As the second decade after 9/11 approaches, the question of counterterrorism efforts remains pertinent to national and global discourse, from the rise and fall of ISIS to President Donald Trump’s promises to tighten security policies. Terrorism experts questioned this evolution of governmental policy Monday afternoon at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy event, “Terrorism at Home and Abroad: Where are we 16 years after 9/11?”

Nicholas Rasmussen, a former State Department official and director of the National Counterterrorism Center, discussed his role in the U.S government in its efforts to eliminate terrorism. He was accompanied by John Ciorciari, the director of the international policy at the Public Policy School and facilitator of the event. 

Rasmussen first discussed the early stages of his work, especially pertaining to 9/11. He highlighted the fear he felt of future terrorist attacks, both within his work with colleagues at the White House as well as within general society. He explained officials’ general belief in the last decade that another attack was around the corner, which further incited a race to strengthen defense against terrorism. These conditions, he offered, have outsize influence on more aggressive policies instituted by the U.S. government after the attack.

Rasmussen also illustrated the growing complexity of anti-terrorism initiatives with the diminishment of al-Qaeda as a main player and the introduction of ISIS.

“What we’ve seen with the ISIS variant of global terrorism over the last few years, is that impact can be achieved with frequency, with randomness and the terror that comes with being unpredictable,” Rasmussen said.

Ciorciari mentioned the operation to capture and kill Osama bin Laden, which Rasmussen cited as a perceived symbol of conclusive defeat over terrorism in the U.S. Still, the operation continued to have varying implications in its overall success.  

“Much of the work that was done against al-Qaeda was focused on collecting really finely-grained intelligence to give us insight into what particular groups of individuals were planning,” Rasmussen said. “And we had some pretty significant advantages at the time. In many ways the problem set was more manageable then, because we were dealing with a relatively contained group of terrorist actors around the globe.”

In contrast, ISIS operates organizationally to gain as much global support as possible.

Rasmussen also discussed his role throughout the shift into the Trump administration, affirming that consistency within national security, especially during a potentially more vulnerable political environment, has been prioritized.  

“Much as President Obama, when he assumed office after President Bush, kept a number of senior counterterrorism officials in place, it was obviously President Trump and his administration’s conclusion that continuity in some of these areas was in the national interest as well,” he said.

In regards to a statement about President Trump’s potentially destabilizing remarks toward Muslim and minority populations, as well as foreign groups, Rasmussen agreed any statements that deepen distrust between the government and communities makes the process of counterterrorism increasingly difficult. However, he highlighted there is a holistic need for the government to initiate efforts towards structuring an approach to community engagement that encourages an environment of mutual trust.

“There isn’t a single right-sized federal program that I think could be applied, at scale, across the country, that could account for all of the differences in the way that communities are responding to extremism across the country,” he said.

LSA senior Anna Horton attended the event out of a general interest in foreign policy as an international studies minor. 

“I figured it would be helpful to get some insight on what a former government official thought about terrorism in the U.S and also our involvement in counterterrorism overseas,” she said. “I did really like his comment about there needing to be a local grassroots response.”


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