Assessing Our Counterterrorism Investment
Fall/Winter - Number 21

Assessing Our Counterterrorism Investment

Celina B. Realuyo

The 10th anniversary of September 11th gives us pause to reflect on how those tragic events, perpetrated by al-Qaeda, have affected the American psyche, society, and security. We have made tremendous strides in hardening U.S. targets at home and abroad and sensitizing the American people to the threat of terrorism, albeit at significant human, financial, efficiency, and privacy costs. The U.S. government doubled down on efforts to combat terrorism and radically reorganized the way it deploys the instruments of national power (diplomatic, intelligence, military, economic, financial, information, and law enforcement). There has been increased emphasis on interagency cooperation in response to the perceived intelligence failures that led to 9/11. Over the years, we have enhanced our ability to use actionable intelligence and execute joint military and law enforcement operations to detect, disrupt, and interdict terrorists and their supporters. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have provided us with ample opportunities for these missions. The U.S. achieved the primary objectives of the global War on Terror against al-Qaeda and the Taliban with regime change in Afghanistan and degrading al-Qaeda’s leadership and operational capabilities—culminating in the dramatic U.S. special operation against Osama bin Laden in May 2011.

What we have seen over the past 10 years is the transformation of our adversary. Reflecting the analogy in Rod Beckstrom and Ori Brafman’s book, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, al-Qaeda has morphed from a centralized, hierarchical organization led by Bin Laden into al-Qaeda “the movement,” complete with regional franchises like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and a broader network of homegrown disciples. Although al-Qaeda and its affiliates have been unable to execute a terrorist attack as dramatic as September 11th, the threat has actually become more complicated and diffuse. Lone wolves and homegrown terrorists are much more difficult to identify, influence or interdict. Even with the death of Bin Laden and several of his key lieutenants, we must remain vigilant; there are still those dedicated to using violence against innocents. We must work harder on the counter-narrative to this radical extremist philosophy. Madison Avenue may be adept at advertising American brands and promoting products to consumers around the globe, but we have failed in the “war of ideas” to counter support for terrorism at the strategic level.

We have been far more successful on the financial front of the War on Terror. On September 24, 2001, President George W. Bush issued the first post-9/11 Executive Order against terrorist financiers, stating that “money is the lifeblood of terrorist operations; today we ask the world to stop payment.” The U.S. and its allies have instituted aggressive measures to safeguard financial systems from terrorist financing that include international standards set by the Financial Action Task Force and more rigorous compliance training for frontline bankers. Due to the increased scrutiny over the origin of funds, their destination, and those responsible for moving those funds, terrorists and criminals have repeatedly complained about how much harder it is to secure financing for their networks and operations in a post-9/11 world.

At times, our enthusiastic public disclosures of success stories in “naming and shaming” terrorist financiers have actually undercut our efforts; we detailed our countermeasures, which our adversaries subsequently tried to circumvent. With improved oversight of the traditional banking system, these groups have grown more reliant on riskier modes of financing such as cash couriers, alternative remittance systems (like hawalas), front companies, and charities—challenging governments to keep up with these new developments. Terrorist groups have also increasingly turned to criminal activities to support themselves financially and operationally. Since 9/11, financial intelligence and “following the money” have become integral components of counterterrorism investigations and operations; they have contributed to the “whole of government” approach to the threat of terrorism with increased cooperation among the military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies with the Treasury Department and the financial regulators.

As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of September 11th, we must evaluate the “risk vs. reward” return on our investments in counterterrorism and determine how we should adapt our efforts against an evolving enemy and security environment. The new U.S. National Strategy for Counterterrorism concentrates the fight against al-Qaeda and its affiliates abroad and focuses on the threat of homegrown terrorism. We no longer consider threats from al-Qaeda and radical Islam as “existential threats” to U.S. national security. Rather, they are threats that we must learn to live with. Some attribute the burgeoning government deficits and current debt crisis to the out-of-control homeland security and defense spending on counterterrorism and the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In their view, the U.S. often overreacted to foiled terrorist plots by imposing costly and cumbersome new security measures on society like at our airports, but the fact remains that we have not suffered a catastrophic terrorist attack in the U.S. since 9/11.

While still Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen termed the national debt to be the greatest threat to U.S. national security. Given the current environment of fiscal austerity, we should anticipate significant reductions in the national security budget. But cuts in defense and homeland security spending need to be executed judiciously, so as not to undermine all the progress we have made in combating terrorism since 9/11. Terrorist threats remain, and the redeployments from Afghanistan and Iraq must not embolden insurgents and terrorists to regain power. We need to devise smarter and wiser strategies to apply our limited resources in a focused fight against radical Islamic extremists. The Obama administration’s shift from a resource-intensive counterinsurgency strategy to a more focused counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan is perhaps the most discernible example of the changes taking place in our approach, but the jury is still out on how effective this will be.

One thing is clear. Rather than being traumatized or paralyzed by terrorism, we must learn to respond, recover, and be resilient in the face of terrorism, just as other countries like the United Kingdom and Israel have, and to continue to protect and project the American way of life.


Celina B. Realuyo is Assistant Professor of National Security Affairs at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, National Defense University, and a former U.S. State Department Director of Counterterrorism Programs. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.