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The ISIS Attack on Moscow Should Be a Wake-Up Call to the U.S.
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The ISIS Attack on Moscow Should Be a Wake-Up Call to the U.S.

There are steps we can take now to thwart potential terrorist attacks.

People lay flowers in front of the Crocus City Hall in Moscow in memory of the victims of the terrorist attack there on March 27, 2024. (Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Last week’s Islamic State attack that killed at least 143 Russian concertgoers confirms what the group’s January bombing of an Iranian memorial service suggested: It is capable of and committed to launching mass-casualty terrorism from its Afghan sanctuary. Some may be tempted to coldly dismiss these murderous attacks only because they befell America’s adversaries, even though the victims were innocent civilians. That is wrong on the merits, but also ignores that the United States is vulnerable to similar attacks. We can’t afford to forget the hard lessons learned from campaigns against both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’s Iraq-and-Syria wing.

Between 1998 and 2001, the U.S. paid insufficient attention to a growing drumbeat of al-Qaeda activity emanating from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan—bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, a plot against Los Angeles International Airport, a failed attack on USS The Sullivans and a successful attack on USS Cole in Yemen. President Bill Clinton struck Afghanistan with cruise missiles, and he and President George W. Bush began an armed Predator drone program while CIA contacts resumed with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, all in unsuccessful efforts to kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

But understandably distracted by an Asian financial crisis, an impeachment, the Y2K scare and a contested presidential election, policymakers missed the al-Qaeda plot that began in Afghanistan in the late 1990s; developed in Germany, Malaysia and the Gulf States; entered the U.S. and came to awful fruition on a bright September morning.  We risk making such mistakes of omission now.

Thanks to policy decisions by Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden that may now be objectively described as bad, we once again lack Afghan bases from which to hunt our enemies in Islamic State’s “Khorasan” branch.  We face divisive domestic political problems to which those of the Millennium era pale in comparison. The danger of attack may be more acute than circa 2000 due to our insecure southwest border, and the skyrocketing number of “special interest aliens” and even “known or suspected terrorists” caught crossing over.

In the ‘90s most U.S. officials saw the threat al-Qaeda presented only through a glass, darkly, and they failed to imagine them attacking the homeland—until they did. But the Islamic State made its intentions and capabilities very clear from 2015 to 2017: In San Bernardino, Orlando, Columbus, and Manhattan, ISIS-inspired terrorists killed 72 Americans.

ISIS has twice now murdered hundreds at a stroke in Europe, right under the noses first of the famously good French internal security service—the DGSI—and now Russia’s infamously brutal one, the FSB. The Islamic State’s external attacks are often simple and involve firearms (which are far too available to bad actors in this country) or even just knives or trucks. This gives these conspiracies a smaller signature, making them more difficult for Western law enforcement and intelligence services to foil than al-Qaeda’s complex plots from about 1998 to 2009. Those often sought to turn boats, planes, and trains into weapons to strike multiple symbolic targets at the same time, in what the enemy sickeningly dubbed “spectacular” attacks.

France’s government is now reportedly on its highest counterterror alert as the Paris Olympic Games approach this summer. This is wise. What can American leaders usefully do to prevent ISIS attacks on the U.S., for which long-term planning may already be underway?  Counterterrorism is a multifaceted problem involving subjects as disparate and politically sensitive as immigration, surveillance, social media, gun control, the military and law enforcement. Several initiatives, seemingly unrelated, can work in concert to offer some level of protection.

First, is the bipartisan border bill sponsored by Sen. James Lankford that stalled in the Senate. The perfect is the enemy of the good, and waiting until 2025 to begin to secure the border is unacceptable for any reason, much less for the sake of preserving a Republican talking point for the upcoming election. The fact that 736 individuals whose identities are in terrorist screening databases were encountered by Customs and Border Protection at or between U.S. ports of entry in 2023 alone should give Congress reason enough to pass this legislation. (Indeed, a self-proclaimed Hezbollah bombmaker was detained in Texas just this month.) By the same token, it is incumbent upon Democratic-led states and cities that have bragged about being sanctuaries to cooperate with Homeland Security—to remove individuals who are here illegally and who also present violent criminal or national security risks.

Next is the reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, currently before Congress. This provision is set to expire, and was abused during the Obama administration, yet FISA provides the lion’s share of our counterterror intelligence. Similarly, Congress should decline to pursue bills such as “the Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act,” which would prevent law enforcement from buying commercially available data to track mobile phones, a crucial tool in the previous fight against ISIS inside this country.

Then there is the bipartisan bill seeking to sever TikTok from the influence of hostile foreign powers. TikTok’s promotion last year of Osama bin Laden’s infamous 2002 “letter to the American people” is a prime example of how social media can radicalize the impressionable and vulnerable.  So is the avalanche of ghastly pro-Hamas and antisemitic propaganda trending on this platform since October 7—precisely because of and not despite that attack—even as TikTok weakly attempts to disclaim responsibility for the popularity of this content. Even given the First Amendment considerations and TikTok’s popularity with young voters—which recently led Biden’s reelection campaign to post a video on it—ought to be subordinate to counterterror concerns.

The defense budget generally has been shrinking as a share of GDP since 2010—including during the Trump administration—which is a problem on several fronts but particularly here. But it’s not just that we need to be spending more. This threat calls for more of the longer-range, higher-payload types of drones needed to persistently surveil and then strike ISIS targets in Afghanistan now that we lack Bagram and Kandahar airbases from which to stage our airpower. Also, proposed cuts to special operations forces need to be shelved, as these kinds of units are needed for raids into Afghanistan to capture terror leaders for interrogation, and to seize and exploit their electronic and paper records, to uncover the identities of their operatives and the targets of their evil plots.

Both federal and state governments should consider my former boss Rep. Peter King’s “no fly, no buy” bill, which he annually co-sponsored across party lines with the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein. No plausible reading of the Second Amendment demands that we allow the purchase of powerful firearms by those on terror watch lists, especially when the worst of ISIS’s past attacks in the U.S. made use of such weapons.

There is also a role for states and cities to play, by restoring robust funding and authorities for police counterterror units. After 2001 the New York and Los Angeles police departments, for example, established significant counterterror capabilities. Brave local cops were the first responders to ISIS’ domestic attacks; indeed, uniformed patrolmen were the targets of some attacks. With deep cuts to law enforcement budgets since 2020, police counterterror programs—some of which became controversial, including the NYPD’s—often got curtailed.  Unfortunately, they may soon again be needed.

Islamic State attacks from Afghanistan into Iran and now Russia should be wake-up calls to us.  Remember how you felt the morning of September 12? And when missed opportunities by our government to thwart the hijackings were revealed in the days, weeks, and months that followed? The political ephemera of summer 2001 seemed so shamefully trivial in retrospect. We ought to respond to ISIS now, in a bipartisan manner, and in the constructive way Americans later wished our country had responded to al-Qaeda’s attacks before 9/11.

Kevin Carroll served as senior counsel to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly (2017-18) and House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King (2011-13), and as a CIA and Army officer.