Part IV. What is the Threat to the United States Today?

Photo: Flickr user: nostri-imago. Creative commons license.

The Terrorist Threat is From Across the Political Spectrum

The main terrorist threat today in the United States is best understood as emerging from across the political spectrum, as ubiquitous firearms, political polarization, and other factors have combined with the power of online communication and social media to generate a complex and varied terrorist threat that crosses ideologies and is largely disconnected from traditional understandings of terrorist organizations.

No jihadist foreign terrorist organization has directed a deadly attack inside the United States since 9/11, and no deadly jihadist attacker has received training or support from groups abroad. In the almost 18 years after 9/11, jihadists have killed 107 people inside the United States. This death toll is virtually the same as that from far-right terrorism (consisting of anti-government, white supremacist, and anti-abortion violence), which has killed 109 people. The United States has also seen attacks in recent years inspired by ideological misogyny and black separatist/nationalist ideology. Individuals motivated by these ideologies have killed eight people each. America's terrorism problem today is homegrown and is not the province of any one group or ideological perspective.

Deadly Attacks by Ideology and Year

Hover over a square for information on the deadly attack.

America’s Layered Defenses

While the United States has seen a series of deadly attacks by individuals and pairs inspired by jihadism, the United States today is a hard target for foreign terrorist organizations, which have not directed and carried out a successful deadly attack in the country since 9/11. This is the result of a layered set of defenses including tips from local communities, members of the public, and the widespread use of informants.

A deadly attack directed from abroad cannot be ruled out. For example, the 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot by Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab—who was trained and directed by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—failed only because the explosive didn’t work. The Times Square bomb plot by Faisal Shahzad, who in 2010 managed to place a car bomb in Times Square undetected after training with the Pakistani Taliban, which again did not detonate properly, is another example. Despite these cases, the most likely threat continues to be lone individuals or pairs inspired by jihadist ideology without the type of extensive plotting, communication, or travel activity that would tip off the layered counterterrorism defense system.