Middle East Politics & Diplomacy
Event Recap September 22, 2021

EVENT RECAP: The future of counterterrorism: Twenty years after 9/11

By Yaseen Rashed


On September 8, the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Forward Defense practice area and the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative hosted an event with US national security experts to discuss counterterrorism twenty years after 9/11 and reimagine the future of the terrorist threat. The event included: Frances F. Townsend, Board Director, Atlantic Council; Max Brooks, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council; August Cole, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council; Fred Kempe, President and CEO, Atlantic Council; and Barry Pavel, Senior Vice President and Director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council.

The event also hosted a panel discussion on updating the US approach to counterterrorism with Mary B. McCord, Visiting Professor of Law and Executive Director for the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, Georgetown Law School; Lieutenant General Michael Nagata, USA (Retired), Strategic Advisor and Senior Vice President, CACI; and Ambassador Nathan Sales, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council. Their discussion was moderated by Tom Warrick, Director of the Future of DHS Project and Nonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council. The event also featured remarks by Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security, National Security Council, Executive Office of the President.

Key takeaways

Every year, the anniversary of 9/11 forces a reflection not only on the harrowing events of that day, but also the implications of the US counterterrorism strategy twenty years later. Looking forward, Warrick argued that the US and its allies should not be restricted by the ideas and institutions of the past to inform the ever-evolving future of counterterrorism. Today’s terror threats look very different from those of twenty years ago and the US counterterrorism strategy must reflect this evolution.

Following the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, McCord emphasized the growing threat of domestic terrorism and argued that the active participation in extremist violent activity by law enforcement on that day drove a wedge between them and the communities they serve. She compares this trust deficit to the same trust deficit that existed between Muslim communities and law enforcement in the years following 9/11.

The Muslim community felt targeted by law enforcement which consequentially discouraged members from reporting suspicious or radicalizing behaviors. She asserts that we must learn from the past and not repeat the same mistakes when countering domestic terrorism. Dr. Sherwood-Randall highlighted that a future US counterterrorism strategy must set priorities and integrate counterterrorism efforts into a range of evolving national security challenges. Brooks and Cole also offered intriguing outlooks on imagining the future of terrorism and counterterrorism through fictional storytelling.

The future of US CT mission by Dr. Sherwood-Randall, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security, National Security Council, Executive Office of the President

Dr. Sherwood-Randall highlighted two key challenges facing the future of the US counterterrorism mission: countering terrorism effectively as the landscape evolves and integrating the US approach to terrorism into the broader set of current and emerging national security priorities.

To prepare for these challenges, Dr. Sherwood-Randall identified three core counterterrorism principles developed since President Joe Biden took office in January.

First, the US counterterrorism mission is not dealing with the same terror threats as two decades ago and, as these threats change, the US must keep pace. The most significant threat to national security today is posed by lone actors domestically, not foreign organizations, and the future of the US counterterror mission must adjust for these changes.

Second, the US must set priorities and integrate counterterrorism efforts into a range of evolving national security challenges, such as countering China’s aggression and cyberattacks. Finally, Dr. Sherwood-Randall emphasizes that countering terrorism will require a new approach that prioritizes diplomacy, development, and prevention efforts both abroad and at home to shape the environments in which terrorists thrive and recruit. These three principles would enable the future of the US counterterrorism mission to be flexible and adaptable and to evolve its strategy as US adversaries do.

Main policy recommendations

The panelists all agreed that US policy must reflect the evolving dynamics of the terror threats of today. McCord emphasized the threat domestic terrorism poses for the future of US counterterrorism missions. Citing the attack on the Capitol on January 6, McCord argued that the deficit of trust between marginalized communities and law enforcement must be repaired to build relationships with the communities we rely on to report radical and suspicious behavior. Repairing this trust deficit requires an increase in leaders’ attention and resources to civilian security and law enforcement.

Retired Lieutenant General Nagata further highlighted this point by outlining the important role rhetoric plays in counterterrorism. However, he notes that this rhetoric must be translated into actual investments, risk tolerance, and policy priority to counter the next generation of terror threats effectively. The panelists also discussed changes in the US military response to counterterrorism globally.

Ambassador Sales recommends that the US implement the Syria model in future global counterterrorism campaigns. Instead of large-scale troop deployments, the Syria model only deployed a few hundred special forces units on the front line, where they provide advice and training to local partners. This ensures that future terror threats will be effectively countered in partnership with allies while also limiting US presence and casualties on the ground.

Lastly, Dr. Sherwood-Randall noted that the US must keep focusing on counterterrorism as a top national security and foreign policy priority. She indicated that the US will continue to remain steadfast in protecting the homeland from a widening and diversifying range of national security challenges by emphasizing US partnerships and keeping pace with emerging terror threats.

Yaseen Rashed is a Young Global Professional with the Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council. 

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Image: Plumes of smoke billow from the World Trade Center towers in Lower Manhattan, New York City, after a Boeing 767 hits each tower during the September 11 attacks. (Wikimedia Commons)