Terrorism and Counterterrorism Challenges for the Biden Administration

By Bruce Hoffman, and Jacob Ware

Originally Published by Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point – January 2021

Abstract: As the Biden administration starts work in January, it will face a new raft of national security challenges. Counterterrorism, as with the previous three administrations, will once again be a central concern. The administration will be forced to grapple with old threats, including from the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida, as well as a rapidly changing—and deteriorating—domestic terrorism landscape. Despite 20 years of the so-called war on terror, the battle for the safety of the American homeland remains fraught with challenges and risks. Managing this war will require enduring vigilance and energy, as well as a new set of counterterrorism policies, to more effectively address the totality of the new terrorism threat.

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” goes the famous 19th-century epigram by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The same might be said about both the new and ongoing terrorist threats President-elect Joe Biden and his incoming administration faces as it attempts to fashion an effective counterterrorism strategy.

Four years ago, an analysis assessing these same dangers for newly elected President Donald J. Trump identified three main challenges:

  • The fact that the Islamic State had fundamentally changed the global terrorist landscape during its brief incarnation as a self-proclaimed “State” and that, regardless of its then-imminent defeat, the threat it posed would not disappear;
  • That al-Qa`ida, despite its prolonged quiescence, had taken advantage of the global coalition’s preoccupation with the Islamic State and was therefore quietly rebuilding and marshaling its resources to carry on the struggle against the United States; and,
  • That America’s adversaries had deliberately enmeshed us in a debilitating war of attrition that we lacked an effective strategy to counter, much less defeat.1

That this assessment should have proven prescient and retained its relevance is testament to the highly parlous situation in which the United States again today finds itself—with the same international terrorism threats continuing unabated, but now joined by a salient and profoundly unsettling domestic dimension.

This article assesses the threat to homeland security posed by non-state actors; accordingly, it deals less with state-sponsored threats, as well as proxy warfare around the world. First, the article will briefly summarize the counterterrorism strategies pursued by the Trump administration. It then assesses the enduring threats posed by the United States’s most persistent terrorist enemies of the past two decades, the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida. Finally, the article provides an in-depth analysis of the current domestic terrorism threat, assessing dangers posed by both far-right and far-left extremists, before concluding with policy recommendations for the incoming administration. An important caveat: this is not intended to be a comprehensive overview of the entire landscape of terrorist threats confronting the United States and the new Biden administration. Rather, it reflects the authors’—albeit, perhaps, idiosyncratic—view of the most salient and compelling threats the United States faces as a new presidential administration takes off—and the war on terrorism continues unabated.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

To its credit, the Trump administration put forth a highly creditable U.S. National Strategy for Counterterrorism in October 2018. This was the fourth iteration of this planning guidance since the war on terrorism commenced nearly two decades ago. Significantly, it was the first not concerned exclusively with al-Qa`ida. In contrast to the 2003, 2006, and 2011 versions, the latest iteration identified the Islamic State as well as Iran and Iranian-backed Shi`a militias, domestic violent far-right and far-left extremists, and militant single-issue organizations as all presenting significant security concerns.2

The most tangible manifestation of the Trump administration’s implementation of this strategy was the old made new again: the continuance of the high-value targeting of top terrorist leaders that had dominated both the Bush and Obama administrations’ respective approaches to counterterrorism. Accordingly, the elimination of a succession of senior Islamic State and al-Qa`ida leaders followed. Foremost among these was the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s emir, in October 2019.

Even further inroads were made to al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership. In September 2019, President Trump confirmed that Usama bin Ladin’s youngest son and presumptive heir apparent, Hamza, had perished as a result of a U.S. “counterterrorism operation in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region” at least two months before.3 Five months later, the president reported the elimination of Qassim al-Rimi, the leader of al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP),4 and in June 2020, U.S. Africa Command provided intelligence and other support that enabled French military forces in Mali to kill the leader of al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel.5 Later that same month, a U.S. missile strike claimed the life of Khaled al-Aruri, the de facto commander of Hurras al-Din, al-Qa`ida’s closest ally in Syria.6 And, in August 2020, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah (aka Abu Muhammad al-Masri), believed to be al-Qa`ida’s second-highest leader, was assassinated in Tehran, reportedly by Israeli operatives, perhaps with U.S. assistance.7 a The United States also cited its counterterrorism strategy to justify the killing of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. “Under my leadership,” President Trump declared afterward, “America’s policy is unambiguous: To terrorists who harm or intend to harm any American, we will find you; we will eliminate you.”8

But as tactically successful as the elimination of these terrorist commanders and their many predecessors were, they have proven insufficient to stem the continued growth and geographical expansion of salafi-jihadi and Shi`a radicalization worldwide. There are four times as many salafi-jihadi groups designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department today than there were in 2001.9 And much of Iran’s regional foreign policy, including its manipulations of the war in Syria, has relied on mobilizing Shi`a proxy forces from Yemen to Pakistan, compiling upward of 150,000 fighters.10 Any optimism that we are approaching the end of the war on terror is, therefore, likely misplaced.

A very different conclusion and message, however, has been repeatedly expressed by the Trump administration. On successive occasions the president, vice president, and secretary of state among others have declared the defeat of both the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida.11 Such declarations fit well with Trump’s 2016 campaign pledge to end the “stupid endless wars”12 whereby even the modest numbers of U.S. military and intelligence personnel deployed overseas to support either host-nation or local indigenous counterterrorism operations principally in Syria, Afghanistan, and Africa are further reduced if not eliminated completely.

Yet, as the opening paragraph of the most recent report from the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team tracking the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida operations states: the former “remains resilient” and has actually increased attacks in Iraq and Syria, while the latter has “ingrained itself in local communities and conflicts.” The United Nations’ overall assessment of the vitality of the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida is thus at odds with the Trump administration’s claims. “Both organizations and their global affiliates and supporters,” the report argues, “continue to generate violence around the world, whether through insurgency tactics, the direction and facilitation of terrorism or providing the inspiration for attacks.”13

The Islamic State

Indeed, the Trump administration’s own national counterterrorism strategy statement is more closely aligned with the U.N. analysis than with the administration’s assertions. The most recent statement of U.S. counterterrorism strategy, for instance, was explicit in its caution that despite the Islamic State’s catastrophic military setbacks in Syria and Iraq, “The group’s global reach remains robust, with eight official branches and more than two dozen networks regularly conducting terrorist and insurgent operations across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.”14 Since that time, the Islamic State’s operations have expanded to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Chad, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Mozambique.15 Hopes that al-Baghdadi’s killing would have undermined the group’s resiliency were dashed when in quick succession Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi (real name Amir Muhammad Sa’id ‘Abd-al-Rahman al-Mawla16) was named emir and issued a renewed, blistering call to battle.17 Without exception, every one of the Islamic State’s more than two dozen branches and networks fell into line pledging bay`a—the oath of allegiance and fealty—to al-Qurashi.18

Moreover, the Islamic State is still able to call upon an estimated 20,000 fighters worldwide. The vast majority—10,000—remain entrenched in Syria and Iraq; with 3,500 more in Nigeria; another 3,000-3,500 in Mozambique; 2,200 in Afghanistan; and 400 in Libya.19 With this many men-at-arms, the Islamic State was able to surge attacks in Syria over this past spring’s Ramadan and escalate its operations in Iraq. In the latter, for instance, attacks almost doubled between the first quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of 2020.20 But perhaps the Islamic State’s greatest achievement has been its spread to Mozambique.21 Over the past three years, the group has successfully allied with local Ansar al-Sunna to kill over 2,000 persons.22 In one single incident in November 2020, more than 50 people were beheaded in an attack on villages in Mozambique’s northernmost province, Cabo Delgado.23 As one observer notes, “they are not bandits anymore. They are well-trained fighters.”24 The Islamic State’s expansion into southern Africa demonstrates that it can still transform a toehold to a foothold even in regions where it hitherto has not been active.

