Islamist Terrorism: An Existential Threat to the United States?

Photo Credit: The Daily Beast

By: Cillian Muldoon, Associate Editor for the Middle East

The threat posed by Islamist terrorist organizations, like al-Qa‘ida (AQ) and ISIS, can most aptly be framed by considering that terrorism’s primary objective rests less on the immediate damage inflicted by an attack, and more on the reaction—by policymakers, societies, and the media—that such an attack can provoke. The destruction and loss of life incurred during the September 11, 2001 attack—the most fatal coordinated terrorist attack in US and world history­—did not come close to challenging the survival of the United States or its existence, in a literal sense. The requisite scale and sophistication needed to accomplish that feat indicates that very few, if any, terrorist attacks could challenge the United States in this regard. However, given terrorism’s primary objective, it may be more appropriate to conceive of the existential threat posed by Islamist terrorist organizations less by their destructive capacity to eliminate a state and more by their potential to incite reactions that fundamentally change the nature of a state so that it no longer exists in the form it once had. In this light, the threat posed by a CBRN attack from Islamist groups carries the potential to be existential, but often gets overstated. Conversely, since 9/11, Islamist terrorists have threatened the strategic position of the United States by evoking counterproductive and costly foreign policy and have challenged U.S. identity by encouraging policies that run counter to national values.

The destructive capacity of CBRN weapons combined with terrorist organizations’ persistence in trying to acquire them could pose an existential threat to the United States, though the risk of such an occurrence remains low. Documents uncovered at an AQ base revealed plans for a rudimentary nuclear device, as well as an outline to disperse biological agents via crop duster.[i] ISIS, through its territorial acquisition, now controls several regime chemical facilities in Iraq and Syria and has used low concentration mustard gas in the field of battle on numerous occasions. Taken together, the ability for an organization to develop CBRN weapons indigenously, acquire them through a state sponsor, or via a deteriorating security situation presents a legitimate threat. However, as Lieber and Press note, the likelihood of attribution, among other concerns, would prevent states from giving nuclear weapons to terrorists.[ii] To develop and use nuclear weapons autonomously, a group would have to overcome roughly 20 discrete obstacles at a cost well into the millions of dollars.[iii] Given a 50 per cent success rate for each obstacle—a grossly conservative figure—the rate of successfully deploying a nuclear weapon remains less than one in a million.[iv] The case of Aum Shinrikyo—a group that in 1995 had roughly 50,000 members, assets in the billions of dollars, and a fairly wide operating space—shows that successfully developing and using biological and chemical weapons presents similar difficulty.[v] Terrorist groups operate with finite resources and a constrained time horizon. They tend to replicate tactics that have worked in the past, giving preference to those with a high success rate and low cost. Therefore, CBRN weapons present a genuine threat, but not an imminent one. Unfortunately for policymakers, the mere fact that terrorists express an interest in CBRN weapons necessitates the continuance of implementing defensive measures, however unlikely the outcome. Accepting that terrorist groups operate as collective rational actors,[vi] intelligence agencies should pursue measures that add to the number of obstacles or increase the cost of acquisition and use of CBRN weapons.

By goading the United States into overextension, Islamist terrorist groups threaten the US ability to maintain its position as a global economic power into the future. Shaped by the experience of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Usama bin Ladin’s grand strategy involved attacking the United States and drawing it into lengthy conflicts that depleted its resources until it was forced to resign and abandon its position in the Middle East.[vii] In response to the 9/11 attacks, the September 18, 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force granted the president the authority to use “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons,”[viii] deemed responsible or related to the perpetrators of the attack. Such a broad mandate, coupled with new low cost tactics like drone warfare,[ix] significantly reduced the threshold of engagement. Terrorism became a lens through which the president could justify entering any number of conflicts without giving commensurate consideration to the long-term strategic ramifications that enter the debate when declaring war on a specific state. Indeed, the US counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, both more than a decade old, have cost the United States trillions of dollars and thousands of lives without yielding any real stability or improved governing capacity. As these conflicts drag on, the United States will continue to squander resources in a region, and in states, that are not vitally important to its future strategic interests. Such actions come at an opportunity cost of the United States not maximally positioning itself in regions like East Asia, which in the coming years will account for half of all economic growth outside the United States.[x] The policy implications of this existential threat requires states to manage expectations, build resilience to attacks, and prevent visceral reactions by ensuring that the strategy implemented matches the desired end goal. Comprehensive counterterrorism strategy necessitates the elimination of safe havens; however, counterinsurgency is a crude, suboptimal, and expensive strategy for achieving that end.

