America's Response to Terrorism

The United States recently commemorated the 20th anniversary of 9/11. For the past two decades, U.S. counterterrorism strategy has largely been focused on fighting terrorists abroad. But the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol laid bare the extremist threat at home, fueling momentum for new approaches to confront domestic terrorism.

In this RAND Remote conversation, Brian Michael Jenkins, senior adviser to the RAND president, and senior behavioral scientist Rajeev Ramchand discuss how the terrorism threat to America has changed over the past 20 years. Hosted by Brandon Baker, RAND's Vice President of Development.


Brandon Baker

Welcome, everyone. I'm Brandon Baker, vice president of development at RAND. Thank you for joining us today for this RAND Remote event. RAND Remote is designed to keep you connected and informed wherever you are. We bring RAND to you both in-person and virtually.

Today's conversation is taking place in New York City, 20 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. For the past two decades, U.S. counterterrorism strategy has largely been focused on fighting terrorists abroad. But the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol laid bare the extremist threat right here at home, fueling momentum for new approaches to confront domestic terrorism. Here to discuss the terrorism threat that has evolved over the past 20 years is Brian Michael Jenkins, who is a senior adviser to the RAND president, and senior behavioral scientist Rajeev Ramchand. Brian, Rajeev, it is such a pleasure to welcome you today.

Rajeev Ramchand

I hope that we'll learn a lot, and I'm sure we will. So I'm just going to kick it off with a question. We just went through together the 20th anniversary of September 11. And like Michael, my brother was also a survivor of the Pentagon attack, and it was very meaningful for our family, especially. You just wrote an op-ed that was published yesterday, I think, in The Hill, looking back at that time and also looking forward. So I guess my question to you is: With this anniversary, with this, you know, really kind of—I don't want to say disastrous, but with this pull out of Afghanistan, with the fall of Kabul—where are we now, from a threat assessment perspective, in your opinion, where are we with respect to terrorist threat?

Brian Michael Jenkins

It's a terrific question, and I've been asked that a number of times in recent days, and my first answer is, you know, any assessment, any appreciation of the situation right now is preliminary because the events are still unfolding and the dice are still tumbling down the table here. Certainly in recent weeks, the situation has become more complicated; we face a more complicated threat.

Let me begin with Afghanistan. There is a trap that many Americans, we as a very powerful nation, fall into, and that is a trap of a kind of strategic narcissism. That is, that we believe our decisions determine what happens in the world. Our decisions determine what we do. The other side also makes decisions. And I'm fond of reminding people of a quote by Trotsky: "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you." This global enterprise, this global jihadist enterprise, is going to continue. We're not entirely certain yet how the fall of Afghanistan—Afghanistan being returned to Taliban control—is necessarily going to affect that. We'll have to wait and see on that. But we can make some preliminary assessments.

First of all, it does take the heat off of al Qaeda for the moment. Now, whether it means an al Qaeda comeback, we're not certain, except both al Qaeda and Islamic State have demonstrated that they are determined organizations. We have been beating on them for years and years and years. We certainly have degraded their operational capabilities. We haven't dented their determination. They will continue. There are active al Qaeda fronts and Islamic State fronts across Africa, through the Middle East, in western Asia, all the way down into Southeast Asia.

The good news is that most of those contests where either Al Qaeda cadre or Islamic State cadre are embedded are now locally focused contests. These are insurgencies, and they survive in these by focusing on those local issues. But that's dynamic. And we have seen that some of those fronts can become—some of these new fronts can become bases for attacks on the West. I mean, there have been several plots that have come out of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen. There was a plot actually last year, that was uncovered by the authorities, that involved a trained pilot looking at ways to breach cockpit doors to hijack and crash a plane into a target in the United States. My own assessment of that particular plot was that it was aspirational. It was a reach, but it certainly was evidence of continued ambitions. And so they clearly are still coming at us.

