Abstract: The terrorist threat today is growing increasingly diverse, and although counterterrorism no longer sits atop the United States’ national security hierarchy, it remains an omnipresent challenge, manifesting primarily through terrorist networks like al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State. Although questions remain over the leadership and strategy of these groups, they are nonetheless still intent on undermining the West and spreading jihadi doctrine throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Threats endure from state-sponsored terrorism as well as from domestic extremists, too, with the latter presenting a rising potential for violence during the upcoming presidential election season. The danger, now, is that in its prioritization of other national security issues, the United States becomes complacent in its counterterrorism fight. Our longstanding extremist adversaries stand prepared to strike, and eternal vigilance is essential.
Among the memorable aphorisms of Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld was his answer to a reporter’s question at a Pentagon briefing just a few months after America’s war on terror commenced. When asked about Iraqi possession of weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s alleged ties to al-Qa`ida, Rumsfeld famously explained that:
There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.1
It is an apt summation of the global and domestic landscape of terrorism today. There are some known knowns, such as the fact that counterterrorism is no longer the overriding national security priority for the United States that it was for nearly two decades. In addition, we have known unknowns, such as the abiding threat posed by longstanding terrorist adversaries like al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State including who will succeed Ayman al-Zawahiri as al-Qa`ida’s emir and how successful the Biden administration’s “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism strategy will prove in the long-term, as well as the resurrection of an old threat made new: state-sponsored terrorism. And, finally, there are unknown unknowns, foremost of which is the trajectory of domestic terrorism as political divisions in the United States deepen in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election.
This overview provides a snapshot of continuing and emergent terrorist threats and counterterrorism challenges organized around Secretary Rumsfeld’s three categories of threat analysis. Rumsfeld’s guiding paradigm is not intended to be a systematic or perfect overview of the range of terrorist threats and adversaries nor does this article explore all types of terrorist threat for each of Rumsfeld’s categories. Instead, it provides a potentially useful prism through which to assess the uncertainty of currently unfolding and future potential salient extremist and terrorist threats to the U.S. homeland and its allies abroad.
The Known Knowns: Counterterrorism is no longer the preeminent U.S. national security concern, despite terrorism remaining an enduring threat.
For nearly two decades, counterterrorism was America’s foremost defense and national security priority. That changed in 2018 with the release of the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy. As Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis explained, “We are facing increased global disorder, characterized by decline in the long-standing rules-based international order—creating a security environment more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory. Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”2
The long promised but unfulfilled “pivot to Asia,” advanced during President Obama’s first term in office,3 was the driving force behind this rebalancing of U.S. defense and national security priorities implemented by President Trump. President Biden, who had been vice president when Obama commenced this shift, has continued along this same path. “War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multi-generational undertaking. We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives. Bin Laden is dead, and al Qaeda is degraded in … Afghanistan. And it’s time to end the forever war,”4 Biden declared within months of assuming office. He made good on the pledge with the completion of the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021, when he reiterated that, “there’s nothing China or Russia would rather have, would want more in this competition than the United States to be bogged down another decade in Afghanistan.”5
Regardless of the merits of this decision (against which these authors argued6), the withdrawal itself was shambolic. U.S. forces, for instance, abandoned the mammoth Bagram airfield and facility without notice, thus allowing some 5,000 imprisoned al-Qa`ida, Islamic State, and Taliban terrorists to escape from both that prison and the Afghan National Detention Facility at Pul-e-Charkhi7—including, according to U.S. government sources, some three-dozen senior al-Qa`ida operatives.8
In mid-August 2021, as the Taliban advanced on Kabul and the Afghan government started to collapse, President Biden promised that the United States possessed an “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism capability that “will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed.”9 The effectiveness of this strategy was almost immediately called into question when tragedy struck on August 26, 2021, at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport. Concealed within the crowds seeking places on the final departing flights was an Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISK) terrorist who detonated a bomb that killed over 180 people—including 13 U.S. military personnel—and injured more than 150 others.10 This prompted one unnamed U.S. intelligence official to dismiss the administration’s claims as more “over-the-rainbow” than “over-the-horizon.”11 Additional proof of the challenges of this much-touted counterterrorism strategy was also tragically provided three days later when a U.S. drone strike meant to disrupt a suspected follow-on ISK attack unintentionally killed Afghan civilians—among whom were seven children.12
The successful targeted killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri by a CIA drone on July 31, 2022, arguably provided needed proof of the viability of America’s “over-the-horizon” strategy. The al-Qa`ida leader was killed as he appeared on the balcony of a villa in Kabul’s tony Shirpur neighborhood—where he reportedly lived as a guest of long-time terrorist and Taliban Minister of the Interior Sirajuddin Haqqani.13 The fact that al-Zawahiri was living more or less openly in a house linked to Haqqani clearly revealed the falsity of Taliban assurances to the United States during the Doha negotiations that they would not allow Afghanistan again to become a terrorist safe haven.14 It also raised new questions about whether the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, rather than ending “the forever war,” in Biden’s words, may in fact extend it if indeed al-Qa`ida has re-established, and continues to consolidate, its presence.
