The 9/11 attacks impressed upon all Americans that terrorism was a threat that we could not ignore. It remains so today.
Terrorism is the use of illegal force by an individual or group to attain a goal through force, fear, and intimidation. It can include mass shootings, as in the New Zealand mosques, attacks on churches and hotels as in Sri Lanka, suicide bombers in Paris, and drive-by attacks in New York City.
Terrorism is a genuine national security threat, both at home and abroad. It is a diverse threat that constantly evolves. It may be lessening, although we can never be sure. It is not likely to disappear. As of early July, there have been 1,264 terrorist attacks around the world this year, causing 5,763 fatalities. In the U.S., there have been eight terrorist attacks.
Unlike some other perils that we face — for example, the uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons — terrorism is not an existential threat. But it can be difficult to deal with.
To a large extent, the challenge of identifying, responding to and preventing terrorist acts falls to local and state law enforcement agencies. These authorities already have their hands full fighting crime and maintaining order at the local level.
On the national and international stage, high-profile terrorist groups, especially ISIS, control much less territory than they did a few years ago, but their threat has multiplied. In some ways, it has grown even more menacing. Terrorists have extended their networks beyond the Middle East and into North Africa, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. They strike targets in those regions and inspire attacks in the West. The number of such attacks worldwide has increased dramatically since 9/11, and so has the number of self-professed jihadists.
Terrorists seek footholds where fragile or corrupt states fail to provide justice, security and basic services. This unsettled world is a messy place, full of violence, instability and human suffering. In this environment, terrorism thrives.
The threat of terrorism, and the turmoil it creates, presents us with some daunting policy questions: When do we get involved in other people’s disputes? What U.S. interests are we protecting? How do we engage, and when is the right time? Do we act alone or in partnership with others? Who are our partners?
U.S. policymakers have a variety of tools to try to deal with terrorism, as with other national security threats. Not all of them involve military force and intervention, but some do. And the question of intervention after terrorist attacks is one of the most consequential decisions that we face. Once we intervene, we have to define objectives, avoid unending wars, measure and achieve success and — too often overlooked — have an exit strategy. Most Americans are understandably wary, even skeptical of foreign intervention.
Terrorism cannot be solved with military force alone. Our military can win wars and stabilize conflicts, but that doesn’t mean it can build the institutions of democracy and the rule of law necessary to stop terrorism. So, the hardest task in fighting terrorism may well be to develop the skills of nation building to prevent the rise of terrorism.
From a description of just a few of the central realities of our national security challenges — nuclear proliferation, the economy, energy, China, cybersecurity, turmoil and terrorism — you get an idea of how many there are, how daunting their complexity, and how many resources will be demanded to address them.
Several of these threats can’t be solved, but they can be managed. And our success in doing so will, in many ways, define our future as a country.
Lee H. Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government, a distinguished scholar at the IU School of Global and International Studies, and a professor of practice at the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.