Our situation, in terms of being prepared for that, is better in some respects. Certainly, our structures in this country that did not exist before 9/11 have been created to deal with it. We have processes in place to deal with it, particularly in intelligence. Mike Leiter, who is with us here this evening, wrote a terrific piece about that in The Washington Post just recently, pointing out that because of these improvements in the intelligence capabilities, we have a much better chance of uncovering and interrupting some of these new threats, and that's certainly true. We still have—despite our withdrawal from Afghanistan, we still have capabilities to operate remotely in the area. I'm a little skeptical of some of the claims about our ability to conduct so-called "over the horizon" counterterrorist operations, because without people on the ground feeding intelligence to those, we're operating a bit blindly. So we're uncertain about how that will work out. So that part of the thing, that part of the contest certainly goes on.

At the same time, in the past several years, and especially in this past year, we see an increasing threat posed by domestic violent extremism. In my view, this has the greater—poses the greater potential threat to the country. I mean, I was always confident that we could deal with the jihadists. But in these particular circumstances, it is a much more delicate, a much more fraught task because in this case, the adversary is us, and how we navigate that is going to be extremely difficult.

We've also seen—and I'm going to turn a question right back to you now on this, and that is—within the realm of terrorism, over the last number of years we've seen an increasing presence of what I'll call "untethered" terrorists. These are individuals who carry out violent attacks on behalf of causes. But it appears that the ideology—whether they hold on to a left-wing ideology, an extreme right-wing ideology, a jihadist ideology, involuntary celibates—that the ideology is simply a conveyor for personal discontents. And that is a lot more difficult for us to deal with, and the question back to you is: I know you've been doing some fantastic research on mass shootings, and that is part of a phenomenon. Some of those are connected with ideology. Some of them appear to be seeking personal fame. And so how do you explain this phenomenon of the increasing number of mass shootings?

Rajeev Ramchand

It's a great question. You know, I have to say that I entered extremism, and this work on violent extremism, through the lens of public health. So through a typical RAND fashion, I'm working with colleagues who work on extremism, and they hear about some of the work I'm doing on suicide prevention and mass shootings, and they say, "What can we learn from that approach?" And it has been, I would argue, a field that had been historically really kind of concentrated by political scientists. So getting together and trying to understand, as we've done in psychology and in my own field, in psychiatric epidemiology, trying to understand motivations for behaviors, motivations for violence, and how individuals enter into—the life course of individuals that lead them to make certain decisions to join groups—has been something that's been an interest of mine for a long time.

We're most up to date on our work on suicide prevention and ideological, or understanding what motivates people to die by suicide, and we're very far from that. But we're further than we are, I think, in mass shootings and extremism.

What we do know from—and this is what, to speak to your question—what we do know, there's something that was established, you know, many years ago called the Werther effect. That when they showed suicides in a certain way on television or in news reports, it increased suicides, especially among adolescent males. The presentation of it. And from that, there has been increased attention to media reporting guidelines on suicide. So you'll see when you look at how the media tends to report on suicide deaths, it's done in a way that doesn't—that when it's done right, it doesn't mention how people died. It doesn't mention the method that they used. It doesn't mention where they did it. It doesn't show a picture of the scene. It tries not to glamorize the event. And it usually ends, if you've all read these reports, with, you know, "if you're feeling distressed, please call the National Suicide Lifeline."

So this is all done to prevent this glamorization, or this glorification, of the death. And I think that for me, so then taking that to extremism, mass shootings, I feel there's—I don't think we're there on mass shootings. I think we're doing the exact opposite, and that we're definitely, there is—the way that it's covered is a glorification. So there's opportunities to learn from what has been done. And I think—but I say that very cautiously, because while there is a literature and a science and evidence base from suicide that we can apply, how are we covering, how are we talking about mass shootings? How are we talking about extremists? How can we do it in a way that doesn't make it seem so glorified to somebody who's aggrieved? How can we do that, in a way? I think that there are guidelines, so we could do that.

But our own research has actually shown, unfortunately, that the preponderance of alternative forms of media, non-mass media and the need for a 24/7 kind of news cycle and people getting their information from so many sources, it's very hard to control the messenger. It's very hard to ensure that people who are—when you're getting the message from friends and colleagues, you learn about something from your friends and colleagues before the media is necessarily reporting on it. When that happens, these guidelines can kind of fall by the wayside. They can kind of, you know, they don't be adhered.