Finally, far from validating the “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism approach, the al-Zawahiri strike perhaps underscored its challenges. Al-Zawahiri, after all, was hiding in plain sight. U.S. intelligence had reportedly tracked al-Zawahiri’s wife, daughter, and grandchildren to Kabul and eventually confirmed that the al-Qa`ida leader was living with them. In fact, al-Zawahiri felt so safe and secure that he frequently emerged onto his balcony, thus enabling confirmation.15 As some observers have noted, the success of any counterterrorist operation is predicated on on-the-ground human intelligence, which was likely relatively easily obtained in this instance. But, in less permissive, rural environments and more typically security-conscious terrorist hiding places, the United States has likely largely deprived itself of such essentials by leaving Afghanistan.16
Indeed, the other high-profile counterterrorism success of the Biden administration, the assassination of Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi in northern Syria in February 2022, was not actually a triumph of “over-the-horizon” capabilities, but a clear sign of the importance of forward basing. The raiding party had flown from a U.S. special operations forces base in Syria.17
The Known Unknowns: al-Qa`ida, the question of who will lead al-Qa`ida, the Islamic State, and Iranian state-sponsored terrorism
As we enter the third decade of the post-9/11 war on terrorism, several facts are assured: Both salafi-jihadi and state-sponsored adversaries will maintain their intentions to attack both the U.S. homeland as well as American interests and allies abroad. But the primary form and leadership of those threats remains unclear.
The Jihadi Terror Threat
Although al-Zawahiri’s elimination will likely hinder al-Qa`ida’s core operations for the time being, its affiliates remain resilient and strong. In July, in the latest of its invaluable and industry-leading biannual reports, the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team shed new light on al-Qa`ida’s current strength. Beyond Afghanistan, the movement is thought to include 7,000 to 12,000 fighters in its al-Shabaab affiliate in Somalia; a few thousand with its Syrian wing, Hurras al-Din; a few thousand more with al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula; 180-400 with al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS); and still more fighters with its expanding Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) in Mali and the Sahel.18 Although these numbers remain relatively consistent, at least since our last assessment in this publication in 2021, they indicate the global movement’s enduring relevance and continued recruitment.19 Indeed, JNIM’s gains and its opportunity to now trumpet the notion that it achieved withdrawal of French military forces from Mali is an ominous sign of the al-Qa`ida movement’s resiliency and strength.20
The threats posed by each of these affiliates are more local or cross-border than regional, much less global. But some harbor ambitions to strike internationally. Since 2016, for instance, al-Shabaab—doubtless al-Qa`ida’s least technologically proficient franchise—has sought to replicate the movement’s spectacular 9/11 attacks by training pilots and operatives to hijack commercial aircraft and crash them into buildings. In the last few years, two al-Shabaab terrorists have been arrested in the Philippines and Africa taking flying lessons.21 In May 2022, accordingly, President Biden reversed his predecessor’s decision to withdraw even the modest number of U.S. military personnel supporting the Somalian government’s campaign against al-Shabaab, a key exception to the “over-the-horizon” approach taken elsewhere that underscored the rising terrorist threat in that country and its potential spread both regionally and even internationally.22 Al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) also retains an external operations capability, and helped coordinate the 2019 Pensacola shooting, the only successful foreign-originated plot on U.S. soil since 9/11.23 As for Afghanistan, it admittedly remains unclear if al-Qa`ida currently plans to expand its external operations, with the U.N. Monitoring Team commenting that the group “does not currently wish to cause the Taliban international difficulty or embarrassment.”24 This is also the view of the U.S. intelligence community, which assesses that “neither the few remaining al-Qa’ida core members nor its regional affiliate are plotting to attack the Homeland, and we have no indications that these individuals are involved in external attack plotting.”25
Like al-Qa`ida, the Islamic State’s demise has often been foretold only to prove premature. Much like the killing of Usama bin Ladin in 2011 did not lead to the demise of the movement he founded—and nor will that of al-Zawahiri—the targeted killings of the Islamic State’s founder, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October 2019 and his successor, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, this February have not precipitated that movement’s collapse either. Some 40 days (the traditional Muslim period of mourning) after al-Qurashi’s death, the Islamic State announced the appointment of a new emir—Abu Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi. This leadership transition was remarkably smooth. In testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, National Counterterrorism Center Director Christine Abizaid commented that “ISIS members readily accepted the new leader” and that the U.S. intelligence community saw “no signs of fissures or splintering by the branches and networks despite limitations the group faces in Iraq and Syria.” 26 However, this latest emir was also relatively quickly killed, detonating a suicide vest during a Free Syrian Army (FSA) operation in Jasem in Deraa governorate in October.27 The Islamic State announced that the new emir was Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi. This latest leadership transition, and the world’s whack-a-mole approach to Islamic State leaders, lends greater credence to the warning given by General Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, in 2020: “This threat is not going away. There’s never going to be a time I believe when either ISIS or whatever follows ISIS is going to be completely absent from the global stage.”28 The prior emir’s presence in Deraa province, a government area in Syria’s southwest, may, however, indicate a shifting frontline away from Kurdish-held land in the northeast and toward other, more lucrative targets, from the terrorism threat perspective, of Israel and Jordan.