The 2019 Easter Sunday suicide bombings underscore the Islamic State’s undiminished allure to extremists even in places where the group previously had little to no presence.25 Sri Lankan authorities, for example, attribute the six simultaneous attacks on churches and luxury hotels that claimed the lives of 259 persons and wounded twice that number to two local groups—the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ, or National Monotheism Organization) and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim (JMI, Organization of the Faith of Ibrahim). Neither had any known, prior connection to the Islamic State nor had they evidenced a capacity for the magnitude of violence they unleashed. The NTJ had previously been linked to the vandalization of Buddhist statues following anti-Muslim disturbances in 2018; with the JMI having emerged from complete obscurity.26

According to a 2019 United Nations report, the attacks were apparently carried out without the knowledge or approval of the Islamic State’s senior leadership.27 This only deepens the mysteries of the operation’s genesis; the surprising rapidity with which both groups acquired the expertise to construct the devastatingly effective improvised explosive devices (IEDs); and the operational and logistical mastery required to execute coordinated attacks.28 Typically, suicide bombings evidence an extensive logistical “tail,” including recruiters and radicalizers who ensure the commitment of the bomber-martyrs; skilled bomb makers; and intelligence assets to conduct surveillance of possible targets. The undertaking is no small task, and is typically achieved by existing organizations or networks deploying accomplished operators.29

Planning for so complex a terrorist operation took time. The fact that two entirely local collections of militants, with a hitherto limited capacity for violence, saw advantage in allying themselves with the Islamic State—despite the group’s declining fortunes—establishes a worrisome precedent that is unlikely to prove unique. A key dimension of the attacks may have been the terrorist cell’s ability to harness the experiences of at least one member who reportedly had left Sri Lanka in 2014 to join the Islamic State.30 Jameel Mohammed Abdul Latheef, according to some reporting, traveled to Raqqa, Syria, in 2014, where he is believed to have come into contact with the infamous British Islamic State commander Mohammed Emwazi, also known as “Jihadi John”—the person responsible for the mistreatment and ultimate beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff that same year.31 That said, it should be noted that there are conflicting accounts about whether Latheef actually made it to Syria to train with the Islamic State or whether he only got as far as Turkey.32 Although the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team believes that at least some of the bombers were trained by the Islamic State in Syria,33 the U.S. intelligence community has found no corroborating evidence that would prove such a connection.34

Regardless of Latheef’s disputed odyssey, the survival and escape from Syria of many Islamic State fighters is well-established. Only about 10,000 of the 40,000 foreign fighters who came to fight with the Islamic State in the Levant and Iraq in fact were killed. Perhaps as many as 15,000 were reportedly able to flee the caliphate before its collapse. Of those, about 5,000 returned home and, of those, only about a third have been imprisoned or are under active monitoring by law enforcement or intelligence agencies. All the rest, according to National Defense University terrorism analyst Dr. R. Kim Cragin, “remain a potential threat for either participating in an ISIL-directed attack locally, an al-Qaeda attack, or creating local terrorist cells of their own.”35

The 2018 trial in Denmark of a former foreign fighter who is alleged to have ties to the Islamic State cell responsible for the previous year’s suicide bombing of a Manchester, England, concert venue underscores the challenges that security and intelligence services and law enforcement agencies face in tracking these individuals. This person was born in Somalia, lived in Britain, held a Finnish passport, went off to fight with the Islamic State in Syria, but then was arrested in Denmark during a police roundup of illegal immigrants, in which he was inadvertently swept up.36

The odyssey that eventually led this former foreign fighter to Denmark suggests that the European network of the Islamic State’s external operations arm is still active. It was organized at least two years before the November 2015 Paris attacks, having been created by the Amniyat Khalifa—also known by its Turkish acronym, Emni, and its Arabic one, Amni—the secretive Islamic State unit serves as both its internal security force and the unit responsible for external operations. In the latter context, it appears to have continued to function despite the Islamic State’s declining military and territorial fortunes.37

In sum, despite battlefield defeats and the death of its leader, the Islamic State remains emboldened, and we should be wary of complacency and overconfidence that we understand the group better than we did when it first emerged.38 The 2015 Paris attacks and 2019 Sri Lanka bombings should be taken as particular warning signs: both occurred with no advance warning, and in defiance of conventional wisdom that the Islamic State was either incapable of such operations or defeated.39 In 2015, the Islamic State also for the first time in over a decade was able to circumvent the security measures that had thwarted previous terrorist attempts to successfully target commercial aviation. Over 200 persons perished when a bomb exploded shortly after take-off aboard a Russian charter jet. That this incident was undertaken by the group’s comparatively less-technologically sophisticated Sinai Wilayat (province), and not by core Islamic State, points to the longstanding capacity of the movement’s branches to independently execute highly consequential terrorist attacks regardless of senior leadership guidance or direct orders.40 And in April 2020, authorities disrupted an Islamic State-coordinated plot to attack U.S. military installations in Germany, in a plot that EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove called evidence “that the threat does not come only from individuals who are inspired by terrorist propaganda online and act independently.”41 These incidents suggest caution in precipitously declaring the Islamic State “100% defeated”—as President Trump himself admitted in October 2019.42

Finally, according to the Department of the Treasury, the Islamic State has at least $300 million in cash reserves (the United Nations, however, puts the figure at a third of this amount) to fund its continued terrorist operations. The Islamic State is able to continuously replenish its coffers through extortion of the local population; human trafficking; income from the businesses that it has seized and still controls; investments in legitimate commercial enterprises such as hotels and real estate; cryptocurrency trading; scams in personal protective equipment; exploitation of the illicit tobacco markets in Pakistan and Afghanistan; and continued donations.43

As General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the commander of U.S. Central Command, lamented in August 2020, “The conditions are as bad or worse than in those [conditions] that spawned the original rise of ISIS … I think that is very concerning, we should all be very concerned about that.”44 Few long-term efforts to either promote more sustainable anti-radicalization measures in Syria and Iraq or cripple the group’s ability to inspire attacks in the West have been undertaken, at least with any evident success. In his final Instagram post, the November 2020 Vienna attacker Fejzulai Kujtim posted a photograph of bullets spelling out “Baqiya”—which is the Arabic word for “remaining” and is used by the Islamic State as a rallying cry.45 Kujtim was the latest in a lineage of Islamic State-inspired attackers to rain terror on Western cities, and there is no reason to expect he will be the last. As General James N. Mattis, then commander of U.S. Central Command, observed in 2013: “No war is over until the enemy says it’s over. We may think it [is] over, we may declare it over, but in fact, the enemy gets a vote.”46 Our enemies have chosen to continue this war.

Al-Qa`ida

On March 6, 2020, the day after senior ministerial representatives from over 50 countries had gathered in Marrakech, Morocco, for a two-day conference as part of the Warsaw Process Counterterrorism and Illicit Finance working group to discuss “the ever-changing threat posed by al-Qa`ida and its affiliates,”47 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the group is a “shadow of its former self.”48 The reality is that al-Qa`ida today is numerically larger and present in more countries than at any other time in its history.

From northwest Africa to southeast Asia, al-Qa`ida has maintained a global movement of some two dozen local networks. Among the movement’s estimated 20,000 or so men-at-arms are some 3,500-5,000 hardcore loyalists in Syria belonging to al-Qa`ida’s main stalking horse in that country, Hurras al-Din.49 Longstanding al-Qa`ida loyalists like al-Shabaab in Somalia and al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen each command approximately 7,000 men, with several hundred associated with al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). There are estimated to be at least 400-600 al-Qa`ida fighters in Afghanistan.50

Although the Islamic State has galvanized much of the world’s attention over the past half decade, al-Qa`ida’s comparative quiescence does not mean that it has been inactive. Instead, it embarked on an ambitious strategy to protect its remaining senior leadership and unostentatiously consolidate its influence in new and existing theaters. Al-Qa`ida’s highest priority was to effect the safe transfer from South Asia of the movement’s most important surviving senior leaders and commanders.51 Since 2012, al-Qa`ida has worked to ensure that the movement remains impervious to a single, knockout blow of its entire senior leadership. Accordingly, these key personnel have dispersed to Syria, Iran, Turkey, Libya, and Yemen with only a hardcore remnant left in Afghanistan and Pakistan.52 Advances in digital communication have according to al-Qa`ida Central opened up the possibility of almost daily contact between al-Qa`ida Central’s communications department and senior figures in al-Qa`ida’s far-flung franchises.53 Indeed, al-Qa`ida still presumably seeks to position itself to exploit the Islamic State’s weakened military position and leadership losses and to reclaim its place at the vanguard of the violent salafi-jihadi struggle.

