A major concern as we evaluate the "war on terrorism" is the porous southern border of the United States. There have been reports of at least 42 individuals on the FBI's terrorism watchlist -- that we know about, apart from whoever might be among the 800,000 "getaways" -- crossing the border. Pictured: Illegal immigrants wait to be processed by the U.S. Border Patrol after crossing from Mexico, on May 23, 2022 in Yuma, Arizona. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
As we approach 21st anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, one year since Joe Biden's disastrous and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan, and following shortly after a drone strike that killed al-Qaeda terrorist leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, it makes sense to ask: What is the status of the global war on terror that started in the immediate aftermath of 9/11? Is this so-called war over, and is the United States safe?
Many of us have never been fans of the term "War on Terrorism" -- it is difficult to articulate a war against a tactic. The expression, however, has become a catch-all phrase for military and intelligence actions against radical militant jihadist movements around the world. The term includes the attacks against al-Qaeda militants in Afghanistan in the early days after September 11th, to the military intervention in Afghanistan by the U.S. and our NATO allies to overthrow the Taliban, to the war in Iraq by coalition forces led by the U.S. "War on Terrorism" also includes multiple, smaller campaigns around the world targeting terrorists in countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
While radical militant jihadists have been successful in executing countless attacks around the world since 9-11, no group has ever successfully replicated an attack on the scale of what al-Qaeda did that day. The declaration of a Caliphate by ISIS from roughly June of 2014 until December of 2017 represents the pinnacle of post-9/11 radical jihadist success. At its maximum, the ISIS caliphate controlled roughly 1/3 of Syria and more than 40% of the territory of Iraq. By late October 2019, when then President Donald Trump announced the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS, due to successful military operations by the U.S. and regional partners, no longer controlled significant territory in either Syria or Iraq.
In 2021, terrorism continued to be a real and consistent global threat. Statistics from the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) show that since the defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the epicenter of terrorism has now shifted to the Sahel region of Africa: Gambia, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal. The struggles and instability in the region make it an ideal breeding ground for terrorist organizations. ISIS and its affiliates continue to be the most deadly and dangerous terrorist organizations, according to the analysis by the Institute of Economics and Peace, which also produces the GTI.
The U.S. has a mixed record in combating the global terrorist threat. The successful surgical strike that killed Zawahiri, the successor to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, on the balcony of a residence in Kabul, and the drone strike and military operation that took out two ISIS leaders, demonstrated the resolve of the Biden Administration to keep a focus on terrorist groups. More importantly, it demonstrated the continued capability of the U.S. military and intelligence community to target terrorists and carry out these extremely difficult operations. These actions send a strong message to terrorist organizations, their supporters and our allies that the U.S. still considers fighting this threat a significant priority.
On the flip side of this record is the growing apprehension that the U.S. withdrawal once again has made Afghanistan a safe haven for radical terrorist groups to plan and train for attacks against the U.S. and the West. For one, there is little doubt Zawahiri was in Kabul with the full knowledge and support of the Taliban leadership. Additionally, many members of Congress, FBI Director Christopher Wray, and other current and former senior U.S. military and intelligence professionals have raised concerns about Afghanistan being a safe haven. While some have faith the U.S. will continue to have over-the-horizon capabilities to keep America safe, America's withdrawal from Afghanistan has significantly compromised our ability to monitor and neutralize potential threats against the homeland. The loss of boots on the ground and the Taliban remaking Afghanistan into a training ground for terrorist groups is a major step backwards for U.S. security.
Another major concern as we evaluate the war on terrorism is the porous southern border of the United States. In late May, it was reported that the FBI uncovered an ISIS plot to assassinate former President George W. Bush using an ISIS hit squad who had entered the US through its southern border with Mexico. There also have been reports of at least 42 individuals on the FBI's terrorism watchlist -- that we know about, apart from whoever might be among the 800,000 "getaways" -- crossing the border, with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in one case, taking two weeks to rearrest one.
Erin Dwinell and Hannah Davis, writing for The Heritage Foundation, note that Border Patrol and ICE have warned that open borders welcome terrorists. We are gambling with American lives by allowing poorly- or unvetted aliens to come into the country: the open border crisis is a preventable national security threat. Given the plots and efforts we have seen already, and the warnings from experts and those involved in immigration enforcement, it is clear the border will remain a viable terrorist access route until the Biden administration gets serious about securing it.
The open border has been bonanza for the cartels who control human trafficking, often increasing America's unacknowledged slave trade, as well as importing lethal drugs that, in 2021 alone, killed more than 100,000 people. Reports estimate that the cartels take in between $5 billion and $19 billion a year.
Lastly, distraction has become a major problem in the fight against overseas terrorist threats. Rather than prioritize the jihadist groups abroad who want to kill us, the Biden-led U.S. government has made the threat from supposed "domestic terrorists" a priority. Federal law enforcement personnel have been pressured to regard "right wing" groups and hate crimes as priorities. In June 2021, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the first "National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism." This document was developed through the coordination of multiple departments, including Defense, Homeland Security and State. To many, the document signaled the redirection of limited resources to an ill-defined threat that smacked more of politics than as a true threat assessment.
As we have seen with the Taliban welcoming Zawahiri, plots against our former presidents, terror-linked individuals crossing our southern border, and multiple Iranian attempts to target people on American soil, the threat from international terrorist organizations might be growing. Now is not the time to be diverting our focus.
The recent successful targeting of terrorists such as Zawahiri is an encouraging sign for the continuation of U.S. counterterrorism policy. However, developments in Afghanistan, along the southern border, and the redirection and prioritization for law enforcement towards alleged domestic threats should be cause for major concern. As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and later as an ambassador, I have been warned repeatedly that a major attack against the homeland is the aspirational goal of transnational terrorist groups. I still believe this is the real goal for those who hate America. There are encouraging signs that the U.S. remains engaged in efforts against terrorism, but the challenges highlighted above show we may be entering a phase of vulnerability not seen since 9/11/2001. This, as we near the 21st anniversary of that tragic day, should alarm everyone.
Peter Hoekstra was US Ambassador to the Netherlands during the Trump administration. He served 18 years in the U.S. House of Representatives representing the second district of Michigan and served as Chairman and Ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. He is currently Chairman of the Center for Security Policy Board of Advisors.