General McKenzie’s dispiriting assessment had likely been influenced by the Islamic State’s stubborn persistence in Syria and Iraq—where, until its final defeat in 2019, the group ruled eight million people in captured territory comprising 41,000 square miles (a third of Syria and about 40 percent of Iraq).29 Some 6,000 to 10,000 Islamic State fighters there prosecute an ongoing insurgency against a variety of state and non-state adversaries. They are complemented by 200 to 400 fighters with Ahl al-Sunna wal-Jama‘a in Mozambique; 500 fighters with Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in Egypt; fewer than 100 in Libya; 200 to 280 in Somalia; 200 with Islamic State East Asia in the southern Philippines; a fierce and violent Khorasan Province faction in Afghanistan; and additional fighters with the Allied Democratic Forces in Uganda, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara in the Sahel, the Islamic State West Africa Province, and its Yemeni branch.30 The various affiliates’ pledges of allegiance despite the network’s frequent leadership transitions indicate it remains cohesive as a global movement, and retains the ability to inspire support and loyalty among affiliates around the region.
As a case study, the movement’s gains in Mozambique illustrate its continued traction. As the self-proclaimed caliphate was contracting under the weight of the large global coalition mobilized against the Islamic State, the movement was fruitfully expanding elsewhere. Starting in 2017, the Islamic State operations in Mozambique have claimed the lives of over 3,000 persons and created an internally displaced population of nearly a million.31 It has also threatened Mozambique’s liquefied natural gas resources, the third largest reserves in Africa, which have assumed new importance as a result of the disruption to Ukraine’s natural gas exports caused by Russia’s invasion.32
Indeed, despite the enduring challenges posed by the Levant, Africa continues to emerge as the world’s leading terrorism hotspot. The Global Terrorism Index’s 2022 report found that the preceding year had seen “serious deteriorations in many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), especially the Sahel. Forty-eight per cent, or 3,461, of all terrorism deaths globally occurred in SSA with four of the ten countries with the largest increases in deaths from terrorism residing in SSA: Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, and Niger. Three of these countries are in the Sahel.” These numbers were actually an improvement on the previous year’s figures, largely due to counterinsurgency successes against Boko Haram in Nigeria, which has perhaps displayed the vulnerability of this network in the face of effective countermeasures.33 a Terrorist groups in the region, however, continue to benefit from poor governance exacerbated by political turmoil, such as the recent coups d’état in Burkina Faso.34 Not every Islamic State branch around the world is thriving, but in Afghanistan, the Islamic State affiliate there spread throughout the entire country and carried out 334 attacks in 2021—a 140 percent increase over the previous year.35
Like al-Qa`ida, therefore, the threat posed by the Islamic State remains mostly local and regional—and not international. However, the movement continues its longstanding efforts to inspire violent attacks in the West, through small cells and individuals radicalized online and inspired to attack their home countries.36 Meanwhile, the United States and its allies continue to struggle to resolve the legal quagmire regarding the many Islamic State fighters taken prisoner during the group’s final stands in 2019 and their families. An estimated 120,000 prisoners and dependents now reside in several camps around northeastern Syria, including 30,000 children under the age of 12. The Islamic State continues to deliberately target these minors for radicalization.37
Given the protean nature of all the above, there are several possibilities—especially pertaining to terrorist modus operandi—that could emerge. Will salafi-jihadi terrorist groups, for instance, take advantage of their newfound freedom and choose to return to the 9/11 model, featuring central coordination and directed attacks, or will they mostly continue the model of inspiring sympathetic lone actors in Western countries that proved so tactically successful during the Islamic State years? And secondly, will they use their safe havens to resume attacks against their historic “far enemy,” the United States and its allies, or will they predominantly take advantage of their geographic diversity to escalate local jihads that seek to overthrow local regimes and build caliphate micro-states?38 Of course, jihadi groups have perfected blending strategies and making adjustments based on the conditions they face. A key question, then, is just how well will the United States manage these threats, given a commitment to a still untested, sustained “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism strategy while its attention is increasingly reassigned to other national security priorities?