Both groups remain committed to a set of principles first articulated by Palestinian scholar Abdullah Azzam over 30 years ago: that Muslims everywhere have an obligation to come to the defense of their religious brothers and sisters, wherever and whenever they are threatened. To Azzam’s mind—as to Usama bin Ladin’s, current al-Qa`ida leader al-Zawahiri’s, and al-Qurashi’s—an aggressive war is being waged against Islam by its infidel enemies—most notably Western democratic liberalism, but also repressive Western-backed local regimes in states like Jordan; Shi`as; and other Muslim minorities. In this “inevitable” clash of civilizations, only a global jihad can defeat the enemy.54

This core ideology undermines the Taliban’s commitments regarding al-Qa`ida at the heart of the United States’ credulous negotiations with its long-time adversary. These talks have continued despite escalating terrorist attacks in Afghanistan55 and, at one point in 2019, incredibly involved an invitation to the leaders of a movement that was complicit in precisely the tragic events commemorated on September 11th for talks at the presidential Camp David retreat just days before that anniversary.56 The Taliban, in fact, had reportedly met with Hamza bin Ladin in the spring of 2019 “to reassure him personally that the Islamic Emirate would not break its historical ties with Al-Qa’ida for any price.”57 It is thus worth quoting at length the most recent United Nations’ assessment of the negotiations:

The senior leadership of Al-Qaida remains present in Afghanistan, as well as hundreds of armed operatives, Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, and groups of foreign terrorist fighters aligned with the Taliban … Relations between the Taliban, especially the Haqqani Network, and Al-Qaida remain close, based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage. The Taliban regularly consulted with Al-Qaida during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honour their historical ties. Al-Qaida has reacted positively to the agreement, with statements from its acolytes celebrating it as a victory for the Taliban’s cause and thus for global militancy. The challenge will be to secure the counter-terrorism gains to which the Taliban have committed, which will require them to suppress any international threat emanating from Al-Qaida in Afghanistan.58

Evidence that al-Qa`ida and its franchises have not abandoned prospects of reinvigorating their campaign of international terrorism with some new, dramatic, and spectacular attack may be deduced from the reports that twice this past year, al-Shabaab operatives have been arrested while taking flying lessons: one in 2019 in the Philippines and the other earlier this year in an undisclosed African country.59 The former had researched skyscrapers in the United States and aviation security as well as taking flying lessons in a plot that is believed to have commenced in 2016.60 Furthermore, at least two key al-Qa`ida commanders killed in Syria over the past two years—Abu Yahya al-Uzbeki and Safina al-Tunisi—were reportedly involved in external operations planning and capacity-building for al-Qa`ida.61 There is also evidence of al-Qa`ida affiliates growing more creative in their efforts to strike the West. The December 2019 shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida was not only the first deadly terrorist attack on U.S. soil coordinated by a foreign terrorist organization since 9/11, it was perpetrated by an individual embedded within the Saudi Air Force, with whom AQAP had been in contact while he was on U.S. territory, up to and including the night before the attack.62

Al-Qa`ida and its affiliates have not laid down their arms, nor do they have any intent to spare the United States in their ongoing jihad. Accordingly, they likely see themselves poised to benefit from any diminishment or indeed the complete withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan, Africa, and elsewhere.

Domestic Terrorism

“This is worse than anything anyone’s ever seen,” President Donald J. Trump asserted in July 2020, reacting to the nationwide protests, some of which had turned violent, in Portland and Seattle and Chicago.63 Not only is this not the case, but according to the Department of Homeland Security’s October 2020 Homeland Threat Assessment, among domestic violent extremists it is “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists—specifically white supremacist extremists” who are “the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.”64

Fifty years ago, at a similarly profoundly unsettled time in U.S. history, the country was indeed worse. Throughout 1970, for instance, politically motivated bombings, arson, and other attacks were in fact a daily occurrence. Moreover, in contrast to the mostly disorganized and uncoordinated violence that has occurred over the past months in Portland, Seattle, Chicago, New York, and other cities, the 1970s variant was planned and premeditated—orchestrated by a bewildering array of actual, identifiable domestic terrorist organizations. The nearly 500 terrorist incidents collected by the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database for 1970 alone were perpetrated primarily by left-wing terrorists in groups like the Weather Underground, the Jonathan Jackson Brigade, and the Revolutionary Armed Task Force; militant black nationalists in organizations like the Black Liberation Army and Black Panthers; Latinx extremists belonging to the Chicano Liberation Front; anti-Castro Cuban exiles such as Cuban Action; Puerto Rican Independistas in groups like the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacíon Nacional; and longstanding white supremacist movements such as the Ku Klux Klan.65 With the exception of the Cuban groups and Ku Klux Klan, however, radical, left-wing revolutionary terrorism predominated. Today, the situation is reversed with violent, far-right extremism posing the greatest terrorist threat in the United States.

This is not to imply that there have not been highly disturbing incidents of violence committed by persons associated or affiliated with or claiming allegiance to a variety of causes that have been championed by self-described antifa members or anarchists or Black Lives Matter activists. The torching of the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct building in May 2020 is one especially disquieting example. As were the fires set in downtown Washington, D.C., near the White House, at the AFL-CIO headquarters and in the basement of the historic St John’s Episcopal Church that same month.66 But, to date, incidents that might be defined as bona fide acts of domestic terrorism perpetrated by far-left extremists have been few. Most notably, there was the murder of a pro-Trump demonstrator in Portland by a gunman claiming self-defense, but whom then-U.S. Attorney General William Barr described as an “admitted antifa member” (who was then killed by law enforcement officers while trying to arrest him).67

The evidence of any kind of coordinated, much less concerted, campaign of domestic terrorism from antifa, anarchists, or Black Lives Matter, either in this case or indeed others, however, are scant.68 A 28-year-old Illinois resident, for instance, was arrested in June 2020 after he bragged on social media about possessing homemade bombs that he intended to use against law enforcement targets and commercial property in Minneapolis.69 That same month, police apprehended an 18-year-old Worcester, Massachusetts, man with anarchist views who decided to attend a Black Lives Matter protest armed with several Molotov cocktails.70 Also in June 2020, a Lubbock, Texas, resident showed up at a counter-demonstration with a semi-automatic rifle, shouting that “President Trump must die” after threatening on social media to “off racists and MAGA people.” He was arrested and charged with possession of illegal drugs and a firearm as well as “making interstate threats.”71 The following month, a person of Latino heritage intentionally swerved his pickup truck into the path of a Caucasian motorcyclist on a New Mexico roadway. Charged with murder, the driver explained to police that he believed everyone who rode Harley Davidson motorcycles are “white racists.”72 Finally, police cars in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have been spray painted with profanities, and in a more serious incident earlier in the summer of 2020, two lawyers threw a Molotov cocktail into an unoccupied New York Police Department vehicle.73

Despite this handful of—indeed, in some cases, tragic—incidents, President Trump has argued that the threat is both more extensive and organized. “We have antifa, we have anarchists, we have terrorists, we have looters. We have a lot of bad people in those groups,” the president declared.74 In point of fact, however, the violence that has recently afflicted America has nothing in common with what we have previously experienced. The respected Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, for instance, reports that of the more than 10,600 demonstrations and protests held throughout the United States between May and August 2020, more than 10,000—nearly 93%—were peaceful, with demonstrators not engaging in violence.75 In other words, the violence that has occurred at protests and demonstrations across the country since May 2020 is at a much lower level and is arguably far less organized than has been claimed. Additionally, in many cases, the persistent brawling that has occurred in many cities between the extreme far-right so-called Proud Boys with self-proclaimed anarchists, antifa, and Black Bloc adherents hardly rises to the either lethal level or highly consequential dimensions of what is commonly regarded as terrorism.b

Antifa, as is now well-known, is the anagram of the Anti-Fascist Movement. The movement consciously emulates the anti-fascist groups that fought street battles in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s against growing, government-implemented repression in fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.76 This tradition of resistance resurfaced in Europe in the 1960s and came to the United States in the 1980s. Anti-Racist Action, for instance, was a network that surfaced to confront demonstrations by white supremacists and racist skinheads. Brawling and street fights erupted. But this community of far-left extremists and anarchists largely fell into desuetude until Donald Trump’s election and the concomitant surge of alt-right and white nationalist activities.77

These collectives—which indistinguishably included self-proclaimed anarchists and members of the so-called Black Bloc, thus further underscoring the movement’s overall lack of organizational structure and the amorphous and permeable nature of antifa itself—demonstrated at President Trump’s January 2017 inauguration, where more than 200 persons were arrested. The authorities ultimately decided not to try these persons on charges of vandalism, assault, and other disorderly behavior.78 As a result, federal law enforcement authorities were already concerned that this decision might embolden militants of all perspectives with regard to the 2020 presidential election—and lead to increased violence79—as has occurred.