So I'm a little bit optimistic that there is a potential to—so I guess what I'd say, is to diminish that kind of glorification aspect, should there be an ideological frame, which I definitely think that there is, in this glamorization. I think there's opportunities to diminish that. But at the same time, the current climate and the current culture makes that really challenging to do. So I worry about that. But I mean, that's from my own perspective.

So you, in your answer to me, you were saying that, you know, you had a lot of faith in the jihadist threat, that we could really kind of confront that, that domestic extremism presents a totally new challenge. And because it's us, in your phrase. But have we learned anything from how we were countering, like we've learned from suicide prevention, that we might be able to apply? Have we learned anything from how we encountered or countered the jihadist threat or the Islamic threat, the Islamic extremist threat? Have we learned anything from that that we could apply to this new phenomenon—or increasing phenomenon, I shouldn't say it's new—this increasing phenomenon of domestic extremism?

Brian Michael Jenkins

We've learned a great deal. But.

So let me explain that. You know, a part of the counterterrorism effort over the last 20 years—which has been focused almost exclusively on the jihadist threat—there was the international dimension that is attempting to degrade the operational capabilities of the organizations abroad, who were capable of launching or assisting attacks on the United States. And then there was the domestic dimension, and that is dealing with homegrown jihadists who were inspired by the ideology to do whatever they could with the resources available to them in this country.

In the international environment, it certainly has been a difficult situation. We've achieved in some areas what are regarded as "fragile gains," or a modicum of success. If you look up the word, that's "a little bit." Or in some cases, as we've seen dramatically in Afghanistan, dramatic failures.

Domestically, we have had a measure of success. One of the principal reasons for that success was the fact that the jihadist extremist ideology never really gained much traction in America's Muslim communities. Instead, the community was a source of tips, of assistance to the authorities. And there was never a jihadist underground, in a sense. There was never—there were never jihadist groups capable of continuing a terrorist campaign like the groups we dealt with in the 1970s, for example. And people forget—the United States, in the 1970s, we were dealing with 50 to 60 terrorist bombings a year in this country. And so they never had that capacity. The majority of the attacks and plots were carried out by a single individual. Or in a few cases, by a small, a tiny conspiracy, a husband and wife, two brothers, something like that.

So there was never an organizational structure to it. These were one-offs. And that was extremely helpful. The authorities were able to uncover and thwart more than 80 percent of the plots. In many cases because there was information from the community. Or very frequently, we had young men thumping their chest on the internet and attracting attention to themselves or boasting in other places that made them relatively easy targets for intelligence operations. And so that part was a success, and there was an enormous international intelligence effort, as well as a very effective domestic intelligence effort.

There were, in my view, some egregious errors. At the beginning, there were some "roundups"—that's the only word I can use—of suspects. There were never any prosecutions for terrorism that came out of those, but over time, very, very—and I think, by the way, they were motivated, not to excuse them one bit, but they were motivated by panic, by alarm. Because intelligence had failed. Because the 9/11 hijackers had spent months in the United States. We had no idea in the shadow of 9/11 how many more 9/11s were in the pipeline. Who else was already here? And so I think they were desperate, although in my view, they were inappropriate efforts.

We settled down, and we got into a focus of a more discriminating process of intelligence collection. And that worked.

Now, can we therefore take that as a template for dealing with domestic violent extremists? And the answer is no, absolutely not. It's an inappropriate model for a number of reasons.

Number one, I mentioned that the jihadists never really developed a constituency in this country. The fact is that racial bias, anti-federal government sentiments—violent anti-government sentiments—are a dark continuing stream in American history. And there is a potential constituency for some of these actions. And one of the challenges really is going to be, how do we isolate the extremists without turning half the country into enemies of the state? So that's number one.

I'm not certain that we're going to be able to rely that much on tips from the community. There will be some. There will be intelligence operations. But in the case of the jihadists, because of the law—the law made it a crime, a criminal act to provide material support to designated foreign terrorist organizations. That material support provision, which the courts define broadly, made it, in a sense, a criminal act to even be a member of these organizations, to offer one services, to volunteer to go abroad to join a jihadist front abroad.

