The Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has published a report stating that terrorist attacks might hit the United States sometime soon.
The report by the Washington-based think-tank said that terrorists remain both intent on and capable of attacking the homeland, as exemplified by the over 3,000 FBI terrorism cases currently open nationwide. The arrest on July 2nd this year of an individual planning to attack a fireworks show in Cleveland, Ohio, demonstrates this threat.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has opened terrorism cases in all 50 American states, according to the report. FBI director Christopher Wray described the cases by saying, “This is in big cities and small towns. It’s a real problem.”
The US judicial system’s conviction and sentencing records reflect the fact that terrorism is widespread. The report cited an incident that took place in June where judges sentenced Islamic State (IS) associates in Alabama, Ohio, New York, and Virginia while two more pleaded guilty in Florida and New York. Courts also convicted two individuals in Colorado for supporting the “Islamic Jihad Union” terror organisation.
“The evolution of terrorist plots—from organised, centrally controlled, sophisticated operations against hard targets to inspired individuals acting independently using simple tactics against soft targets—increases the likelihood that a terrorist may go undetected,” said Sarah Bast, Visiting Fellow at the CSIS International Security Program.
Bast explained that the shifting of government resources away from terrorism to near-peer competitors may further limit insight into plotting.
At the turn of the century, terrorist plots typically emanated from a group and were conducted in a conspiratorial manner, meaning that terrorists were in contact with other terrorists. The connectivity of the terrorists to a group and to each other created an opportunity to gain insight into the plotting.
“Terrorist groups now largely aim to inspire homegrown violent extremists to conduct attacks independently instead, limiting opportunities to identify and stop them,” said Bast.
The report raised concerns about the fact that terrorists are changing tactics from larger and more complex attacks to simple methods—such as using guns, knives, vehicles, and other common items, which also makes plot detection more challenging.
The House Homeland Security Committee reports that IS-linked plots against the West since 2013 include 58 cases using edged weapons and 21 using a vehicle as a weapon.
“Detection opportunities may also decrease as assets are refocused on other problem sets,” said Bast. “Since 9/11, terrorism was the primary national security focus, resulting in increased intelligence collection,” she added.
Bast warned that while some government agencies—like the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Centre (NCTC)—will continue to primarily focus on terrorism, other government assets will shift focus to near-peer competitors.
“If we want to prevent terrorism, we will need to shift some resources and provide more support to try different approaches—such as non-kinetic options—to get ahead of the problem,” she said. “Even if terrorists manage to conduct another attack on the homeland, we need to maintain perspective; terrorism is not an existential crisis,” she added.