The problem that U.S. law enforcement, intelligence, and Department of Justice officials face in countering the threats emanating from antifa, anarchists, the Black Bloc, and others is that there is little evidence that this presents a calculated, premeditated plan implemented by the type of hierarchical, top-down, command-and-control terrorist organizations that previously accounted for extreme far-left violence in the United States. The vandals, arsonists, fire-bombers, and others responsible for the generally modest incidence of extreme far-left political violence occurring today, unlike their counterparts of half-a-century ago, generally do not belong to any known kind of actual, existing organization with an identifiable leader or leadership cadre, or clear chain of command. According to University of Pittsburgh scholar Michael Kenney, who has studied antifa and interviewed anti-fascists and anarchists associated with it, this deliberately amorphous entity is best described as a “broader movement of individuals and groups who support antifascist ideals and share a common culture.” In terms of its organization, Kenney sees antifa as “a loose network of ‘affinity groups’ that coordinate their antiracist activism in different local areas.”80 Another description was offered in an anarchist network’s own tactical analysis of the dramatic May 2020 siege of Minneapolis’s third police precinct: “The subject of our analysis is not a race, a class, an organization, or even a movement, but a crowd. […] The agency that took down the Third Precinct was a crowd and not an organization because its goals, means, and internal makeup were not regulated by centralized authority.”81

Accordingly, President Trump’s repeated promises in the spring of 2020 that “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization”82 were never likely to be kept. Legally, only the Secretary of State can designate a terrorist organization. And then it has to be a foreign and not domestic entity. Antifa, for all the reasons noted above, is a particularly dubious candidate for this distinction. It is, by and large, not an organization, and has little identifiable leadership or command and control structure or finances—in other words, the specific, longstanding terrorist organizational attributes that designation is designed to undermine and dismantle. In sum, there is no legal way, at least for now, that antifa can be designated a terrorist organization—nor is there any practical reason why any such designation would help the United States fight terrorism.

Despite President Trump and his former attorney general’s focus on anarchist collectives like antifa, the most worrying warning sign of a potential escalation of extreme left-wing terrorism occurred when a Senator Bernie Sanders supporter unleashed a hail of bullets at an early morning baseball practice attended by Republican politicians in Alexandria, Virginia, in June 2017.c Then-House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was gravely wounded, but the Congressman’s security detail likely prevented a far more serious atrocity, returning fire and killing the gunman before any lives were claimed. If not for the Capitol Police, the shooting “would have been a massacre,” in the words of one Congressman targeted in the attack.83 And, in another incident, a self-professed anarchist tried to firebomb a Tacoma, Washington, Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in July 2019, before being shot dead by responding officers.84 In neither instance did the perpetrator belong to an identifiable, existing terrorist organization on whose behalf the violence was claimed, much less perpetrated—nor was either man following or carrying out the orders of any identifiable terrorist commander.

The fact of the matter is that the United States is challenged by violence emanating from both the extreme far-right as well as the extreme far-left. Each have issued repeated calls utilizing the internet and social media. Thus, while the influence, much less involvement, of either end of the political spectrum remains uncertain, calls for violent confrontation have not been confined to one or the other, but have been issued by both.85

However, given the recent disruption of an extreme-far right militia domestic terror plot by over a dozen men to kidnap the Michigan governor, which included back-up plans to take over the Michigan Capitol building and broadcast the executions of public officials and burn down the Michigan state house leaving no survivors,86 as well as recent reports that there are as many as 15,000 to 20,000 well-armed and often militarily trained members of some 300 different militia groups in the United States—some of which are militantly anti-government and espouse racist and seditious views87—the extreme far-right should elicit far more concern than the threat posed by alleged antifa adherents and anarchists.88

Also worrisome are the outright calls for revolution and sedition by the so-called boogaloo bois—an anti-government movement best known for congregating at protest sites in brightly colored Aloha shirts, often heavily armed. This unique faction of America’s radical underground actively promises a new American civil war—and the movement’s associated violence is often intended to accelerate that end. Social media has only recently taken steps to address the growth of such movements online. Boogaloo presence on Facebook peaked at 125 such groups with over 73,000 followers before Facebook removed and henceforth banned these pages.89

And with good reason. In May 2020, the FBI issued a warning to law enforcement across the United States that channels on the encrypted communications application Telegram were intent on fomenting chaos and disorder and triggering the “boogaloo” (civil war). Two days later, a DHS advisory cautioned state and local authorities to be aware of the possibility of “incidents of domestic terrorists exploiting First Amendment-protected events.”90

These are not idle threats. In May 2020, for instance, police in Denver intercepted a vehicle full of boogaloo bois armed with assault weapons en route to a “Reopen Colorado” demonstration.91 The following month, three men were arrested in Las Vegas on charges of plotting to incite violence at an anti-racism rally by committing attacks with Molotov cocktails that would be blamed on legitimate protestors.92 And, in California, a U.S. Air Force sergeant was arrested after murdering one Federal Protective Service officer and in a second incident killing a sheriff’s deputy. The word “boog” was found scrawled in blood on a car that the wounded killer had stolen in an attempt to escape a police dragnet.93 The Michigan plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer as well as Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was also partially inspired by boogaloo militancy.94

Most seriously, on January 6, 2021, the day Congress met to certify electoral college votes, scores of protestors rioted and breached the security lines at the U.S. Capitol. Inspired by President Trump’s refusal to accept the election’s outcome and encouraged by his speech earlier that day, where he said, “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” the rioters briefly occupied the U.S. Capitol building, besieging the House and Senate chambers, ransacking the office of the Speaker of the House, and committing serial acts of theft and wanton vandalism.95 “We’re storming the Capitol, it’s a revolution!” one protestor proclaimed after having been maced by police and forcibly ejected from the building.96 In what many have variously termed a failed insurrection or attempted coup d’état, the January 6 events at the U.S. Capitol offered a stark, frightening picture of the powerful forces fueling a conspiratorial mindset eschewing both the country’s foundational democratic values and the rule of law. The mayhem and tragic loss of life that occurred that day serves as a salutary and timely reminder of the danger of potential violence to come from those who might continue to contest the 2020 presidential election and oppose President Biden and his administration in the years to come.

Beyond the militia and anti-government landscape, imminent threats remain from white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Warnings of a coming tide of extreme far-right violence had emerged before Trump’s 2017 inauguration—a twin attack in Norway in 2011, as well as Wade Michael Page’s attack at a Wisconsin gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) and Dylann Roof’s assault on Charleston—but the annals of terrorism scholarship will remember the Trump years for an explosion of white supremacist and neo-Nazi violence, perpetrated by a movement also perhaps emboldened by how they interpreted some of the president’s rhetoric. Violence from far-right extremists impacted communities both in the United States—at Pittsburgh, Poway, and El Paso—as well as Canada, Germany, New Zealand, and elsewhere. Places of worship, most notably mosques and synagogues, were particularly targeted as part of a broader assault on Western liberalism’s commitment to freedom of religion.

Law enforcement has performed admirably in breaking up larger collectives—such as the Atomwaffen Division and the Base—before either was able to embark on campaigns of organized violence, although lingering threats from both networks remain.97 Perhaps the most serious recently intercepted plot, the militia plan to kidnap governors of several Democratic states in the weeks leading up to the 2020 election, was a timely, and alarming, reminder of the dangers that still abound. The “leaderless resistance” model of terrorism also provides serious challenges, as intelligence agencies and law enforcement are left merely to monitor a sea of extremists, in the hope those legitimately plotting violence betray their plans before any action is carried out. Some do—and it is only through indefatigable law enforcement and intelligence work, not lack of intent, that more bloodshed has been avoided.

In addition to an existing array of threats, President-elect Biden may also find himself dealing with violence from the American right’s more conspiratorial fringe—not least QAnon, a movement which has already inspired violent threats, murder, and terrorist activity including threats of violence against then-candidate Biden.98 Most notably, two Virginia QAnon adherents were arrested in Philadelphia in November 2020 after traveling with weapons to monitor vote tallying at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.99 QAnon’s ideological tenets are closely tied to President Trump’s political fortunes—essentially, adherents believe Trump is saving the world from a cabal of Satan-worshipping, child sex trafficking Democrats—and Trump’s defeat at the ballot box may continue to be interpreted by at least some in the movement as a coup demanding a violent response. Indeed, persons visibly demonstrating their support of the conspiratorial fantasies peddled by QAnon were in evidence at the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol.100

The Anti-Defamation League has reported that more than three-quarters of the 435 terrorism-related deaths recorded in the United States between 2010 and 2019 were perpetrated by violent, far-right extremists. By comparison, their left-wing counterparts accounted for only three percent. In 2019 alone, that disparity was even greater. Of the 42 deaths attributed to terrorists in the United States that year over 90 percent were committed by far-right and anti-government extremists.101 Accordingly, the source of the most serious terrorism threat in the United States is obvious.