At least so far as al-Qa`ida is concerned, much will depend on who succeeds al-Zawahiri as that movement’s emir. A variety of sources suggest it will be long-time al-Qa`ida operative and bin Ladin loyalist Saif al-`Adl.39 Whether and when al-`Adl becomes al-Qa`ida’s new emir remains unclear. However, if he does, he will bring credibility to the leadership role given his long and variegated experiences in the movement stretching back decades. As an architect of the 2005 “Master Plan” or seven-stage strategy to victory that bin Ladin adopted,40 al-`Adl is well placed to carry on the struggle. Instead of the 852-page, didactic treatise al-Zawahiri produced,41 al-`Adl, as his entire history with al-Qa`ida suggests, would likely embrace a more practical, building-block approach to the continued prosecution of its local, regional, and international terrorism campaigns. His excellent and often deeply personal relations with many of the movement’s franchises, including in Syria, East Africa, and Afghanistan, will smooth his presumed transition into the top leadership post. It is the authors’ assessment that should this in fact materialize, al-`Adl is likely to eschew spectacular operations such as the 9/11 attacks and instead refocus al-Qa`ida on targeting embassies and consulates, tourist destinations, and commercial aviation.42
In addition to these ongoing threats from the established terrorist movements of al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State and their respective branches, there are the challenges posed by state-sponsors of terrorism. As Seth Jones, who directs the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), has warned, “While conventional warfare—clashes between large military forces—defined twentieth-century power, irregular warfare will increasingly define international politics in the coming decades.”43
Foremost among those states employing irregular warfare, covert operations, and surrogate terrorism is the Islamic Republic of Iran. From the time of the 1979 revolution that deposed the Shah and brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power, international terrorism has been a prominent feature of Iran’s foreign policy.44 In recent years, Iran’s use of terrorism as an instrument of its foreign policy has intensified.45 The Iranian regime, for instance, maintains an active proxy warfare program in the Middle East and beyond, dispatching its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the elite Quds Force around the region to support partner militias involved in wars and quagmires.46 Its greatest accomplishment is arguably the life support that Iran has provided to the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. A range of Iran-backed militias—including Lebanon’s Hezbollah—have intervened on the regime’s behalf. Tehran’s involvement in Syria has also presented a direct and active threat to U.S. military forces in the region, most notably through repeated missile attacks from groups such as Kataib Hezbollah—the longstanding anti-American and U.S. State Department terrorist-designated Iraqi Shi`a militia.47 Iran’s most recent effort to supply kamikaze drones and other weaponry to the Russian invasion of Ukraine is further evidence of its willingness to destabilize other regions in pursuance of its foreign policy priorities.48
More concerning from an American perspective, however, is the intensification of Iranian-sponsored terrorism in the United States itself. Iran has a long history of covertly operating in the United States to eliminate dissidents and other enemies. In 1980, for instance, Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a former press attaché at the Iranian Embassy before the revolution and outspoken opponent of the Khomeini regime, was murdered in suburban Washington, D.C.49 And, in 2011, an Iranian-orchestrated plot was disrupted to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States at an upscale Washington, D.C., restaurant.50 An Iranian-American living in Texas, whose cousin was serving in the Quds Force, had been enlisted to orchestrate the attack. The would-be assassin had responded “no big deal” to a suggestion the attack might kill scores of others, including prominent elected officials who frequented the restaurant.51 He is currently serving a 25-year sentence in a U.S. federal penitentiary.52
More recently, there has been an upsurge in such Iranian-backed or -inspired terrorist plotting in the United States. After President Trump began questioning the results of the 2020 presidential election, Iran uploaded a “hit list” of prominent government officials refuting his claims—thus explicitly encouraging violence on U.S. soil in direct contravention of American sovereignty.53 Then, in August 2022, an American citizen attacked author Salman Rushdie, stabbing and seriously wounding him onstage at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa against Rushdie in 1989 for alleged blasphemy in his novel The Satanic Verses.54 Additionally, in one of many recently revealed Iranian plots to silence dissidents, a Brooklyn, New York-based Wall Street Journal reporter, human rights activist, and prominent critic of the Iranian regime was the target of a 2021 kidnap plot and then of an assassination attempt a year later.55 And, earlier this year, a member of the IRGC was charged by the Department of Justice for orchestrating a “murder-for-hire” plot against former National Security Advisor John Bolton as well as a “second target,” seemingly in retaliation for the January 2020 killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.56 Iranian assassination plots have also targeted dissidents and journalists in Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and elsewhere.57
Finally, Russia has conducted a range of influence and information operations against its Western adversaries, including its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election (and again in the 2022 midterms).58 In the years since, Russia has continued its open flirtation with violent elements of the American far-right. Perhaps the most egregious example is the case of Rinaldo Nazzaro (aka Norman Spear), the St. Petersburg, Russia-based leader of the American neo-Nazi terrorist group The Base.59 In 2020, the U.S. State Department designated a Russian violent, far-right group, the Russian Imperial Movement, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.60 As its global influence wanes in the wake of its Ukraine invasion, Russia may seek to resurrect its irregular campaigns in the United States.
The Unknown Unknowns: Political violence in the United States in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election—and after
Unfortunately, in the assessment of these authors, the greatest threat to the United States now comes from within its own borders. And the uncertainty of when and where the next serious act of politically motivated domestic violence will occur and against whom and what its continued trajectory will bring is the preeminent “unknown unknown.”
