We both investigated and prosecuted terrorism cases in the decade after 9/11, seeking to prevent potential terrorist attacks in the United States before they happened. We participated in one of the Department of Justice’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces, with our grim unofficial motto: “If we succeed, you will never know who we were. If we fail, you will never forget our names.” That motto now gives us pause. Looking around the world and within our borders, we believe the United States is at heightened risk of terrorist activity.

Terrorist networks are active around the globe, with nations as diverse as Russia, Iran, Somalia, Israel, Mozambique, and Afghanistan seeing recent attacks. Once terrorists learn that they can execute a plan, they begin looking at other potential targets. America could face threats from nonstate terrorist groups like ISIS to state-sponsored terrorism from global powers like China.

That threat is deepened by our porous borders. Among the mass of people entering the United States undetected and unclassified through the nation’s southern border are some unknown number of potential terrorists. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency confirmed that its agents apprehended 169 people on the FBI’s terrorism watch list at the southern border in 2023. The Department of Homeland Security conceded last year that these numbers will continue to grow with expanding migrant flows. This raises a question: how many potential terrorists did Border Control fail to catch? If we assume, generously, that agents caught half of the border-hoppers on the watch list, another 169 intelligence-identified potential terrorists entered America through the southern border in 2023—the equivalent of eight 9/11 terror squads.

As America wrestles with a growing number of potential terrorists, one of its traditional first lines of defense is impaired. Historically, local police and prosecutors have picked off a certain number of potential terrorists. A simple car stop can result in the seizure of automatic weapons or explosives; cops can disrupt a terror cell when they arrest a leader for drunk driving or assault. A combination of political and economic forces, however, have greatly diminished local police and prosecutors’ footprint and impact in America’s biggest cities over the last decade, and cities are struggling to fill their law-enforcement ranks.

Local law enforcement has been weakened just as federal law-enforcement efforts seem to be disappearing. You seldom hear about FBI agents foiling a terror plot, for example, or about federal prosecutors convicting cell members for conspiring or attempting—but not completing—terrorist activities. Is the FBI still monitoring and infiltrating potential terrorist cells for suspects, ready to thwart that solo shooter who can kill dozens in a few minutes or that team planning something even larger? Such efforts are exhausting and tedious, but necessary. Meantime, the Department of Justice’s recorded prosecutions are at their lowest level since the 1990s. According to the annual statistical reports for the various United States Attorney’s offices around America, DOJ initiated 68,591 new criminal cases in 2010. That number fell to 50,628 new cases in 2022 and dropped below 50,000 in 2023. Potential terrorists may view Justice as a slumbering giant.

In the fight against terror, America’s defenses are down—and so is its offense. Setting aside debates about America’s military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, consider one incontrovertible fact: as long as the U.S. military had boots on the ground in the areas where terrorists were organizing and training, those terrorists spent more time trying to defend their home territory than organizing threats against America. Our withdrawal from Afghanistan, whatever its merits otherwise, had the effect of enabling the terrorists to resume such scheming.

Each of these developments—rising terror activity abroad, weak borders and law enforcement at home, withdrawn American oversight in terrorist hotspots—is compounded by terrorists’ new funding mechanisms. Terrorists once struggled to raise money and (even when they had obtained sponsorship) to deliver cash into America to support their plans. Many terrorist attacks died on the vine for lack of resources or authorities seizing cash in transport. The rise of cryptocurrencies, however, has gifted terrorist organizations around the world with an easy and apparently endless source of financing shielded from view and interdiction.

Americans should worry about the prospect of terror, especially in major metros like New York, Los Angeles, or Washington, D.C. America’s leaders—from the local to the national level—need to reverse the policies that make a future terror attack seem all but inevitable.

Photo: Anton Petrus/Moment via Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next