TerrorismHow Has the Terrorism Threat Changed Twenty Years After 9/11?

By Bruce Hoffman

Published 12 August 2021

The U.S. counterterrorism response to the September 11, 2001, attacks yielded some remarkable successes and disastrous failures in hunting al-Qaeda. The top terrorist threat today, though, is domestic rather than foreign.

How do al-Qaeda and its affiliates currently pose a threat to the United States and the rest of the world?
The al-Qaeda of today is nothing like it was on 9/11. Its founder and leader, Osama bin Laden, is long dead. With the notable exceptions of Ayman al-Zawahiri, a surgeon turned terrorist and the movement’s current emir, and Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian army officer and al-Zawahiri’s most likely successor, every single senior al-Qaeda leader has been killed or captured. Seven of the movement’s top commanders have been eliminated since 2019. Today, al-Zawahiri himself is said to be in poor health.

But the ideology and motivation espoused by al-Qaeda is, unfortunately, as strong as ever. For instance, there are now four times as many Salafi-jihadi terrorist groups designated by the U.S. State Department as foreign terrorist organizations than there were on 9/11. And the most recent report from the United Nations’ monitoring team [PDF] points to al-Qaeda’s unimpeded growth in Africa, entrenchment in Syria, and presence in at least fifteen Afghan provinces, as well as its continued close relations with the Taliban.

Americans also shouldn’t be lulled into thinking that al-Qaeda no longer wishes to attack the United States. The 2019 attack by a Saudi sleeper agent at a U.S. Navy air base in Pensacola, Florida, which killed three people and wounded eight others, was a reminder that al-Qaeda is still able to mount international terrorist operations by working through one of its dedicated, highly capable franchises—in this case, its Arabian Peninsula affiliate.

What were the greatest successes and failures of the U.S. counterterrorism response of the past twenty years?
The number one success was the government’s thwarting al-Qaeda’s every attempt to carry out another attack in the United States on the scale of 9/11—although the 2019 Pensacola shooting was an important warning against becoming too complacent.

The worst failure—beyond any doubt—was the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which diverted critical resources away from efforts to finish al-Qaeda off in South Asia during the best window of opportunity. The invasion also inadvertently set off the chain of events that led to the emergence of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, an even more violent and unconstrained version of al-Qaeda. It took an eighty-three-country coalition some five years to defeat the threat posed by the Islamic State.