This coming September marks the 20th anniversary of the devastating 9/11 attacks carried out by Al-Qaeda on the US. Two decades later, counter-terrorism in the US remains in flux and faces threats that are ever more challenging and diffuse, ranging across the ideological spectrum, from Islamist to far-right and state-based threats.
Dr Matthew Levitt, a distinguished former counter-terrorism practitioner, Fromer-Wexler Fellow and director of the Jeanette and Eli Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Peace, offered his thoughts on the present US counter-terrorism efforts twenty years after 9/11, at a webinar titled “Two Decades from 9/11: Rethinking US Efforts on Counterterrorism” on 27 April 2021.
Dr Levitt argued that current US counter-terrorism efforts are geared towards reducing their military footprint in foreign countries and making counter-terrorism more sustainable. Given that the threat of terrorism to the US is not an existential one, the US government needs to redirect some part of the enormous volume of resources allocated to counter-terrorism efforts and focus on other major security issues such as great power competition, the environment, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
He further argued that there are two “big ideas” to consider. First is that great power competition and counter-terrorism are not mutually exclusive. Second, there is a need to focus on “strategic counter-terrorism”, which are efforts at stemming the threat of radicalisation upstream as opposed to “tactical counter-terrorism” involving the use of force at the other end of the scale. In terms of foreign deployments, he highlighted why it is important for the US to change its current model and engage in “partner-led, US-enabled” efforts, rather than always taking the lead in kinetic counter-terrorism efforts abroad.
With regards to Afghanistan, the biggest threat posed by the US withdrawal would be the loss of intelligence on the ground. The only way to mitigate this risk would be to ensure that the intelligence community has some capabilities left on the ground, and some of the US Department of Defence spending be diverted to civilian intelligence efforts.
The main aim of counter-terrorism efforts, according to Dr Levitt, is to ensure that terrorist threats remain a “law enforcement problem and not a national and international security concern”. To that end, the government has to target resource allocation, work with allies, and invest in the modernisation of intelligence capabilities, particularly the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Catch it here on the RSISVideoCast YouTube channel: