Of the thirty contingencies included in this year’s Preventive Priorities Survey, a mass casualty terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland—or a treaty ally—by a domestic or foreign terrorist was assessed as a top tier priority for the United States in 2019. The contingency was deemed moderately likely to occur and, if it does, of having a high impact on U.S. interests.
It has been more than seventeen years since 9/11 and a mass casualty terrorist attack on the United States has not occurred again. Although the U.S. National Intelligence Council’s 2017 Global Trends report suggests that terrorism will continue to increase in the near term, data from a joint project by the U.S. Department of State and the University of Maryland’s START program, as well as from Jane’s IHS Markit, indicate that the total number of terrorist attacks worldwide has decreased over the last few years. Of those attacks, over half occurred in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and the Philippines. Why, then, do polls and surveys suggest that most Americans and Europeans still rate the prevention of terrorist attacks as a top priority for policymakers?
While terrorist attacks worldwide have decreased, attacks and terror-related violence by homegrown actors who may have been inspired by left- or right-wing extremist ideology have increased in both the United States and Europe, which may be influencing public perceptions of the threat. These attacks have spanned from marathons in Massachusetts and protests in Virginia to concerts in Britain and Christmas markets in France.
Already in 2019, analysts have expressed concerns that the self-proclaimed Islamic State can still inspire or radicalize followers, despite losing a majority of territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria. Moreover, attacks conducted or inspired by far-right groups are expected to increase and some have suggested that groups in the former Soviet republics may become active internationally.
Despite the high ranking of a terrorist attack this year, the United States and its allies have dramatically improved efforts to prevent mass casualty attacks since 9/11. For 2019 and beyond, then, the real test will be whether the United States and its allies can avert strategic surprises, such as the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, the Arab uprisings of 2010 to 2011, the sudden emergence of the Islamic State in 2014, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea that same year.
The Preventive Priorities Survey was conducted in November 2018 and reflects the expert opinion of respondents at that time. As such, it should be viewed as a snapshot assessment. Recognizing this, CPA tracks ongoing conflicts with our Global Conflict Tracker and suggests policy options for responding to crises with our Contingency Planning Memoranda.
View the full Preventive Priorities Survey to see which other contingencies were deemed top tier priorities for 2019.
About the Preventive Priorities Survey
Since 2008, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action (CPA) has conducted an annual survey of foreign policy experts for their collective assessments on contingencies that represent the greatest risk to U.S. interests. This year, CPA began soliciting contingencies in October 2018, narrowing down a list of possible conflicts from nearly one thousand suggestions to thirty contingencies deemed likely and potentially harmful to U.S. interests. In early November, CPA sent the survey to over six thousand experts and received about five hundred responses. The survey results were scored according to their rankings and the contingencies were sorted into one of three preventive priority tiers (I, II, III) according to their placement on CPA’s risk assessment matrix.