We do not have that on the domestic side, nor do I think we should. Because to have the domestic—some have argued for this and gone back and forth with members of Congress on this, there's a great amount of enthusiasm for this—a material support provision, a domestic equivalent, would require designating terrorist organizations. You have to designate the organization of which it's a crime to be a member of. In today's political atmosphere, we are not likely to get an agreement in Congress on what terrorism is, let alone who the terrorists are. It will either result in a vague definition with hundreds of groups—which will not be productive—or worse, political horse trading. You give me Antifa, and I'll give you Proud Boys. And that's the wrong way to conduct investigations. I also think that—so, without that, though, that pushes the predicate for investigation higher, and that becomes more difficult to deal with in terms of intelligence gathering. Because what is the predicate? Not that you need a criminal predicate for intelligence, but it pushes things higher.

Finally, I think prosecutions will be more difficult. You know, we're dealing in a situation where the defendants are more likely to be named Jimmy or Bobby than Mohammed, and there's no question there was, in the courtroom post-9/11 prejudice made prosecutions, in some cases, too easy, in my view. All it takes is one sympathizer to deadlock a jury. So for those reasons, I think we have a much more formidable task. We may not have the ability to prevent every one of these attacks, and we may have to go back to a more traditional form of reactive as opposed to preemptive law enforcement operations in that regard. But then, OK, I'm going to come back—

Rajeev Ramchand

But let me just, before you—and there's more—I mean, and it also makes it complicated, unless I misunderstood, that there's more, you would expect more of these lone wolf attacks. People who don't necessarily affiliate with an organization but who espoused a similar ideology, right? Is that—

Brian Michael Jenkins

Definitely, you know, that's a development that we have seen over time. And that is not—I, by the way, I despise the term "lone wolves." You were talking about glamorization. And I think "lone wolf" is, tends to be, a romanticizing term.

When I spent time with the Italian intelligence services during the time of the Red Brigades, we actually had, at the headquarters of Italian intelligence in Italy, we had three big charts on the wall. There were three big charts. One was "Brigatisti," the Red Brigades members. The other one were the members of the autonomous proletarian units. That was another terrorist organization. And the third chart was just named "Cane Schulte," which in Italian is "stray dogs." It wasn't meant—it's not an insulting term, in a sense. It was just meant that these were individual actors that you could not organizationally connect.

Now, what we're dealing with more and more are these individual actors who may declare themselves warriors of this particular group or that particular group. And I'll come back to this point in terms of how terrorist recruiting has changed, but we're seeing more and more of that. And again, we're dealing with individual motivations here, we're not dealing with—when we talk about infiltrating a group, in some cases we're talking about attitudes, and in some cases we're talking about individuals who are driven as much by their personal circumstances.

And so when you look at radicalization, it's not this escalator that goes up from extreme ideas up to violence. It's this meandering path in and out. And so they may be radicalizing. They may end up getting a job, finding a girlfriend. There's a fantastic book written by a former Egyptian jihadist. It was written in Egyptian. It was translated into French. The title is fantastic: Life Is Better Than Paradise. But this individual, in a sense, really discovered life and walked himself out of this. And yet, you see, in some cases where the same—a similar individual starts walking out of it, but then has a bad day. And now we're back in. That's really hard to deal with.

So, you know, one of the things, by the way, in terms of looking at the domestic violent extremists: It's no question that we have people in this country—put aside racial bias, put aside all of these other hate things. We have a population of people left behind by our economic system. Generally, young white males with no high school diploma or, at most, a high school education. And so what the country historically has been good at doing is, in dealing with previous spasms of violence in this country, not only going after the violent groups, but in co-opting the grievances.

And so my question, in looking at your work on radicalization, you've talked about economic issues. To what extent are there economic drivers on this?

