities.  Many of the most deadly shootings also have been perpetrated in recent years.

Studies show that terrorists are also increasingly looking to firearms as their weapons of choice, especially in the United States. As such, the horrifying and deadly attack by the Orlando shooter, and those by his counterparts in San Bernardino and Chattanooga, may be just another terrible outgrowth of the escalation of gun violence in the United States.