Conclusion and Policy Recommendations for the New Administration

Any counterterrorism strategy is only as good as the next attack it fails to prevent. Accordingly, the perennial question of “how much is enough?” has long bedeviled the formulation, resourcing, and implementation of any response to terrorism. Clearly, deploying tens of thousands of U.S. forces overseas to invade and occupy countries was an unsustainable, and largely unsuccessful, strategy. But equally so is one where the default is either zero or some ineffectually low number of troops overseas that negates the ability of the United States’ friends and allies to counter terrorist threats on their own. Striking the right balance—in terms of popular support, political viability, and funding constraints—will be the foremost challenge the Biden administration will face in crafting an effective counterterrorism strategy. The challenge is only amplified by ongoing pressures to shift to great power competition, which may dramatically cut counterterrorism resources.d

The November 2020 all-hands memorandum from the new acting Secretary of Defense, Christopher Miller, to Defense Department employees reflected the weariness of a war that has lasted over 19 years and the desire to “transition our efforts from a leadership to a supporting role. We are not a people of perpetual war,” Miller wrote,

“it is the antithesis of everything for which we stand and for which our ancestors fought. All wars must end. Ending wars requires compromise and partnership. We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it’s time to come home.”102

But, in terrorism and counterterrorism, the admonition attributed to Winston Churchill, along the lines of General Mattis’s previously quoted observation, that, “However absorbed a commander may be in the elaboration of his own thoughts, it is sometimes necessary to take the enemy into consideration”103 needs always to be kept in mind. Except for the scoring of political points, it is difficult to see how the 5,200 U.S. troops stationed in Africa—the majority of whom are out of harm’s way in Djibouti—representing approximately 0.3 percent of Defense Department personnel and expenditure104 is an extravagance that the United States can ill afford. Fears that the United States might withdraw the 700 special operations personnel deployed to Somalia to bolster indigenous counterterrorist operations there prompted that country’s president in October 2020 to tweet how critical “continuous security partnership and capacity-building support” from the United States is to containing al-Shabaab—an organization that has repeatedly displayed an ambition to expand its operations beyond just Somalia.105 Similarly, the strategic logic of reducing the number of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan from the current level of 8,600106 to 4,500 or perhaps even 2,500107 at a time when Taliban attacks have increased by 50 percent108—and while negotiations with the United States continue—is at best specious.109

The most pressing question for the new administration will be whether our counterterrorism strategy is truly synchronized to the threats we face from a stubbornly resilient Islamic State and an implacably determined al-Qa`ida. To be sure, counterterrorism targeting during the Trump years has yielded an impressive list of successful assassinations, including the leaders of the Islamic State, AQAP, AQIM, and Hurras al-Din, as well as al-Qa`ida’s alleged number two and its heir apparent. And yet, as General McKenzie presciently remarked in June 2020: “This threat is not going away. There’s never going to be a time when either ISIS or whatever follows ISIS is going to be completely absent from the global stage.”110 The same can indeed be said of al-Qa`ida given that August 2020 marked its 32nd anniversary. A terrorist organization cannot last more than a year, let alone six years or five times as long without possessing a capacity for change and adaptation; adjustment to even the most consequential governmental countermeasures directed against it; and a viable plan of succession. The December 2019 shootings by a Saudi Air Force officer who was also an AQAP sleeper, which claimed the lives of three sailors and wounded eight others,111 coupled with the aforementioned accounts of al-Shabaab personnel taking flying lessons underscore an ongoing, albeit diminished, threat to the U.S. homeland requiring ceaseless vigilance, attendant effort, and sufficient resourcing.

The challenge is exacerbated by the need to anticipate—and mitigate—the next global terrorist hotspot. Central Asia, for instance, remains an ever-present specter in the battle against salafi-jihadi extremism, with one analyst recently arguing that fighters from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and nearby India now form the “forefront of global jihad.”112 Elsewhere, the security situation in the Sahel is rapidly deteriorating, with states including Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad increasingly forced to grapple with a growing terrorism threat.113 In fact, 41% of all Islamic State-inflicted killings in 2019 occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, with the region hosting seven of the 10 countries suffering the greatest increase in terrorism deaths that year.114 The head of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel recently described the security situation in the region as “extremely volatile,” in the face of rising attacks, militant child recruitment, and refugee flows.115 The Islamic State’s growing presence in Mozambique, too, bears watching closely with concern. Should it hold, the ongoing but subtle shift in counterterrorism toward sub-Saharan Africa will present new challenges for the U.S. military and its intelligence agencies, and demand new alliances and renewed energy to ensure Americans remain safe from violent extremism.

Countering the local toeholds that both the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida have frequently turned into regional footholds will be critical to a new U.S. counterterrorism approach that recognizes how targeting terrorist leaders or groups and even their ideologies have had mostly nugatory effects or certainly no decisive ones. In the absence of any more viable strategy, one that resists the current bipartisan fashion to declare victory and disengage completely but retains modest levels of U.S. military special operations forces and intelligence assets is the most likely approach that will over time further build local capacity and thus continue to degrade and diminish the strength and capabilities of our foreign terrorist enemies.116 It would be bolstered by a long-term political strategy that seeks to undermine extremist ideology and the allure of extremist groups, both in new theaters and old—an effort that often has plenty of rhetorical support, but has rarely been backed by sufficient finances and expertise.

Twenty years into the global war on terror, we have not won. But we have also not lost. Which, as the previous assessment of terrorism challenges for a new administration in 2016 opined, is precisely the strategy our adversaries have embraced: to lock us in a debilitating war of attrition. Declaring victory and wishing away “endless wars” when confronted by resilient, protean enemies contributed directly to the Islamic State’s emergence and rise as well as to al-Qa`ida’s stubborn longevity. And it may be that as the United States and its allies enter the third decade of war against international salafi-jihadi terrorism, we need to recalibrate our immediate expectations away from “winning” and “losing,” toward “accepting” and “managing” this conflict. Such an admission would not be popular, but it would be a fairer reflection of the current state of the fight against terrorism, and a more honest prediction of what to expect over the next four, or more, years. Indeed, any expectation that international terrorism will not once again be a significant issue during the 2024 election season is naïve.

For now, domestic terrorism presents the more pressing concern, and by comparison, the United States almost has to start de novo in countering domestic challenges. For the past two decades, the United States has rightly been intently focused on the threat from salafi-jihadi and Islamist organizations like al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State. Meanwhile, social media has weaponized domestic violent extremism and given new impetus to both sides of the political spectrum. The mass shootings in 2018 at a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, synagogue, where 11 worshippers were killed, and in 2019 at an El Paso, Texas, shopping center, where 23 persons perished,117 coupled with the aforementioned serious terrorist plots foiled in Nevada and Michigan, underscore domestic terrorism’s growth and lethality. The law has not kept pace with either technology nor the power and reach of social media, much less with the threat.

The most glaring deficit is the absence of a federal domestic terrorism statute. Legislation is needed to create a domestic terrorism legal category to standardize and better collect, collate, and analyze data across states and localities throughout the United States, which does not exist in any uniform fashion now. This legislation would also hopefully bring greater equity to sentencing. This past year, for instance, a Virginia man belonging to the extreme far-right terrorist group, Atomwaffen, was sentenced to a year and a day in prison on charges of possessing firearms while a drug user. He had participated in the infamous 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, and when arrested had over a dozen firearms in his home along with 50 loaded magazines. He had previously been arrested as a juvenile for firing a weapon at a moving car during a botched drug deal.118 By comparison, according to the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, the average sentence for those convicted in the United States of providing material support to the Islamic State is 13 times longer (13.2 years).119

The list of Specially Designated Global Terrorist entities should also be expanded. In April 2020, the U.S. State Department applied this distinction—a step below Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designations—to a transnational, violent far-right extremist group, the Russian Imperial Movement.120 No further extreme far-right groups have been addressed in this manner since. Accordingly, the State Department should be instructed to move strategically to press for the inclusion of other obvious candidates: especially the Feuerkrieg Division in the Baltics, National Action in Britain, the Nordic Resistance Movement in Scandinavian countries, and the Azov Battalion/National Corps in Ukraine.121