Rajeev Ramchand

This is to me, the biggest issue that we need to be focusing on right now with respect to understanding motivations for joining domestic extremists or expressing these grievances. And I have to tell you this weird instance. When I was working on this book, this violent extremism, when we were writing the reports based on the interviews, January 6 was happening simultaneously, like literally on my TV while I'm writing the report. And I was also challenged, or assigned, to write a review of the Case and Deaton book Deaths of Despair. So all these things, you know, circulating in my brain at the same time, and Case and Deaton make the point in their book on deaths of despair that we see this—and I'm sure many of you have read it—we see this increasing rate of suicide and overdose deaths and liver cirrhosis, which I don't necessarily agree with including that in there. But anyway, these increase in these deaths especially concentrated among white men with a high school degree.

And to me, as I was looking at it I thought, isn't despair—isn't anger and despair, are they just, you know, different sides of the same coin? The same things that could lead somebody to start using opiates, to start, you know, taking harm in theirself, or distress, couldn't that lead them, the same grievances, to respond in a very angry and violent way? So I did start thinking about that, and our narratives really bring that up, and we hear that exact thing.

So, but contrary to this individual notion of people charting their own path, the importance of the group, I think, is really critical. And this came out time and time again in our interviews with former extremists, which was that—and this is a point that Case and Deaton make, too—that they felt left behind. The unions that once represented them were gone. The American Legions that their fathers joined, they might not be eligible because they might not have been veterans and their parents were. Those institutions that held these groups together, especially in some of the lower economic communities, that represented these individuals, they had disbanded. They were no longer together, so they had nothing to join.

And extremist organizations like the KKK, we were told, feed on that. They know that. And so there may be economic grievances. An individual said straight out that, you know, "I didn't have a job. Everyone in my lineage had this job at this mining factory. It closed. I didn't have any prospects if I wanted to stay in this town. And I'm thinking, well, maybe it was immigrants who are coming in and doing this job for cheaper. Maybe that's why I don't have the job." And then all of a sudden the KKK comes in and says, "we think that, too. And why don't you join us? We will represent you. We are you and your brother." And we heard people who would travel miles to other towns to go to KKK cookouts, to join these organizations just to be part of this group that they felt stood up for them.

So this lack of economic opportunity, coupled with this feeling of being left alone and that you have no representation in your community, I think was really important. And it rears itself again—it rears its head again, rather, when people want to leave the group. They may become disenfranchised. They're saying "this is so bureaucratic, the people are elevating in positions within this group that don't make sense to me. Why are they part of it?" So they want to leave the group, but that means leaving the group.

And it's very similar to what we hear in addiction research, that you have this group of people that shares this common thing in addiction. It's drinking or using drugs or whatnot. To abandon that behavior is to abandon your whole social milieu. And that's very frightening for some people. The supports that these individuals said that they needed when they left the group—and many of them, to your point, returned to the group not because they believed in the ideology, but because they were lacking a social bond.

And so I do think—thinking of these economic conditions and thinking of, you know, in your words, this is a group that's been potentially left behind, and how we can support them or provide opportunities for them to join groups or to feel represented in a way that—because what we're countering are extremist groups that are trying to do the same thing and that are feeding off of that isolation, that individual ideology.

Brandon Baker

Brian, Rajeev, thank you both so much. And thank you all for being with us today in person and virtually. RAND's research and analysis are needed now more than ever. And your continued support and engagement, even remotely, are vital. You can find more information about us at Thank you and goodbye for now.


Times have changed since the creation of NATO, and NASA, the World Health Organization, and the World Bank. From colleges and courts to the military and the media, are the many institutions we've relied on to keep us educated, safe, and informed still meeting our needs today? Technology has transformed our lives and changed the way we communicate. Speed and ease of transaction guide our high-tech world. But have they made us less safe? The networks that make it possible for you to connect with your family and friends around the world also connect terrorist groups and their followers. You can have groceries delivered with the push of a button, but there are also websites that trade in weapons and humans. Who is responsible when your self-driving car crashes? What happens when an algorithm denies you access to health care or a loan to start a business? From cyberspace to outer space, now is the time to rethink the roles and responsibilities of our institutions and our place in the world. Imagine a tomorrow where sound policy drives stability, prosperity, health, and well-being. Can you imagine a more secure tomorrow? We can. Tomorrow demands today.