The most significant terrorist threat to the homeland today comes from domestic terrorism connected to the violent far-right, broadly defined here to include both white supremacist and white nationalist networks as well as anti-government extremists. The most recent annual report of the Anti-Defamation League found that almost 90 percent of extremist killings in 2021 had been perpetrated by “right-wing extremists”—continuing a trend over the past decade, with 75 percent of the almost 450 extremist-related murders in the United States since 2012 having been perpetrated by the far-right.61 The ADL data does not account for the most serious terrorist incident in 2022, a mass shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo in May that claimed 10 lives.62 The ADL’s data, which uses deaths as its primary unit of analysis, also fails to account for the true magnitude of 2021’s most consequential terrorism incident—the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Like many salafi-jihadi networks, the violent far-right poses a double-pronged threat. In general, the movement adheres to the “leaderless resistance” instruction given by the notorious American white-supremacist Louis Beam in 1992.63 This strategy, which encourages small cell and lone actor violence, has allowed many of the movement’s most violent acolytes to evade counterterrorism detection. But other factions of the movement still seek to organize as collective entities—among whom are the Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, Proud Boys, Patriot Front, and boogaloo bois, to cite only the most prominent.64 They are sustained largely by conspiracy theories demonizing a range of enemies. A variety of recent attacks, including Buffalo but also even more lethal incidents in Pittsburgh, El Paso, Norway, and New Zealand, were inspired by the so-called “great replacement” theory, which holds that a deliberate replacement of the white population in Western states is underway, funded and organized by Jews and other elites.65 Great replacement theory, also sometimes dubbed “white genocide” theory, allows white supremacist terrorists to portray themselves as reluctant, altruistic defenders of a white homeland—an intoxicating lie that has caused violence to erupt in places of worship across the United States and beyond.66 Other conspiracy theories similarly denigrate “cabals” of elites—including QAnon, which holds that former President Donald Trump was somehow divinely elected to expose Satan-worshipping, child sex-trafficking pedophiles.67
Yet more conspiracy theories have targeted elections—articulating the widely held view that the 2020 election was stolen by the Democrats and that Trump is still the rightful president. In the lead-up to the 2022 midterms, various law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, provided warnings of the threat to poll workers. In 2021, the Department of Justice established a task force to fight threats against election workers.68 There is also an escalating terrorist threat against public officials. In fact, in the six years since President Trump’s election year, threats against members of Congress have risen tenfold69—with some members of Congress now spending more than ever on their own security.70 The 2022 midterms, accordingly, were nervously watched for signs of violence, and although more serious and widespread violence was fortunately avoided, an attempted kidnapping targeting the Speaker of the House that seriously wounded her husband and threats against Jewish communities in New Jersey and New York provided an important reminder of the elevated terrorism threat that now always accompanies U.S. elections71—and will likely impact the 2024 presidential election, too.72
The violent far-right threat is likely to remain elevated as long as conspiracy theories targeting pandemics, elections, and the Democratic Party remain so widespread. We live in a febrile political climate, where new events and sociocultural developments have the potential to inspire new terrorist plots in near real-time—as displayed when a gunman attempted to enter an FBI office in Cincinnati after the Bureau raided Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago.73 Indeed, the violent far-right today is fractured, with multiple unique ideological streams producing their own calls to violence and justifications for more militant action.74 Notably, these streams often converge with one another, blurring traditionally conceptualized boundaries between extremist ideologies.
It is in the threats to politicians that one is reminded of an enduring, albeit mostly dormant, threat from the violent far-left. In June, a would-be assassin aborted an attempt on conservative Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s life while near the justice’s home.75 And in 2017, a far-left extremist opened fire at a Republican team practice for the annual Congressional Baseball Game, seriously wounding House majority whip Steve Scalise before being fatally shot.76 Conservative media and politicians have focused much of their animus against antifa—an amorphous anarchist network that predominantly engages in wanton vandalism and criminal rioting—but the most dangerous violent far-left terrorists are frequently inspired by single-issue causes, from abortion rights to climate change to police killings of unarmed Black men.
The Biden administration has actively addressed these domestic terrorism threats through both new policy and legislative initiatives as well as through aggressive prosecutions. In response to the spread of domestic political violence, the White House released in June 2021 the first-ever National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. More recently, it convened a special summit titled “United We Stand” that was focused on developing effective responses to the rise of domestic terrorism.77 Proposed bipartisan legislation has sought to curb gun violence in the United States and is also expected to address electoral certification rules, the latter designed to prevent another January 6.78
More than three decades ago, the Department of Justice suffered a crippling blow in its efforts to fight the violent far-right when its attempt to prosecute 14 prominent white supremacist and anti-government extremists on seditious conspiracy charges failed at Fort Smith, Arkansas.79 Although it is among one of the most difficult federal charges to prove (prior to 2022, the last person convicted in a U.S. court of seditious conspiracy was the ‘blind sheikh,’ Omar Abdel Rahman, in 1995),b prosecutors nonetheless have brought seditious conspiracy charges against several extremist leaders over their roles in January 6. The 16 defendants include leaders and members of the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys. On March 2, Joshua James, a leader of the Oath Keepers’ Alabama chapter, pleaded guilty—marking a transformative moment in the government’s efforts to combat violent far-right terrorism that has since been followed by additional guilty pleas, including among Proud Boys.80 On November 29, two of the defendants in the first of several seditious conspiracy trials related to January 6, including Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes, were found guilty of seditious conspiracy—a legal and political watershed providing incontrovertible proof that January 6, as well as the longstanding anti-government activism that inspired it, were in fact organized and deliberate efforts to overthrow the United States government.81
The preceding analysis is not a comprehensive or complete assessment of every tactical terrorist threat. Nor is it a perfect elucidation of the predictability of each category. Instead, it provides a strategic assessment of the preeminent dangers ahead and the questions that remain unanswerable for counterterrorism scholars and practitioners alike.