Far-right extremist groups are also deliberately targeting teenagers and both active members of the U.S. military and veterans for recruitment. Social programs are needed to educate youth in this country and build their resilience to these entreaties. More research is also needed into the role played by mental health conditions in domestic extremist recruitment. Similarly, both violent far-right and far-left extremists are actively seeking to recruit current service personnel and veterans because of the expertise in combat, logistics, and counterterrorism and counterinsurgency that can be applied to new battles in the homeland. This was also a serious problem in the 1980s, when the U.S. military stood up programs to actively counter white supremacist recruitment efforts.122 Indeed, some of the preeminent figures in this movement at that time were Vietnam veterans (Louis Beam, Bo Gritz, Randy Weaver, and Frazier Glenn Miller, among them).123 Those programs need to be revisited and resurrected—both by the military itself as well as the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Finally, in tackling both domestic and international terrorism, governments around the world need to take bolder steps to counter the free rein of extremist movements online. The center of gravity in the counterterrorism war has shifted from Helmand Province and the skies above the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region toward Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and other popular social media platforms—all of which have been far too slow to acknowledge their critical role in the fight. The ongoing refusal to take bolder steps against extremism and radicalization online is not only a grave weakness in the war on terror—it is an almost-criminal dereliction of our duty to protect vulnerable members of our society from lies promulgated by nefarious actors in cyberspace, and requires urgent addressing. Steps to deplatform QAnon after its role in the storming of the Capitol mark an important first step

This year brings with it both the 20-year anniversary of 9/11 and the 10-year anniversary of the July 2011 Oslo attacks. Both are defining moments in the history of terrorism, and reminders of the perils of ignoring warning signs and insufficient investment in the fight against violent extremism in all its forms. As the Biden administration takes office, a committed strategy, combining tried and tested methods as well as an array of newer measures, is needed to effectively tackle the escalating domestic terrorism threat, while continuing to keep Americans safe from the dangers of international terrorism. For those reasons, counterterrorism will likely remain a central priority for President Biden and his administration.     CTC

Bruce Hoffman is the George H. Gilmore Senior Fellow at the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center. He is also the Shelby Cullom and Kathryn W. Davis Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. Follow @hoffman_bruce

Jacob Ware is a research associate for counterterrorism at the Council on Foreign Relations and a graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. Follow @Jacob_A_Ware

© 2021 Bruce Hoffman, Jacob Ware

Substantive Notes

[a] The allegedly growing and alarming ties between the Iranian regime and al-Qa`ida was the focus of remarks given by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on January 12, 2021. Lara Jakes, Eric Schmitt, and Julian E. Barnes, “Pompeo Says Iran Is New Base for Al Qaeda, but Offers Little Proof,” New York Times, January 12, 2021.

[b] The “Black Bloc” refers to a tactic used by some protestors who wear black clothing and face coverings both to conceal identity and for protection during brawls. The tactic is often used by militant anarchists.

[c] Sanders acknowledged that the gunman had volunteered for the campaign, and called the act “despicable.” See Jose Pagliery, “Suspect in congressional shooting was Bernie Sanders supporter, strongly anti-Trump,” CNN, June 15, 2017.

[d] The trade-off, however, is not necessarily zero-sum. For more, see Todd Harrison and Nicholas Harrington, “Bad Idea: Conflating Great Power Competition with High-Intensity Conflict,” Defense360, December 15, 2020.

Citations
[1] Bruce Hoffman, “The Global Terror Threat and Counterterrorism Challenges Facing the Next Administration,” CTC Sentinel 9:11 (2016).

[2] “National Strategy for Counterterrorism of the United States of America,” The White House, October 2018, p. 1.

[3] “Statement from the President,” The White House, September 14, 2019.

[4] “Statement from the President,” The White House, February 6, 2020.

[5] “French forces killed al Qaeda’s North Africa chief in Mali, defence minister says,” France 24, June 5, 2020.

[6] Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Used Missile With Long Blades to Kill Qaeda Leader in Syria,” New York Times, June 24, 2020.

[7] Adam Goldman, Eric Schmitt, Farmaz Fassihi, and Ronen Bergman, “Al Qaeda’s No. 2, Accused in U.S. Embassy Attacks, Was Killed in Iran,” New York Times, November 13, 2020; “User Distributes Report Alleging AQ Official and His Daughter Killed in Iran,” SITE Intelligence Group, November 13, 2020.

[8] “Remarks by President Trump on the Killing of Qasem Soleimani,” The White House, January 3, 2020.

[9] “Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” Bureau of Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State.

[10] Seth Jones, “War by Proxy: Iran’s Growing Footprint in the Middle East,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 11, 2019.

[11] See, for example, Mark Landler, Helene Cooper, and Eric Schmitt, “Trump to Withdraw U.S. Forces From Syria, Declaring ‘We Have Won Against ISIS,’” New York Times, December 19, 2018; Jennifer Hansler, “Pence declares ‘ISIS has been defeated’ on the same day as deadly Syria attack,” CNN Politics, January 16, 2019; Julia Musto, “Al Qaeda a ‘shadow’ of its former self, time to ‘turn the corner’ in Afghanistan,” Fox News, March 6, 2020; and David Brennan, “Pompeo Says ISIS Caliphate ‘Wiped Out’ As Pentagon Warns Group Still Active,” Newsweek, August 26, 2020.

[12] Quoted in Bret Stephens, “Goodbye, America. Goodbye, Freedom Man,” New York Times, October 11, 2019.

[13] “Twenty-sixth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations Security Council, July 23, 2020, p. 3.

[14] “National Strategy for Counterterrorism,” p. 8.

[15] See “Country Reports on Terrorism 2019: Sri Lanka,” Bureau of Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State; Jacob Zenn, “ISIS in Africa: The Caliphate’s Next Frontier,” Center for Global Policy, May 26, 2020; Mercedes Fitchett, “Countering the Female ISIS Threat in Indonesia,” CFR.org, May 20, 2020; Cris Chinaka, Lesley Wroughton, and Joby Warrick, “An Islamist insurgency in Mozambique is gaining ground—and showing a strong allegiance to the Islamic State,” Washington Post, November 13, 2020.

[16] For more, see Daniel Milton and Muhammad Al-`Ubaydi, “Stepping Out from the Shadows: The Interrogation of the Islamic State’s Future Caliph,” CTC Sentinel 13:9 (2020).

[17] Text provided by SITE Intelligence Group in “IS Confirms Death of Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Announces Successor,” October 31, 2019.

[18] “Twenty-fifth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations Security Council, January 20, 2020, pp. 5-6; Jeff Seldin, “US Takes Notice as More Islamic State Branches Back New Leader,” Voice of America, November 16, 2019; Asaad Almohammad, “New Caliph, Same Old Problems,” Foreign Affairs, January 1, 2020.

[19] “Twenty-sixth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” pp. 6, 9, 11, and 15.

[20] Michael Knights and Alex Almeida, “Remaining and Expanding: The Recovery of Islamic State Operations in Iraq in 2019-2020,” CTC Sentinel 13:5 (2020).

[21] Tim Lister, “Jihadi Insurgency in Mozambique Grows in Sophistication and Reach,” CTC Sentinel 13:10 (2020).

[22] Declan Walsh, “With Village Beheadings, Islamic State Intensifies Attacks in Mozambique,” New York Times, November 11, 2020; “ISIL-linked attackers behead 50 people in northern Mozambique,” Al Jazeera, November 10, 2020. See also Eyder Peralta, “ISIS-Affiliated Fighters Take Control Of A Strategic Port in Mozambique,” National Public Radio, All Things Considered, August 21, 2020.

[23] Debora Patta, “More than 50 people beheaded by ISIS-linked attackers in Mozambique,” CBS News, November 11, 2020.

[24] Quoted in Peralta.

[25] Amarnath Amarasingam, “Terrorism on the Teardrop Island: Understanding the Easter 2019 Attacks in Sri Lanka,” CTC Sentinel 12:5 (2019).

[26] Keith Bradsher and Sandra E. Garcia, “Local Group Is Blamed for Attacks, but Sri Lanka Suspects ‘International Network,’” New York Times, April 22, 2019; Niharika Mandhana, Rob Taylor, and Saeed Shah, “Sri Lanka Bomber Trained in Syria With Islamic State,” Wall Street Journal, April 29, 2019.

[27] See “Twenty-fourth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations Security Council, July 15, 2019, p. 16.

[28] Ibid., p. 5.

[29] Bruce Hoffman, “Sri Lanka Bombings: What We Know,” CFR.org, April 23, 2019.

[30] See Mandhana, Taylor, and Shah.

[31] Ibid.

[32] See Amarasingam.

[33] “Twenty-Fourth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.”

