Joe Biden

Remarks by Deputy National Security Advisor Dr. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall on the Future of Counterrorism: Twenty Years After 9/11

September 09, 2021


I am delighted to speak at the Atlantic Council today and want to express my great thanks to Fred Kempe for his generous introduction. Fred, your leadership has been transformational, including in the work that the Atlantic Council has done recently on how counterterrorism policy needs to evolve. I know you have formed the Atlantic Council's Counterterrorism Study Group and that many distinguished former counterterrorism officials participate in it. Indeed, I benefit every day from the meaningful discussions of that group because two of my closest colleagues on the National Security Council team, Russ Travers and Josh Geltzer, are both former members of it. So thank you for what you are doing – on this front as well as on so many others.

In these times I am especially grateful that the Atlantic Council continues to be a beacon for civil, nonpartisan consideration of pressing national security challenges – from energy security to the future of NATO – and on the topic that we are gathering to discuss today on the US counterterrorism mission.

Twenty years ago this week, I was preparing our youngest child for his first day of nursery school on a sunny California morning. As we always did, my husband and I turned on the news to assess the traffic we would face along the drive. Instead, what we witnessed were the horrific images of the twin towers crashing down, unfolding live on the television screen. The maliciousness of the multiple attacks that day, the human tragedies that ensued, and the collective strength of our nation in response resulted in a major reorientation of U.S. national security priorities.

Guided by the commitment to prevent anything like 9/11 from ever happening again, we remade our national security architecture, rewrote our laws, restructured our institutions, and refocused our country on keeping Americans safe from terrorism.

The prevention of another such attack was not a foregone conclusion in the wake of 9/11. Most people feared and many predicted that this country would face another terrorist attack on a similar scale soon, and surely within the next twenty years. The fact that this has not happened is due to the ingenuity, dedication, and selflessness of countless national security, law enforcement, military, diplomatic and intelligence professionals across our government and around the world over the past two decades.

Twenty years on, our challenge is different. We have learned since 9/11 how to protect Americans from terrorism. It isn't fail-safe, and terrible things still happen. But through a combination of actions abroad and at home, we have thus far been able to disrupt and prevent another 9/11-style attack.

We face two intertwined challenges now: first, to counter terrorism effectively as the terrorist landscape evolves; and second, to integrate our approach to terrorism into the broader set of current and emerging national security priorities. Given this evolution, I'd like to outline three core principles of our counterterrorism approach as we have developed since President Biden took office in January.

First, terrorist threats have morphed and metastasized, and we need to keep pace with those evolutions. That means approaching counterterrorism as an effort calibrated not to contend with the threats we faced in September 2001 but to the threats we face now and that we will face going forward.

Second, as a nation, we need to set priorities and match resources to a range of evolving national security challenges – from a more aggressive China, to cyber attacks on our critical infrastructure, to pandemics and biological threats.

Third, effectively countering terrorism in the future – and doing so in a manner that allows sufficient focus on other key priorities – will require that we adapt our approach using the full range of tools at our disposal, including diplomacy, development, and prevention efforts, all in a manner tailored to the threats we face and the local contexts in which they arise.

That means integrating counterterrorism strategy into regional strategies, nesting our CT efforts within a broader suite of initiatives, and investing in an Indicators-and-Warning architecture that will enable us to understand the evolving threat environment. Fundamentally, it means building a counterterrorism enterprise that is positioned to detect threats as they evolve, flexible enough to adapt to changing threats, and nimble enough to tailor our approach to the threats we face in real time.

Starting with the first principle, terrorist threats have changed, and we need to change to keep pace.

Since 9/11, countering terrorism has been a consistent national security priority. And we have had significant success. We have degraded Al-Qa'ida and ISIS and reduced the threat of large-scale attacks on the Homeland directed by foreign terrorist organizations. That said, we should not be complacent. The downsides of globalization have empowered individuals and networks, and as such terrorist threats to the U.S. and its interests can emerge quickly and manifest themselves in many ways.

Moreover, we have more sophisticated capabilities and more tools available than we did on 9/11 or even ten years ago. We have a strong and effective counterterrorism enterprise that collaborates and innovates across the Federal government, with state and local colleagues, with the private sector, and with allies and partners around the world.

But as last month's terrorist attack against our forces performing a noncombatant evacuation operation at the Kabul airport demonstrated, terrorism remains a scourge.

