Are we quietly winning the war on terror — but are afraid to admit it?
After President Trump warned on Jan. 4 that terrorists were heading our way from Mexico, a remarkable statistic emerged: The number of terrorist acts committed by people who had sneaked across our southern border was exactly zero.
Not zero this year; zero since the federal government began keeping records.
Trump administration officials insist some suspicious characters have crossed the border, but they have refused to disclose any names or details. About a dozen migrants per year reportedly turn up on watch lists, but if any of them were jihadists, you can bet the White House would have let us know by now.
Those nonexistent terrorists are part of a larger, more important phenomenon — one that Americans should feel free to celebrate (cautiously).
More than 17 years after the Sept. 11 attacks, we’re experiencing a dramatic but unheralded decline in foreign-inspired terrorism. Last year saw only one U.S. homicide connected to Islamic radicalism. (You probably don’t remember it. A 17-year-old in Florida stabbed three friends after watching Islamic State videos online, and one died.)
Terrorism hasn’t been eradicated, of course. But even Europe, which has wrestled with a much bigger threat from homegrown militants and jihadists from the Middle East, has seen the number and scale of deadly attacks plummet.
“If you had told officials after 9/11 that in the next 17 years there would be only 104 deaths from terrorist attacks in the United States, they would have raised a glass of Champagne,” Daniel Byman, a former staff member on the 9/11 Commission and a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, told me. “Back then, we were worried that we’d lose that many people in a week.”
It’s impossible to know whether this is a durable trend or merely a lull, he warned. “We could have mass attacks again, we could go 10 years without anything.”
But if it’s a lull, it has persisted for more than two years — and that alone is worth noting.
The Trump, Obama and Bush administrations, as well as U.S. allies around the globe, all deserve some credit. Despite horrifying abuses and mistakes, from torture to secret prisons, they have largely destroyed Al Qaeda and its most dangerous offspring. The U.S.-led war against Islamic State has killed thousands of militants and broken the group’s hold on territory in Iraq and Syria.
Domestic law enforcement has monitored extremists at home and interrupted dozens of plots (including some that turned out to be insubstantial). And common-sense security measures have made us less vulnerable; no U.S. plane has been hijacked since 9/11.
Islamist militants are not our only major terrorist threat, at least inside our borders. Since 2016, more Americans have been killed by white supremacists or anti-Semites than by radicalized Muslims. That’s not to mention the never-ending death toll from mass shootings in schools and public places.
But U.S. policy hasn’t caught up. When the White House unveiled a National Strategy for Counterterrorism in October, it cited foreign jihadists as "our principal terrorist enemies" and mentioned “other forms of extremism” only vaguely. (The words “white supremacist” aren’t there.)
Nor has Congress or the Trump administration considered whether the federal government is spending too much on counterterrorism, or spending it on the right things.
In 2017, the U.S. government spent roughly $175 billion on counterterrorism, including both military and law enforcement spending, according to a study by the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.
But the authors warned that they couldn’t be sure that figure was right because the government keeps much of its military and intelligence spending secret and has no clear standard for what programs count as counterterrorism.
Still, ever so quietly, there are signs that the departments of Defense and Homeland Security are debating whether they can spend less.
The Pentagon’s most recent National Defense Strategy said bluntly that terrorism is no longer the biggest threat the U.S. faces. “Great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus,” then-Defense Secretary James N. Mattis said.
Homeland Security has been less transparent, but in budget requests to Congress, it has shifted money out of traditional counterterrorism efforts such as the Transportation Safety Administration toward the president’s top priority, border security.
That suggests someone thinks we could get by with less spending on the TSA.
One such move in 2017 drew protests from former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff and other counterterrorism hawks.
“Paying for border security and [immigration] enforcement by cutting funds to the Transportation Security Administration ... is akin to double-locking your front door, but leaving your side door open,” Chertoff complained.
Politicians hesitate to question Homeland Security spending, because it risks making them sound soft on terrorism. But it’s time for an elder statesman, or even a courageous presidential candidate, to broach the big questions.
Do we need to spend billions on a wall to stop terrorists who aren’t there? Have we won the war on foreign terrorism — or at least reduced it to a threat small enough that we can spend less time in TSA lines? And isn’t there more we can do about domestic extremists?