As noted, perhaps the most consequential development over the last 15 years has been the relegation of terrorism and counterterrorism from the predominant concern of U.S. national security and defense planners to a mere frustration distracting from more pressing concerns including China and Russia, nuclear proliferation, climate change, and pandemics. Indeed, terrorism was ranked as the seventh sub-bullet in a list of “global priorities” in the Biden administration’s national security strategy released in October 2022.82 And yet, terrorism threats have stubbornly refused to subside. In fact, as the preceding analysis indicates, terrorism threats have actually proliferated—growing both more diverse and diffuse. Counterterrorism practitioners, then, are left with what we have termed a “counterterrorism dilemma”—an impossible situation in which threats accelerate while resources dwindle.83 As Edmund Fitton-Brown, the former United Nations Coordinator for the ISIL (Daesh)/Al-Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team, observed in an interview published in CTC Sentinel in August 2022: “If you think about geostrategic priorities, if you think about climate change, if you think about public health, then this is a world in which counterterrorism has to fight for resources, and it will get a diminishing share of the pie … So counterterrorism is a diminishing share of a diminishing pie, and if you add complacency into that mix, you are on a short route back to a major threat.”84
But terrorist threats are intersectional, weaving through other national security concerns including near-peer competition and a broader assault on Western democracy from within, as displayed by state adversaries like Russia and Iran exploiting turmoil in the U.S. political system to their own benefit. Terrorists also thrive in times of complacency, and while a drawdown of kinetic operations is perhaps a welcome development after more than two decades of expeditionary warfare and global counterterrorism deployments, the current U.S. policy of relying on local and regional partners is likely to prolong the “forever war” it is meant to end. In its latest report, for instance, the U.N. Monitoring Team warned that ongoing conflicts provide particularly fruitful conditions for these terrorist networks. “The threat from ISIL and Al-Qaida remains relatively low in non-conflict zones, but is much higher in areas directly affected by conflict or neighbouring it,” the U.N. report declared. “Unless some of these conflicts are brought to a successful resolution, the Monitoring Team anticipates that one or more of them will incubate an external operational capability for ISIL, Al-Qaida or a related terrorist group. In this regard, the areas of most concern are Africa, Central and South Asia and the Levant, all of which include the active presence of both ISIL and Al-Qaida.”85 It is thus crucial that the United States and its allies remain engaged militarily, diplomatically, and in a humanitarian capacity to manage conflicts, ease suffering, and ensure terrorist organization remain on the defensive.
In the 15 years since its first issue, CTC Sentinel has covered al-Qa`ida’s stubborn resiliency—despite the killing of bin Ladin and almost the entirety of its original senior leadership—the meteoric rise of the Islamic State and the way in which it revolutionized terrorist radicalization and recruitment via social media, continued Iranian-sponsored violence in the Middle East and elsewhere, as well as white supremacist attacks from Oslo to Christchurch and Texas to New York. The lesson, then, is that as much as we might wish that the terrorist threat to the homeland has subsided, it has not. 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 directs the Center for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Twitter: @hoffman_bruce
Jacob Ware is a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an adjunct professor in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He sits on the editorial board of the Irregular Warfare Initiative at the Modern War Institute at West Point. Twitter: @Jacob_A_Ware
© 2022 Bruce Hoffman, Jacob Ware
[a] Recent reporting suggests human rights abuses were committed by the Nigerian government in its war against Boko Haram. Paul Carsten, Reade Levinson, David Lewis, and Libby George, “The Abortion Assault,” Reuters, December 7, 2022.
[b] Rahman was convicted for his roles in the 1993 bombing of New York City’s World Trade Center and a follow-on plot to stage a series of bombings against a variety of targets, including tunnels, bridges, the United Nations headquarters building, and the federal office building in lower Manhattan housing the FBI field office. See Carlton Larson, “Seditious Conspiracy Was the Right Charge for the January 6 Organizers,” Atlantic, January 15, 2022, and Alanna Durkin Richer and Lindsay Whitehurst, “EXPLAINER: Rare sedition charge at center of Jan. 6 trial,” Associated Press, September 28, 2022.
 “News Transcript: DoD News Briefing—Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers; Presenter: Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld,” U.S. Department Of Defense, February 12, 2002.
 “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of The United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge,” U.S. Department Of Defense.
 Kathy Gannon, “US left Afghan airfield at night, didn’t tell new commander,” Associated Press, July 6, 2021; Ivana Saric, “Thousands of prisoners freed by Taliban could pose threat to U.S.,” Axios, August 15, 2021; David Guttenfelder and David Zucchino, “At an Abandoned American Base, a Notorious Prison Lies Empty,” New York Times, December 21, 2021; Stefanie Glinski, “Taliban inmates turn guards at notorious Kabul prison,” National, September 14, 2021; Nick Paton Walsh and Sandi Sidhu, “Al Qaeda and Taliban members among thousands of prisoners left under Afghan control in jail next to deserted US air base,” CNN, July 6, 2021.
 A figure derived from authors’ conversations with U.S. government officials, August 2022.
 Lyse Doucet, “Ayman al-Zawahiri: Shock in Kabul as US kills al-Qaeda leader,” BBC, August 2, 2022; Shane Harris, “Zawahiri appeared on his balcony. The CIA was ready to kill him,” Washington Post, August 2, 2022; Matthew Lee, Nomaan Merchant, and Aamer Madhani, “Biden: Killing of al-Qaida leader is long-sought ‘justice,’” Associated Press, August 2, 2022.