Compared to 20 years ago, the threats facing us today are more ideologically diverse and geographically diffuse. Groups such as al-Qa'ida and ISIS have expanded across Africa and into Southeast Asia. Yet while al-Qa'ida, ISIS, and their dispersed affiliates, branches, and networks worldwide still aspire to attack the United States, years of sustained counterterrorism pressure abroad have forced them to shift their operating models and constrained their capabilities.

At the same time, enhanced security measures at home have made the Homeland a more hardened target. In fact, the Intelligence Community assesses that the most significant terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland today is not posed by foreign terrorist organizations plotting from ungoverned spaces in faraway lands, but from lone actors and small cells, including at home, who predominantly radicalize and mobilize to violence on their own – some based on ideologies associated with al-Qa'ida and ISIS, other based on ideologies more domestic in nature, such as racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, including those promoting the superiority of the white race.

What this means is that, even as we continue to work relentlessly to stop entities such as al-Qa'ida and ISIS from plotting attacks against us from afar, we also have to address the threat from lone actors here at home. Terrorist groups who cannot physically cross our borders are doing so via the Internet, recruiting and radicalizing on social media and other Internet-enabled platforms. That makes for a different counterterrorism challenge that involves information-sharing with technology companies, for example, and community-based prevention efforts. The point is that as terrorism changes, so must we.

This brings me to my second point: As a nation, we need to set priorities and integrate our counterterrorism efforts into a range of evolving national security challenges – from a more aggressive China, to cyber attacks, to pandemic disease and bio threats.

Make no mistake: Terrorism is a serious threat, and we will continue to take it seriously.

We are looking at counterterrorism efforts within the context of the broader set of national security challenges we face and working to align our resources to contend with the full range of threats confronting our nation, including those outside the what some may consider the "traditional" national security domains, such as modernizing our nation's infrastructure, investing in domestic innovation, and fighting climate change.

This approach will necessarily involve hard choices about our priorities and our resources. This is a key reason that the President made the difficult decision to end the war in Afghanistan.

As the President has said, we will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan from over the horizon – just as we will do in other countries across the world – working with partners, with tools that are commensurate with the threat, and without an American military presence on the ground. We have already established over-the-horizon options and are adding to them in order to monitor and, when necessary, disrupt threats that may emanate from Afghanistan. Our diplomacy plays a central role on this front as well.

Effectively addressing our other national security priorities will require a more sustainable and agile counterterrorism approach, focusing our efforts on countering the most dangerous threats to our country wherever we find them and seeking innovative ways of conducting the counterterrorism mission – including empowering partners to address the terrorist threats in their own backyard ds so that the United States doesn't have to carry the entire load – and using the full range of tools in our counterterrorism toolkit.

This brings me to my last point: Countering terrorism will require a new approach that prioritizes agility and a greater investment in a broad set of tools, including diplomacy, development, and prevention efforts both abroad and at home that can shape the environments in which terrorists thrive and recruit.

A sustainable counterterrorism approach must be flexible enough to respond to threats as they emerge. This necessitates having a fully developed Indicators-and- Warning architecture to detect and identify threats before they reach an inflection point that threatens our Homeland and our citizens. Even though we judge that the threat of large-scale attacks against the homeland is currently diminished, we must remain vigilant – and intelligence will be key. A threat that revolves around people and networks is inherently challenging to detect, so we must continue to support the intelligence enterprise and ensure that it has sufficient resources to perform its vital counterterrorism role.

We also need to continue to invest in preventing threats before they become imminent. That will require that we use the full set of counterterrorism tools at our disposal.

Though the military will remain an important tool, it should not be the option of first resort. That is why President Biden, at the outset of the Administration, directed a review of the policies governing the use of force in counterterrorism operations to ensure it is generally employed only when necessary to disrupt imminent threats to our nation and our people and, moreover, wielded in a manner that is consistent with our values.

As we seek to judiciously use military tools in our counterterrorism efforts, we must expand our use of the full range of non-kinetic tools and capabilities to accomplish our counterterrorism objectives, particularly in areas we assess are at greater risk of being exploited by terrorists seeking to threaten us.

To ensure this more sustainable approach is rooted in diplomacy and prevention, we must strengthen our partnerships at the international, national, and local levels. This includes working closely with our NATO allies, who have stood shoulder to shoulder with us in this fight since 9/11 – and many of whom have faced significant terrorist threats of their own.