[34] Paul Cruickshank and Brian Dodwell, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Joseph Maguire, Acting Director of National Intelligence,” CTC Sentinel 12:8 (2019).

[35] Data made available courtesy of Dr. R. Kim Cragin, National Defense University, Washington, D.C. See Dr. R. Kim Cragin, “The Riptide: How Foreign Fighter Returnees Could Shape the Jihadist Movement,” in Stephen Tankel ed., “Policy Roundtable: What Is the Future of the Jihadist Movement,” Texas National Security Review, March 18, 2018. A recent United Nations monitoring team report also cites the number of surviving foreign fighters as up to 30,000. See “Twenty-fourth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” p. 6.

[36] “Danish terror trial may have connections to UK attack: reports,” Ritzau/The Local dk, February 19, 2018.

[37] Rukmini Callimachi, “How a Secretive Branch of ISIS Built a Global Network of Killers,” New York Times, August 3, 2016.

[38] “Translated Text: IS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Orders Fighters Redouble Efforts at All Levels, Promotes Religious Activism,” SITE Intelligence Group, September 16, 2019.

[39] Jim Brunsden, Michael Stothard, and Guy Chazen, “Paris attacks: Investigators trying to identify third body,” Financial Times, November 20, 2015; Raphel Satter and John-Thor Dahlburg, “Paris attacks; Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud identified as presumed mastermind,” CBC News, November 16, 2015.

[40] See Zack Gold, “Egypt’s Aviation Security since the Metrojet Bombing,” ICCT—International Centre for Counter-Terrorism—The Hague, August 8, 2016, and Jason Hanna, Michael Martinez, and Jennifer Deaton, “ISIS publishes photo of what it says is bomb that downed Russian plane,” CNN, November 19, 2015.

[41] Raffaello Pantucci, “A View From the CT Foxhole: Gilles de Kerchove, European Union (EU) Counter-Terrorism Coordinator,” CTC Sentinel 13:8 (2020).

[42] John T. Bennett, “Trump walks back claim of defeating ‘100% of the ISIS caliphate,’” Roll Call, October 28, 2019.

[43] Ian Talley and Benoit Faucon, “Islamic State, Defeated U.S. Foe, Still Brims With Cash, Ambition,” Wall Street Journal, September 18, 2020.

[44] “News Transcript: CENTCOM Commander Gen. McKenzie and CENTCOM Director Of Operations Maj. Gen. Grynkewich Participate In A U.S. Institute of Peace Online Event on ‘How ISIS Really Ends,’” U.S. Central Command, August 12, 2020.

[45] “Jihadists Share Vienna Attacker’s Alleged Final Instagram Post,” SITE Intelligence Group, November 5, 2020.

[46] Quoted in Jonah Goldberg, “Our Enemies Get a Vote,” National Review, May 29, 2013.

[47] Raphael Ahren, “In further sign of détente, Israel attends anti-terrorism conference in Morocco,” Times Of Israel, March 6, 2020.

[48] Quoted in Musto.

[49] “Twenty-fifth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” p. 7.

[50] “Twenty-sixth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” pp. 8, 15; Claire Felter, Jonathan Masters, and Mohammed Aly Sergie, “Backgrounder: Al-Shabab,” CFR.org, January 10, 2020; “Who are Somalia’s al-Shabab?” BBC, December 22, 2017; Zachary Laub and Jonathan Masters, “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” CFR.org, March 27, 2015.

[51] See “We Will Follow Neither the Priests, Nor the Deceivers,” Statement by Husam ‘Abd dl-Ra’uf, editor of al-Qa`ida’s Vanguards of Khurasan Magazine, al-Sahab Media Establishment August-September 2015; “This passion to sacrifice ourselves for the truth does not let us rest!” AQIS Spokesman Releases Audio Statement on Deaths of Ustad Ahmad Farooq, Qari Imran, al-Sahab in the Subcontinent, January-February 2015; and “Commander Badar Mansoor, the Martyr, May God accept Him [aka] Fakhar al-Zaman, the Martyr, May God Accept Him, Part Two,” al-Sahab in the Subcontinent, November 2016.

[52] Cheryl Pellerin, “Transregional Strikes Hit al-Qaeda in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan,” U.S. Department of Defense News, November 2, 2016; Eric Schmitt, “Leader of Qaeda Cell in Syria, Mushsin al-Fadhli, Is Killed in Airstrike, U.S. Says,” New York Times, July 21, 2015; “U.S. Airstrike Kills al-Qaida Leaders,” U.S. Department of Defense News, November 2, 2016.

[53] See Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda’s ‘external communications officer’ weight in on dispute over Syria,” FDD’s Long War Journal, December 3, 2017.

[54] See Adam Chandler, “Bin Laden’s Surprising Taste in Literature,” Atlantic, May 20, 2015.

[55] “Country Reports on Terrorism 2019: Afghanistan,” Bureau of Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State; Dan Lamothe, Missy Ryan, Karen DeYoung, and Susannah George, “Defense secretary sent classified memo to White House about Afghanistan before Trump fired him,” Washington Post, November 14, 2020; Zahra Rahimi, “Al-Qaeda Threatens Afghan Peace Process: UN Official,” Tolo News, November 13, 2020.

[56] Peter Baker, Mujib Mashal, and Michael Crowley, “How Trump’s Plan to Secretly Meet With the Taliban Came Together, and Fell Apart,” New York Times, September 8, 2019, updated February 14, 2020.

[57] “Eleventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2501 (2019) concerning the Taliban and other associated individuals and entities constituting a threat to the peace, stability and security of Afghanistan,” United Nations Security Council, p. 12.

[58] Ibid., p. 3.

[59] Eric Schmitt and Abdi Latif Dahir, “Al Qaeda Branch in Somalia Threatens Americans in East Africa—and Even the U.S.,” New York Times, March 21, 2020.

[60] Jonathan Dienst and Tom Winter, “Man with ties to terror group indicted in alleged plot to stage 9/11-style attack,” NBC News, December 16, 2020, and Benjamin Weiser, “Kenyan Planned 9/11-Style Attack After Training as Pilot, U.S. Says,” New York Times, December 16, 2020.

[61] Dave Makichuk, “Deadly ‘flying Ginsu’ weapon used again in Syria,” Asia Times, August 18, 2020; Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The Tunisian Jihadists Assassinated by the Americans in Idlib,” Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi’s Blog, September 16, 2020.

[62] Eric Tucker, “FBI: Shooter at Pensacola Navy base coordinated with al-Qaida,” Military Times, May 18, 2020. For more on the attack, see Colin Clarke, “The Pensacola Terrorist Attack: The Enduring Influence of al-Qa`ida and its Affiliates,” CTC Sentinel 13:3 (2020).

[63] Quoted in Nick Miroff and Mark Berman, “Trump threatens to deploy federal agents to Chicago and Other U.S. cities led by Democrats,” Washington Post, July 20, 2020.

[64] “Homeland Threat Assessment,” Department of Homeland Security, October 2020, p. 18.

[65] Search for domestic terrorism incidents, 1970-1979, Global Terrorism Database, START, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland.

[66] Nicholas Reimann, “Fires Near White House—AFL-CIO Offices Ablaze—As Riots Continue in D.C.,” Forbes, June 1, 2020.

[67] Mike Baker, “One Person Dead in Portland After Clashes Between Trump Supporters and Protestors,” New York Times, August 30, 2020; Tim Elfrink, “Police shot Portland slaying suspect without warning or trying to arrest him first, witness says,” Washington Post, September 10, 2020.

[68] See Michael Kenney and Colin Clarke, “What Antifa Is, What It Isn’t, And Why It Matters,” War on the Rocks, June 23, 2020; Erica Chenoweth and Jeremy Pressman, “This summer’s Black Lives Matter protestors were overwhelmingly peaceful, our research finds,” Washington Post, October 16, 2020.

[69] Darryl Coote, “Illinois man charged with handing out ‘bombs’ during Minneapolis protests,” United Press International, June 2, 2020.

[70] Brian Lee, “Worcester man indicted, allegedly found with Molotov cocktails,” Telegram & Gazette, October 2, 2020.

[71] “Man Who Brandished Assault Rifle at Protest Charged With Making Threats,” United States Attorney’s Office, Northern District of Texas, June 2, 2020. See also “Quinones facing federal charges, accused of threatening to ‘off racists and MAGA people,’” KCBD, June 11, 2020.

[72] Quoted in WBAY News Staff and Emily Matesic, “Sheriff: Man in hate crime killing said he targeted biker because he was white,” KCBD, July 10, 2020.

