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Among the highest rated risks in this year’s Preventive Priorities Survey was a mass-casualty terrorist attack on the United States or a treaty ally directed or inspired by a foreign terrorist organization. This ranking underscores an important trend in the United States’ nearly twenty-year war on terrorism. That is, the number and diversity of terrorist threats facing the United States and its allies has not diminished—it may have actually increased—despite concerted national and international counterterrorism efforts. Notwithstanding the pressure since the latest iteration of the National Defense Strategy [PDF] in January 2018 to shift resources to great power competition, counterterrorism remains a top U.S. concern. Appropriate authorities will need to remain energetic, alert, and well-funded to ensure the safety of the homeland.
Despite the killing of the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s founder and leader last October, the United States still faces a determined and resilient adversary, eager to retaliate for the deaths of several high-level commanders and the dismantling of its caliphate. Violence could take the form of a command-driven attack, where the Islamic State’s leadership directly orders an attack against a specific target, or an inspired attack whereby there is no command-and-control relationship between the terrorist group and the perpetrator. In the latter case, the perpetrator is simply inspired to commit a violent act on his or her own. Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, is actively attempting to fill the vacuum in Syria created by the Islamic State’s defeat, as it also patiently awaits the outcome of U.S. peace talks with the Taliban and America’s eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Elsewhere, as the current National Strategy for Counterterrorism [PDF] makes clear, Iran remains “the most prominent state sponsor of terrorism, through its global network of operatives and its ongoing support to an array of terrorist groups.” Throughout 2019, Iran displayed its capability to utilize its terrorist and militia proxies alongside its own Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Quds Force to destabilize Iraq and Lebanon as well as strike at Saudi oil facilities—using innovative weapons such as drones. With the killing of Qasem Solemaini, leader of the Quds Force, the threat from Iran’s terrorist activities has now perhaps increased.
Finally, the United States and many of its allies face threats from increasingly international and violent far-right extremists—as has been showcased by violence in the United States (California, Texas), Germany, New Zealand, and Norway. Shadowy groups such as the Ukrainian Azov Battalion have also trained American and European foreign fighters, many of whom have since returned to their respective homelands.
This array of both continuing and new threats underscores how both domestic and international terrorism has become a permanent feature of twenty-first century security concerns, enduring despite increasing pressure to focus on great power competition. In these circumstances, continued vigilance by national intelligence assets and federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies is essential to identify, interdict, and prevent a mass casualty terrorist attack. And, notwithstanding a widespread—and bipartisan—desire to end “forever wars,” the continued draw-downs of even modest levels of counterterrorism forces deployed across the globe could allow for a resurgence of terrorist organizations. Forward-deployed elite military units in countries with existing (and, in some instances, growing) terrorist activity and attendant intelligence collection are vital first lines of defense in preventing potential attacks directed from existing sanctuaries and safe havens. Homeland defenses and legal authorities that facilitate the prevention of such attacks—while not undermining fundamental civil liberties and rights—should also be preserved, particularly considering the enduring threat from inspired homegrown lone actors. Given the intrinsically dynamic and evolutionary threat, they will also require recalibration and reassessment to ensure that U.S. defenses are effective in meeting these diverse challenges.
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 2019, 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 nearly 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.
The results reflect 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 the Global Conflict Tracker.
View the full results of the Preventive Priorities Survey to see which other contingencies were deemed top tier priorities for 2020.