Islamist terrorists pose an existential threat to the United States by inviting policy that erodes longstanding values and shifts discourse to conform to terrorists’ narratives. The “never again” mentality that gripped policy and intelligence circles in the wake of 9/11 contributed to the implementation of enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs). The EIT program damaged US moral legitimacy, challenged its leadership in the international community, and reduced its ability to achieve other foreign policy objectives.[xi] Despite the fact that the EIT program was disavowed in 2009, a 2014 Pew Research Center poll found that a majority of Americans surveyed viewed torture as a legitimate method of acquiring information.[xii] In this sense, the threat of terrorism shifted both policy and public opinion against a value established at the nation’s founding with Washington’s treatment of the Hessians during the Battle of Trenton,[xiii] and reinforced by Lincoln’s issuance of the Lieber Code during the Civil War.[xiv] Similarly, the threat of terrorism has rendered nationalist political rhetoric more salient across Europe and the United States. In the 2016 Presidential Election, President-Elect Trump suggested he would counter the threat of Islamist terrorism by banning refugees originating from a specific region and registering Muslims. This rhetoric empowered white supremacists and other right-wing organizations that have flourished in the last two years, despite the fact that they are responsible for more domestic attacks since 9/11 than Muslims.[xv]

Once a state that prided itself on being “the land of the free” for a melting pot of immigrants, the threat of terrorism has and continues to facilitate a transition into a more closed society. Enacting policies such as those espoused by President-Elect Trump would promote internal instability and lend credence to the terrorist narrative that Islam is in fact at war with the West. Preventing this existential threat from materializing requires a nuanced counterterrorism response that doubles down on inclusive measures at the core of US values. Through focusing on community engagement, instead of division, policymakers can bolster first line defenses rather than exacerbate the problem. Building relationships with at risk communities increases resistance to radicalization, offers immense intelligence value, and enables officials to better understand individual motivations behind the threat as opposed to painting it with a broad brush.[xvi]

[i] Central Intelligence Agency, “Terrorist CBRN: Materials and Effects,” (May 2003).

[ii] Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “Why States Won’t Give Nuclear Weapons to Terrorists,” International Security 38:1 (2013): 80-104.

[iii] John Mueller, “The Atomic Terrorist?” CATO (January 2010): 1-3

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Richard Danzig, “Aum Shinrikyo: Insights Into How Terrorists Develop Biological and Chemical Weapons,” Center for a New American Security (July 2011): 1-68.

[vi] Martha Crenshaw, “The Logic of Terrorism: Terrorist Behavior as a Product of Strategic Choice,” in Origins of Terrorism, ed. Walter Reich (Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1998), 7-24.

[vii] R. Kim Cragin, “Early History of Al-Qa‘ida,” The Historical Journal 51:4 (December 2008): 1047-1067.

[viii] S.J. Res. 23, 107th Cong. (2001) (enacted).

[ix] Audrey Kurth Cronin, “Why Drones Fail: When Tactics Drive Strategy,” Foreign Affairs 92:4 (2013): 44-54.

[x] National Security Strategy. Report. February 2015.

[xi] United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, “Findings and Conclusions,” (3 December 2014): 9-24.

[xii] Bruce Drake, “Americans’ Views On Use of Torture in Fighting Terrorism Have Been Mixed.” Pew Research Center. December 9, 2014.

[xiii] Alex Markels, “Will Terrorism Rewrite the Laws of War?” NPR, December 6, 2005, http://; John C. Miller,

Triumph of Freedom, 1775–1783 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1948).

[xiv] Richard Shelly Hartigan, Lieber’s Code and the Law of War (Chicago: Precedent, 1983).

[xv] Risa A. Brooks, “Muslim ‘Homegrown’ Terrorism in the United States: How Serious is the Threat?” International Security 36:2 (Fall 2011): 7-47.

[xvi] Jessica Stern, “Mind Over Martyr,” Foreign Affairs 89:1 (January-February 2010): 95-109.

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