[73] Shayna Jacobs, “Lawyers accused of throwing Molotov cocktail in NYPD vehicle during protest to be rereleased on bail,” Washington Post, June 30, 2020.

[74] Quoted in Meg Kelly and Elyse Samuels, “Who caused the violence at protests? It wasn’t antifa,” Washington Post, June 22, 2020.

[75] “US Crisis Monitor Releases Full Data For Summer 2020,” ACLED: Bringing clarity to crisis, August 31, 2020.

[76] Mark Bray, Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook (Brooklyn: Melville, 2017), passim.

[77] Ibid., pp. 69-71, 168-170

[78] Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks, “Prosecutors Dropping Remaining Charges Against Trump Inauguration Protestors,” New York Times, July 6, 2020.

[79] Author discussions, federal law enforcement officials, Washington, D.C., July 2019.

[80] Authors’ email correspondence with Professor Michael Kenney, December 2020.

[81] “The Siege of the Third Precinct in Minneapolis,” CrimethInc., June 10, 2020.

[82] Maggie Haberman and Charlie Savage, “Trump, Lacking Clear Authority, Says U.S. Will Declare Antifa a Terrorist Group,” New York Times, May 31, 2020, updated June 10, 2020.

[83] “Rep. Rodney Davis: ‘This Would Have Been A Massacre’ If Not For Capitol Police,” CBS Chicago, June 14, 2017; David Shortell, “Congressional baseball shooter fired at least 70 rounds, cased area for months,” CNN Politics, October 6, 2017.

[84] Marisa Iati and Hannah Knowles, “ICE detention-center attacker killed by police was an avowed anarchist, authorities say,” Washington Post, July 19, 2019.

[85] “Strategic Framework For Countering Terrorism And Targeted Violence,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security, September 2019, pp. 1, 10-11.

[86] Chuck Goudie, Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel, and Ross Weidner, “Disturbing new details in alleged plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer,” ABC News 7 Chicago, November 18, 2020.

[87] Jennifer Steinhauer, “Veterans Fortify the Ranks of Militias Aligned With Trump’s Views,” New York Times, September 11, 2020.

[88] Mark Levin, “Bill Barr: Antifa is ‘new form of urban guerrilla warfare,’” Fox News, August 9, 2020.

[89] “Extremists Are Using Facebook to Organize for Civil War Amid Coronavirus,” Tech Transparency Project, April 22, 2020.

[90] Betsy Woodruff Swan and Natasha Bertrand, “‘Domestic terrorist actors’ could exploit Floyd protests, DHS memo warns,” Politico, June 1, 2020.

[91] Erik Maulbetsch, “Denver Police Seized Assault Rifles from Anti-Government Gun Activists at Friday Night Protest,” Colorado Times Recorder, May 31, 2020.

[92] Brett Barrouquere, “Three Nevada ‘Boogaloo Bois’ Arrested by FBI in Plot,” Southern Poverty Law Center, June 9, 2020.

[93] “Two Defendants Charged with Murder and Aiding and Abetting in Slaying of Federal Protective Service Officer at Oakland Courthouse Building,” United States Department of Justice, June 16, 2020; Neil MacFarquhar and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Air Force Sergeant With Ties to Extremist Group Charged in Federal Officer’s Death,” New York Times, June 16, 2020.

[94] Ben Collins, Brandy Zadrozny, Tom Winter, and Corky Siemaszko, “Whitmer conspiracy allegations tied to ‘boogaloo’ movement,” NBC News, October 8, 2020.

[95] Travis Andersen, “Before mob stormed US Capitol, Trump told them to ‘fight like hell,’” Boston Globe, January 6, 2021.

[96] Madison Stacey, “Social media reacts to viral video of ‘Elizabeth from Knoxville’, who illegally breached U.S. Capitol,” WBIR, January 6, 2021.

[97] Ben Makuch, “Neo-Nazi Terror Group Atomwaffen Division Re-Emerges Under New Name,” Vice, August 5, 2020.

[98] Amarnath Amarasingam and Marc-André Argentino, “The QAnon Conspiracy Theory: A Security Threat in the Making?” CTC Sentinel 13:7 (2020).

[99] David Gilbert, “Two Men Linked to QAnon Arrested For Plot to Attack Philly Vote Counting Site,” Vice, November 6, 2020.

[100] Marc-André Argentino, “QAnon and the storm of the U.S. Capitol: The offline effect of online conspiracy theories,” Conversation, January 7, 2021.

[101] Murder and Extremism in the United States in 2019, Center on Extremism, Anti-Defamation League, February 2020, pp. 4, 17-21.

[102] “Memorandum For All Department Of Defense Employees, Subject: Initial Message to the Department,” U.S. Secretary of Defense, November 13, 2020.

[103] Quoted in Colin S. Gray, Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy (Washington, D.C.: Potomac, 2007), p. 69.

[104] See Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer, “U.S. Officials Worry Looming Military Cuts in Africa Are ‘About Politics,’” Foreign Policy, January 28, 2020.

[105] Abdi Latif Dahir and Eric Schmitt, “Somalia Worries That a U.S. Withdrawal Will Be Disastrous,” New York Times, November 18, 2020. See also Eric Schmitt, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Charlie Savage, and Helene Cooper, “Trump Is Said to Be Preparing to Withdraw Troops From Afghanistan and Somalia,” New York Times, November 16, 2020, and “A Hasty Withdrawal From Somalia,” Wall Street Journal, December 29, 2020.

[106] Mujib Mashal, “U.S. Troops in Afghanistan Reduced to 8,600, General Says,” New York Times, June 19, 2020.

[107] Lamothe, Ryan, DeYoung, and George; Schmitt, Gibbons-Neff, Savage, and Cooper.

[108] Rebecca Kheel, “Enemy attacks in Afghanistan jump by 50 percent, watchdog says,” Hill, November 5, 2020.

[109] Seth Jones, “Afghanistan’s Future Emirate? The Taliban and the Struggle for Afghanistan,” CTC Sentinel 13:11 (2020).

[110] Quoted in Paul Salem, “Interview with General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., Head of U.S. Central Command, June 10, 2020, in “ISIS: Resilient on Sixth Anniversary,” Wilson Center, June 18, 2020.

[111] Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky, “Pensacola shooting was an act of terrorism, attorney general says,” Washington Post, January 13, 2020.

[112] Raffaello Pantucci, “Indians and Central Asians Are the New Face of the Islamic State,” Foreign Policy, October 8, 2020.

[113] See, for example, Olivier-Rémy Bel, “America Shouldn’t Abandon its Allies in the Sahel,” War on the Rocks, January 24, 2020.

[114] “Global Terrorism Index 2020: Deaths from terrorism reach five-year low, but new risks emerge,” Vision of Humanity.

[115] “Situation in West Africa, Sahel ‘Extremely Volatile’ as Terrorists Exploit Ethnic Animosities, Special Representative Warns Security Council,” United Nations Security Council, July 9, 2020.

[116] See, for instance, the arguments in Bruce Hoffman ed. 2019: Challenges In Counter-Extremism: Leading experts discuss policy solutions for the year’s pressing CE issues (London: Tony Blair Institute For Global Change, January 2019); Matt Castelli and Colonel (ret.) Bob Wilson, “Pentagon Moves Undermine Counterterrorism Strategy,” Just Security, January 5, 2021, and Katherine Zimmerman, “Beyond Counterterrorism: Defeating the Salafi-Jihadi Movement,” AEI: Critical Threats, October 8, 2019.

[117] Graham Macklin, “The El Paso Terrorist Attack: The Chain Reaction of Global Right-Wing Terror,” CTC Sentinel 12:11 (2019).

[118] Rachel Weiner, “After renouncing white supremacist ideology, Virginia man sentenced to a year in prison,” Washington Post, February 28, 2020.

[119] “GW Extremism Tracker: ISIS in America: September 2020 Snapshot,” George Washington University, Program on Extremism.

[120] “Designation of the Russian Imperial Movement: Remarks by Nathan A. Sales, Coordinator for Counterterrorism,” U.S. Department of State, April 6, 2020.

[121] Tim Lister, “The Nexus Between Far-Right Extremists in the United States and Ukraine,” CTC Sentinel 13:4 (2020).

[122] See Andrew Exum, “Why Military Chiefs Are Condemning White Supremacy,” Atlantic, August 17, 2017, and Dave Philipps, “White Supremacism in the U.S. Military, Explained,” New York Times, February 27, 2019.

[123] For more, see Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018).

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