 “The Death of Ayman al-Zawahiri: Press Statement by Anthony J. Blinken,” U.S. Department of State, August 1, 2022. See also Jake Harrington, “Zawahiri’s Death and What’s Next for al Qaeda,” CSIS, August 4, 2022, and Bruce Hoffman, “What Zawahiri’s Killing Means for al-Qaeda,” Council on Foreign Relations, August 2, 2022.
 “Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on a U.S. Counterterrorism Operation,” The White House, August 1, 2022. See also “How the CIA identified and killed Al-Qaeda leader Zawahiri,” Reuters, August 2, 2022, and “Lead Inspector General Report To The United States Congress, Operation Enduring Sentinel Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, July 1, 2022-September 30, 2022,” pp. v, 3, 8-10, 18, 24.
 Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware, “Biden’s Syria strike is an important win — but underscores the folly of leaving Afghanistan,” Hill, February 8, 2022. For more on al-Qurashi, 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).
 “Thirtieth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2610 (2021) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations Security Council, July 15, 2022.
 Catrina Doxsee, “The End of Operation Barkhane and the Future of Counterterrorism in Mali,” CSIS, March 2, 2022. See also “Last French troops leave Mali, ending nine-year deployment,” Al Jazeera, August 16, 2022, and “Why are French troops leaving Mali, and what will it mean for the region?” BBC, April 26, 2022.
 “Kenyan National Indicted for Conspiring to Hijack Aircraft on Behalf of the Al Qaeda-Affiliated Terrorist Organization Al Shabaab,” U.S. Department of Justice, December 16, 2020; 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; Benjamin Weiser, “Kenyan Planned 9/11-Style Attack After Training as Pilot, U.S. Says,” New York Times, December 16, 2020.
 Christine Abizaid, “United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs Annual Threat Assessment to the Homeland, Statement for the Record,” November 17, 2022. See also Colin Clarke, “The Pensacola Terrorist Attack: The Enduring Influence of al-Qa`ida and its Affiliates,” CTC Sentinel 13:3 (2020).
 “Thirtieth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.”
 “Memorandum, From National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson to Interested Parties, Re: Recently Released Partisan Report on the Afghanistan Withdrawal,” Fox News, August 2022; Jeff Seldin, “Afghan Terror Groups Pose Limited Threat to US, Assessments Find,” Voice of America, November 17, 2022.
 “Thirtieth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.”
 Sudarsan Raghavan, “ISIS fighters terrorize Mozambique, threaten gas supply amid Ukraine war,” Washington Post, October 20, 2022. See also Joseph Stepansky, “Mozambique’s conflict and the question of foreign intervention,” Al Jazeera, April 9, 2021.
 “Global Terrorism Index 2022: Measuring the Impact of Terrorism,” Institute for Economics & Peace, March 2022.
 See, for example, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, Seamus Hughes, and Bennett Clifford, Homegrown: ISIS in America (New York: Bloomsbury, 2020).
 “Thirtieth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.”
 Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Thomas Joscelyn, Enemies Near & Far: How Jihadist Groups Strategize, Plot, and Learn (New York: Columbia University Press, 2022).
 Ali Soufan, “Al-Qa`ida’s Soon-To-Be Third Emir? A Profile of Saif al-`Adl,” CTC Sentinel 14:2 (2021); “Image Allegedly Showing Presumed Zawahiri Successor in Iran Intended to Sow Controversy Among Jihadists,” SITE Intelligence Group, September 2, 2022.
 Brian H. Fishman, The Master Plan: ISIS, Al-Qaeda, And The Jihadi Strategy For Final Victory (New Haven; Yale University Press, 2016), pp. 34-37; Yassin Musharbash, “The Future of Terrorism: What al Qaida Really Wants,” Spiegel Online International, August 12, 2005; Bill Roggio, “The Seven Phases of The Base,” FDD’s Long War Journal, August 15, 2005.
 “AQ Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri Authors 852-page Book on History of Political Corruption in Muslim History,” SITE Intelligence Group: Jihadist Threat—Statements, September 10, 2021; Thomas Joscelyn, “Ayman Zawahiri promotes ‘Jerusalem Will Not Be Judaized’ campaign in new video,” FDD’s Long War Journal, September 11, 2021; Joby Warrick, “As opportunity beckons in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda’s leader squabbles and writes ‘comically boring’ books,” Washington Post, September 21, 2021.
 Authors’ assessment derived from extensive discussions with U.S. government officials, August 2022.
 Seth G. Jones, Three Dangerous Men (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2021), p. 4.
 See Al Kamen, “Two Get Jail In Murder of Iranian Exile,” Washington Post, February 19, 1982; David Ottaway, “The Lone Assassin,” Washington Post, August 25, 1996; and Ira Silverman, “An American Terrorist,” New Yorker, July 28, 2002.
 Reis Thebault, “Iranian agents once plotted to kill the Saudi ambassador in D.C. The case reads like a spy thriller,” Washington Post, January 4, 2020; “France blames Iran for foiled Paris bomb plot,” BBC, October 2, 2018.
 “Manssor Arbabsiar Sentenced in New York City Federal Court to 25 Years in Prison for Conspiring with Iranian Military Officials to Assassinate the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States,” U.S. Department of Justice, May 30, 2013.
