American counterterrorism strategy is too often geared to preventing the last terrorist attack. Terrorists and their sponsors are creative, however. They will not pursue a strategy against which they know the United States is well prepared to defend itself but will instead look to maintain surprise. Eleven years ago, it was using airplanes for suicide attacks. In intervening years, it has been using liquid to construct explosives in flight, or concealing bombs in underwear. Counterterror specialists already worry about the possibility that Al Qaeda doctors could surgically implant bombs in terrorists. Other specialists worry that ship-borne cargo could harbor nuclear or chemical weapons.
The United States is not preparing, however, for a new threat which is, literally, over-the-horizon. Drones have become the counterterror tool of choice for the Obama administration, with devastating effect. But the days when the United States monopolizes drones have already come to an end. China and Russia have built drones, and Pakistan is exploring the technology. Using technology provided by the Obama administration, Turkey is building its own drones and preparing to sell them without regard to U.S. national security interests. After all, Turkey’s prime minister even considers Hamas a viable partner. Iran already has constructed and put into operation a robust drone fleet, perhaps enhanced with technology derived from the U.S. drone lost over its territory. Iran is helping Venezuela build its own drones. While the nightmare scenario for the counterterror community is Iran or other states providing terror groups with unconventional weapons, the likelihood that they might provide drones is greater.
Enemies can launch drones from across America’s borders, or from cargo ships sailing just outside American territorial waters. The drones can carry payloads of increasing lethality, or can simply be deployed into the paths of civilian air traffic.
The next 9/11 could be around the corner. Let’s hope that the Obama administration or its successor will not approach the problem with eyes wide shut. Not every threat can be mitigated by removing shoes or testing colas bought in airports.