Is the world a safer place than it was on 9/11?

By

Marshall Terrill

The world can be a scary place.

Perhaps no one knows this better than Nicholas Rasmussen, senior director of the new Counterterrorism Program at Arizona State University's McCain Institute for International Leadership.

Rasmussen assumes his new role with clear program goals: to increase public capability to meet the risk to our national security posed by extremists, to forge new international partnerships, and to train the next generation of young counterterrorism professionals.

ASU Now spoke to Rasmussen, who joined ASU last month, to discuss the institute’s mission and guiding philosophy, and action-oriented solutions. We also got him to answer the $1 million question that nags most Americans: Is the world a safer place than it was on 9/11?

Question: Is the world a safer or more dangerous place to live than it was when 9/11 happened?

Answer: If you are thinking globally, I don’t think that there is any question that the world is a more complicated and potentially dangerous place than it was at the time of 9/11. Today, the pool of extremists — terrorists and potential terrorists — is wider, deeper and more geographically dispersed than it was in 2001. The rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS, caused terrorism to spread to more places and to touch more populations than what we saw when al-Qaida was our primary terrorism concern.

In thinking about terrorism here inside the United States, the homeland, I believe that we are in many ways quite a bit more safe today than we were at the time of 9/11. Our defenses are stronger and more robust, our ability to identify and disrupt potential terrorists is far more developed and getting stronger all the time, and our terrorist adversaries have suffered significant losses in their capability due to our counterterrorism work around the world. I would never say never, but I believe it’s increasingly unlikely that a foreign terrorist organization could manage to carry out inside the United States the kind of large-scale, mass-casualty attack we experienced on 9/11. The attacks that are the most likely today typically involve lone actors with a relatively low level of training and capability. Those individuals are often inspired by ISIS and al-Qaida to carry out terrible acts, but these acts are of a different magnitude than what we experienced on 9/11.

Q: Is terrorism a bigger problem today than it was in other decades?

A: From my perspective, the problem is bigger today than in other decades because modern communication tools and technology have made it much easier for terrorist organizations to identify and recruit new extremists to join their cause and their movement. In many cases, a terrorist group like ISIS or al-Qaida can interact in only the most limited way with an individual around the world and still manage to turn that person into a potential terrorist who poses a real threat. Terrorists also operate today in a world that is in many ways without borders. Terrorists have always benefited from physical safe havens in ungoverned spaces around the world, but increasingly, the safe haven they enjoy can be in the virtual or cyber world.

Q: What are the most effective tools in combating terrorism?

A: An effective counterterrorism strategy requires a truly whole-of-government approach that draws upon many different kinds of tools. The collection of good intelligence is required in order to understand terrorist intentions and capabilities. Collecting that intelligence requires that we work in close cooperation with partner countries all around the world. When appropriate, we share terrorism-related intelligence with those partners, and we rely upon them to do the same.

Similarly, effective counterterrorism strategy requires that we have the highly developed military capabilities we need to locate and disrupt potential terrorists before they act. The effort to kill or capture the terrorists most threatening to the United States and its citizens remains a centerpiece of our counterterrorism strategy. At the same time, we also rely heavily on our law enforcement community to collect intelligence, prosecute individuals who have committed terrorism-related crimes, and to ensure that our terrorism-related laws are vigorously enforced.

Effective terrorism strategy also demands that the United States develop and maintain strong diplomatic partnerships and relationships around the world. The United States is always more effective — militarily and diplomatically — when it is acting in concert with other nations that share our interests in combating terrorism.

Lastly, effective counterterrorism strategy has an important soft-power component. We must always strive to address the conditions that give rise to conflict around the world and that feed extremism. Particularly here inside the United States, we must also do a better job of giving communities and local authorities the tools and knowledge that they need to recognize the presence of extremism and potential terrorism. The federal government is an important actor, but by no means the only important actor, in the effort to keep Americans safe from terrorism here at home.

Q: What will your role at ASU be as the new director of the McCain Institute’s Counterterrorism Program, and how do you see this role complementing or continuing your past work? 

A: My goal at the McCain Institute is to find new and innovative ways to add value to our national counterterrorism efforts. There are some terrorism tasks that fall exclusively to the federal government, particularly the intelligence and military work that our counterterrorism professionals do around the world and here at home. At the same time, as I left government service after 27-plus years, I was convinced that there is room for purpose-driven organizations like the McCain Institute to help build additional counterterrorism capability here at home and around the world. My challenge will be to identify those opportunities to make a difference in the never-ending effort to keep Americans safe from the threat of terrorism.

Q: What attracted you most to the McCain Institute and ASU as a potential platform for your counterterrorism work?   

A: The McCain Institute was founded on the idea that we have an obligation to demonstrate character-driven leadership on national security issues and to develop real, practical solutions to the national security problems that we face at home and around the world. Pursuing that vision is truly important to me. At the same time, the McCain Institute’s affiliation with ASU is an extraordinary source of strength and comparative advantage, given the amazing breadth and depth of resources available to the ASU community. In my very short tenure, I have identified and begun to develop numerous potential partnership opportunities with individuals and organizations all across the ASU universe. That is genuinely exciting to me, and I look forward to learning even more about the amazing array of important work going on in Phoenix, in Tempe, in Washington, D.C., and indeed anywhere where ASU operates.  

Top photo courtesy of the McCain Institute for International Leadership