 See Masih Alinejad, “Iran Tried to Kill Me on American Soil,” Wall Street Journal, August 7, 2022; James Fanelli, “Man Arrested With Assault-Style Rifle near Home of Iranian Dissident,” Wall Street Journal, July 31, 2022; Navid Mohebbi and Cameron Khansarinia, “Iranian Terror Comes to America,” Wall Street Journal, July 20, 2021; and Deanna Paul, “Iranian Intelligence Plotted to Kidnap U.S.-Based Activist, Prosecutors Say,” Wall Street Journal, July 14, 2021.
 “Member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Charged with Plot to Murder the Former National Security Advisor,” U.S. Department of Justice, August 10, 2022; “Iranian man charged in John Bolton assassination plot,” CBS News, August 10, 2022.
 Ann M. Simmons, “Russian Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin Appears to Admit Interference in U.S. Elections,” Wall Street Journal, November 7, 2022.
 Ben Makuch, “He Founded an American Neo-Nazi Terror Group. But Will Rinaldo Nazzaro Ever Face US Justice?” Vice, October 18, 2022; Daniel De Simone, Andrei Soshnikov, and Ali Winston, “Neo-Nazi Rinaldo Nazzaro running US militant group The Base from Russia,” BBC, January 24, 2020.
 See Louis Beam, “Leaderless Resistance,” Seditionist 12 Final Edition (1992). See also Klanwatch/Militia Task Force, False Patriots: The Threat Of Antigovernment Extremists (Montgomery, AL: Southern Poverty Law Center, 1996), p. 40.
 For profiles in this publication on the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, and the boogaloo movement, respectively, see Matthew Kriner and Jon Lewis, “The Oath Keepers and Their Role in the January 6 Insurrection,” CTC Sentinel 14:10 (2021); Matthew Kriner and Jon Lewis, “Pride & Prejudice: The Violent Evolution of the Proud Boys,” CTC Sentinel 14:6 (2021); and Matthew Kriner and Jon Lewis, “The Evolution of the Boogaloo Movement,” CTC Sentinel 14:2 (2021).
 For more on great replacement theory in each of these attacks, see Jason Wilson and Aaron Flanagan, “The Racist ‘Great Replacement’ Conspiracy Theory Explained,” Southern Poverty Law Center, May 17, 2022, and Matthew Kriner, Meghan Conroy, Alex Newhouse, and Jonathan Lewis, “Understanding Accelerationist Narratives: The Great Replacement Theory,” Global Network on Extremism & Technology, May 30, 2022.
 See, for example, “New threats to election workers,” Axios, October 18, 2022; “Justice Department Launches Task Force to Combat Threats Against Election Workers,” U.S. Department of Justice, July 29, 2021; “FBI Cautions About Threats to Election Workers Ahead of the November 2022 Midterm Elections,” FBI, October 12, 2022.
 Stephanie Lai, Luke Broadwater, and Carl Hulse, “Lawmakers Confront a Rise in Threats and Intimidation, and Fear Worse,” New York Times, October 1, 2022; Ruby Cramer, “When a man with a pistol shows up outside a congresswoman’s house,” Washington Post, September 8, 2022.
 “Man Charged with Assault and Attempted Kidnapping Following Breaking and Entering of Pelosi Residence,” U.S. Department of Justice, October 31, 2022; Gregory Yee, “Federal grand jury indictment reveals new details in attack on Paul Pelosi,” Los Angeles Times, November 9, 2022; Sam Cabral, “FBI identifies ‘source of threat’ to New Jersey synagogue,” BBC, November 5, 2022.
 Ben Collins, Ryan J. Reilly, Jason Abbruzzese, and Jonathan Dienst, “Man who fired nail gun at FBI building called for violence on Truth Social in days after Mar-a-Lago search,” NBC News, August 12, 2022.
 Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), pp. 170-183.
 Quinn Owen, Alexander Mallin, and Luke Barr, “Oath Keeper is 1st to plead guilty to seditious conspiracy for Jan. 6, will cooperate with prosecutors,” ABC News, March 2, 2022; “Leader of Alabama Chapter of Oath Keepers Pleads Guilty to Seditious Conspiracy and Obstruction of Congress for Efforts to Stop Transfer of Power Following 2020 Presidential Election,” U.S. Department of Justice, March 2, 2022. For additional pleas, see Ryan Lucas, “A second Oath Keeper pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6 riot,” NPR, April 29, 2022; Ryan J. Reilly, “Third Oath Keepers defendant pleads guilty to sedition in Capitol riot case,” NBC News, May 4, 2022; and “Former Leader of Proud Boys Pleads Guilty To Seditious Conspiracy for Efforts to Stop Transfer of Power Following 2020 Presidential Election,” U.S. Department of Justice, October 6, 2022.
 “National Security Strategy,” The White House, October 2022.
 See, for example, Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware, “The counterterrorism dilemma,” Hill, September 11, 2021, and Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware, “January 6, the Afghanistan Withdrawal and the Future of U.S. Counterterrorism,” Lawfare, January 9, 2022.
 Paul Cruickshank and Madeline Field, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Edmund Fitton-Brown, Outgoing Coordinator, ISIL (Daesh)/Al-Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team, United Nations,” CTC Sentinel 15:8 (2022).
 “Thirtieth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.”