And it includes working with local partners in regions in which terrorism is unfortunately spreading. We will need to invest in building their capacity to prevent violent extremism.

In both cases, we will continue to prioritize information sharing with our allies and partners, which has been critical to successful joint efforts. The United States now has terrorist information sharing agreements with 80 countries, and we work with partners worldwide to detect and constrain terrorist travel by sharing U.S. and international data holdings.

Turning to our efforts in the Homeland, we have made great strides in the last 20 years in strengthening our defenses through better border and transportation security, intense law enforcement efforts, and expanded private-sector and community partnerships.

Recognizing the evolving threat in the Homeland, President Biden directed us to develop the first-ever National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, which we launched in June. This strategy seeks to prevent, disrupt, and deter domestic terrorism by strengthening defenses and improving partnerships across the Federal enterprise. For example, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and others are providing law enforcement partners with increased information sharing and instructional training to enable them to identify and disrupt domestic terrorist threats. And the Department of Defense is working to ensure that service members leaving the military are aware of the risks that they could be targeted for recruitment by violent extremists.

But this is only a beginning. We need to position and support our law enforcement and community partners to contend with a greater diversity of threats, including threats posed by domestic terrorist groups, and learn more about how to build resilient communities.

Key to this effort will be strengthening prevention efforts through education, community-based approaches, and other opportunities to counter the forms of disinformation, foreign influence, and hate speech that can lead to violence.

This work is well underway. For example, the Department of Homeland Security is working to create safe new ways that family, friends, and co-workers can share information when they have concerns that someone they know is becoming radicalized.

Meanwhile, we're also exploring new forms of collaboration with the private-sector. In May, for example, we announced our decision to join the Christchurch Call, an international partnership among 56 governments and 10 technology companies including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube that works to develop new solutions to eliminating terrorist content online while safeguarding free expression.

This framework was forged by some of our closest foreign partners following the 2017 attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that left 51 dead and dozens wounded. What they have built has energized and guided an important global conversation about how to address terrorism threats online while protecting and indeed promoting the freedom of expression that we as Americans cherish.

The Way Forward

Looking ahead, this approach must enable us to be flexible and adaptable. We need a counterterrorism architecture that is not static – but rather one that has the agility to evolve as our adversaries do, and to be nimble in applying resources where the need arises. That is why we are vigilant about continuously monitoring and evaluating evolving threats and applying the most calibrated tools to reduce the drivers of those threats and, where necessary, taking decisive action.

I don't want to suggest that this will be easy. The factors and conditions that give rise to terrorism are complex and do not offer simple solutions. But this adapted approach is necessary to put us on a path that is both more effective and more sustainable.


This week, we remember those we have lost. We remember the thousands of victims of 9/11 and their families who walk around every day with a gaping hole in their hearts, and the many who continue to suffer from injuries sustained that terrible day. We also remember the thousands of American heroes who laid down their lives to keep the rest of us safe, and we remember our obligation to the Gold Star families they left behind.

As I've emphasized, three principles will guide us in the counterterrorism mission. First is a commitment to keep up with and keep Americans safe from the terrorist threat landscape of today, not of twenty years ago. Second is a recognition that we need counterterrorism to be effective while also integrating it with the work we are doing to address a widening and diversifying range of national security challenges. Third is an increased emphasis on partnerships, where we are stronger when we stand together.

Looking back and looking forward, we know as a nation that we have the capacity to learn and adapt from our successes and failures. In this realm of countering terrorism, we must continue to do both – and remain steadfast in protecting our homeland and our personnel and facilities overseas from the full spectrum of threats that we face in the 21st century. And through it all, we must remain true to the values that define us as a people and as a nation. I know that this day-long event at which I am speaking is being sponsored by a research center that bears the name of the late Brent Scowcroft, whose generous mentorship had a profound influence on my life and work. As he put it, "America has never seen itself as a national state like all others, but rather as an experiment in human freedom and democracy." As we tackle evolving terrorist threats both foreign and domestic – and as we meet the broader set of complex national security challenges that we face – we must continue to lead the world in advancing human freedoms and strengthening democracy.

Thank you again to the Atlantic Council for giving me the opportunity to speak with you today about this vital topic.

Joseph R. Biden, Remarks by Deputy National Security Advisor Dr. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall on the Future of Counterrorism: Twenty Years After 9/11 Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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