Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 23 terrorist plots against the United States have been foiled. This report updates a November 2007 report from the Heritage Foundation that described 19 plots that had been foiled to date since 9/11. Less than two years later, the U.S. has foiled four more plots aimed at Americans. While some trials have ended in mistrial and charges against some suspects were dropped, significantly more individuals have been convicted and sentenced for their crimes.
These victories make the case for continued U.S. vigilance against terrorism around the globe. While these particular attacks have been disrupted, the threat remains. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Congress should not construe the successes over the past eight years as a signal to reduce U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
America is truly in a long war against terrorism. To win this war, the U.S. must constantly adapt to ever-changing terrorist threats. Congress and the DHS will need to work together to provide continued support for terrorism-fighting tools, to increase information sharing and collective security efforts around the globe, and to expand vital law enforcement partnerships with local and state law enforcement and cooperation with the governments of other countries. These relationships have enabled the U.S. to disrupt the flow of money and resources to terrorist groups.
Going Forward.As a result of America's counterterrorism efforts, the U.S. has become a more difficult target for terrorists. Those who claim that the U.S. has not made progress since 2001 need only look at these 23 foiled plots for evidence to the contrary. Nevertheless, these successes demonstrate that individuals and terrorist groups are still seeking to do Americans harm and that the U.S. needs to continue fighting terrorism. Continuing the fight will require an ongoing commitment from the White House, Congress, and American citizens.
The Executive Branch. President Barack Obama pledged that his Administration would continue to build U.S. capacity and international partnerships to track down, capture, and kill terrorists around the world. The Administration also needs to continue to make combating terrorism an international effort. The U.S. cannot afford to leave our allies behind because America will not be safe without their cooperation. Specifically, the Administration and the DHS should:
- Expand the Visa Waiver Program. The White House should continue to bring new countries into the VWP that meet the requirements and desire to work with the U.S. on security matters.
- Continue to develop relationships among foreign, federal, state, and local law enforcement. While information fusion centers have helped increase the flow of information among the federal government and state and local law enforcement, more needs to be done to continue and expand the free flow of information at all levels. Cooperation with foreign law enforcement agencies is also essential.
Congress. Congress plays a substantial role in developing and sustaining America's counterterrorism abilities. Congress should:
- Promptly reauthorize key sections of the PATRIOT Act and FISA. Allowing either law to lapse would impede efforts to track terrorists and to prevent terrorist attacks, such as those that have been disrupted over the past eight years.
- Repeal the 100 percent scanning mandates. Pushing forward with 100 percent screening of maritime or air cargo would waste precious resources for very little gain. A better approach would be to repeal these mandates and look for a risk-based approach to security that does not undermine U.S. diplomatic relationships or unhinge the supply chain. Such measures could include expanding the Customs Trade Partnership against Terrorism (C-TPAT), a voluntary network of shippers that submit security information in exchange for expedited shipping, and the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a voluntary multilateral effort of 90 nations to interdict shipments of weapons of mass destruction and related materials.
The American People. Americans need to remain energized and engaged in efforts to improve the safety of their families and communities. Americans need to be resilient, recognizing the need to protect Americans against attack, and simultaneously prepared to carry on if an attack occurs.
The private sector is often the source of innovations in homeland security technologies, which helped law enforcement to foil the 23 attacks. To better facilitate this research and development, the private sector should:
- Take advantage of the SAFETY Act. The Support Anti-terrorism by Fostering Effective Technologies (SAFETY) Act of 2002 offers liability protection to companies if their technology is deployed in the event of an act of terrorism. The DHS should continue to look for better ways to inform companies about these protections and encourage them to take full advantage. Bringing the private sector under this protection will facilitate the development and deployment of new and better technologies that will keep Americans safer.
Staying Diligent.The 23 plots foiled are a credit to the hard-working and dedicated federal, state, and local law enforcement professionals in the United States and law enforcement agencies in other countries. As Americans go about their lives, they still need to remain diligent in fighting terrorism to protect their freedom, safety, security, and prosperity.
These reforms, together with diligence, an awareness of the threat, and application of the multiple lessons learned since 9/11 will make America safer.
Jena Baker McNeill is Policy Analyst for Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation. James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Assistant Director of the Davis Institute and Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Allison Center at The Heritage Foundation. Pamela Siegel, an independent researcher, contributed to the writing of this paper.