It is easy to imagine that U.S. counterterrorism policy began as a response to the 9/11 attacks. But, in fact, efforts to stop terrorism have spanned modern American history—though who was designated a terrorist, and how seriously the threats were taken, shifted dramatically over time.

During the Cold War, the terms terrorist and subversive were largely reserved for Soviet-backed insurgents abroad, communist sympathizers at home, and even civil rights leaders campaigning for equality. American presidents viewed terrorism as a tactical threat, a low-impact security challenge that warranted only limited attention. The Soviet Union and its allies posed the greater strategic challenge. It took the collapse of this archrival in 1991 and the catastrophic events of 9/11, a decade later, to fundamentally restructure the United States’ national security priorities. Once considered a criminal act, terrorism is now seen by U.S. policymakers as an existential threat, both at home and abroad.

In this timeline, we examine the vastly different ways in which U.S. administrations have defined and prioritized domestic and foreign terrorist threats. We look at how these policymakers have balanced the national security agenda with civil liberties such as the right to privacy and the right to a fair trial. It is not an exhaustive list of counterterrorism policies and operations; it rather serves to illustrate changing priorities that ultimately led to today’s nearly two-decade-long war on terror.
 

Harry S. Truman: New Security Priorities After World War II

The Soviet Union emerged as an international superpower in the wake of World War II. In response, President Harry S. Truman passed a series of sweeping domestic and international policies aimed at confronting and containing this rising global competitor. One such measure entirely restructured the United States’ military and intelligence agencies, forming the basis of today’s U.S. national security apparatus.

President Harry S. Truman delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on January 4, 1950.

Abbie Rowe/National Park Service via Harry S. Truman Library and Museum

President Harry S. Truman is signing the National Security Act Amendment of 1949 in the Oval Office.

Abbie Rowe/National Park Service via Harry S. Truman Library and Museum

National Security Act Creates the CIA

The National Security Act of 1947 established the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency, the first peacetime intelligence agency. This structure remained in place until 2004 when Congress created a new office—the Director of National Intelligence—to coordinate and promote information-sharing across the U.S. intelligence community. The National Security Act, along with a 1949 amendment, also created the Department of Defense, led by a secretary who oversees the Army, Navy, and Air Force, the same basis of today’s U.S. military.

Dwight D. Eisenhower: Rise of the Red Scare

American fears of communists, radical leftists, and anarchists spread in the early twentieth century amid a series of bombings against politicians, judges, and bankers. This period from 1917 to 1920 is known as the First Red Scare. President Dwight D. Eisenhower took office three decades later when American policymakers once again feared communism as the greatest threat to the United States, particularly with growing Soviet global influence. The FBI more than doubled in size throughout the forties and fifties in a wave of anti-communist hysteria led by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. This period of time—known as the Second Red Scare or the era of McCarthyism—was marked by political repression during which the careers of thousands of politicians, academics, and entertainers were destroyed by accusations of communist sympathizing.

Joseph McCarthy points at a map of the United States as he testifies on Communist Party organization on June 9, 1954.

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J. Edgar Hoover, shown in this May 1959 photograph, was the first FBI director and served in the position for thirty-seven years.

Dan Grossi/AP

COINTELPRO Targets Communist Groups

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover directed an aggressive FBI operation targeting domestic political organizations that he considered to be threatening to the “internal security” of the United States. Agents working on Hoover’s operation, called the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), initially sought to disrupt communist groups in the United States. COINTELPRO served as a forerunner of modern-day domestic surveillance tactics such as those laid out in the post-9/11 Patriot Act.

John F. Kennedy: Showdown with the Soviets

The Cold War intensified during the John F. Kennedy administration, as the two global superpowers narrowly avoided nuclear war. Kennedy’s top priority was confronting Soviet influence at home and abroad, not combating terrorism. U.S. policymakers did not view international terrorism as an existential threat. Instead, the term terrorist was often used to refer to Soviet-backed insurgents and guerillas in locations on the front lines of the Cold War such as Cuba and Vietnam.

President John F. Kennedy meets members of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council regarding the Cuban missile crisis, on October 29, 1962. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara is seated to Kennedy’s left.

Cecil Stoughton/White House via John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

President John F. Kennedy meets USSR Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko, seated to Kennedy’s right, and other Soviet dignitaries, on October 18, 1962.

Cecil Stoughton/White House via John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

CIA Warns of American Vulnerabilities

In March 1963, the CIA reported that the United States was highly vulnerable to weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons—being smuggled into the country. Kennedy, however, did not implement any additional counterterrorism measures, in sharp contrast to today’s response to such threats. He believed that the Soviets—and only the Soviets—were capable of carrying out such an attack and that it was highly unlikely that they would want to provoke nuclear war in fear of mutually assured destruction, the theory that both sides would be completely destroyed in the event of a nuclear war.

Lyndon B. Johnson: Social Unrest at Home

Following a decade of post–World War II prosperity that largely benefited white Americans, groups advocating for civil rights reform and other political change sparked a period of turbulence and unrest. Reaction to this social upheaval dominated the counterterrorism agenda of the 1960s, with law enforcement targeting domestic groups, individuals, and ideologies deemed threatening to national security.

A man gestures with his thumb down at an armed National Guard service member, at a protest during the Newark riots in New Jersey, on July 14, 1967.

Neal Boenzi/New York Times via Getty Images

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. waves at the crowd during the March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, where he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, on August 28, 1963.

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FBI Tracks MLK, Civil Rights Leaders

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) tracked not just groups with alleged communist affiliations but also civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. COINTELPRO maintained files on racial justice groups that conducted bombings and assassinations, such as the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army. However, under Hoover, COINTELPRO greatly exceeded the bounds of intelligence gathering. In 1964, the FBI went so far as to send an anonymous blackmail note to King, which appeared to insinuate that he kill himself. “You are done. King, there is only one thing left for you to do,” the letter read. “You know what it is.”

Richard Nixon: Hijackings in America

The U.S. government did not always view airplane hijackings as terrorist threats. Between 1968 and 1972, more than 130 airplane hijackings took place in the United States, occurring at a rate of about two per month. The vast majority were carried out by Americans trying to reach Cuba. These “skyjackings” became so common that the Swiss government, which represented American diplomatic interests in Cuba, created a form letter to request the return of the diverted plane, crew, and passengers. When the Air Line Pilots Association, tired of having their planes overtaken by gun-wielding passengers, demanded tougher security, the airline industry and the federal government dismissed the idea as ridiculous. This lack of attention to airline security is a far cry from what the United States has in place today.

Passengers of an Eastern Air Lines flight land in Miami, Florida, on February 3, 1969, after hijackers initially diverted the plane to Havana, Cuba.

Lynn Pelham/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

A Federal Aviation Administration sign details aviation security measures that were instituted in the 1970s.

FAA News via Flickr

Southern Airways Flight 49 Scare Changes Airline Safety

On November 11, 1972, three men armed with guns and hand grenades hijacked Southern Airways Flight 49 and threatened to crash the plane into a nuclear reactor in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, unless they were paid $10 million. Facing a potential nuclear disaster, Southern delivered part of this money to the hijackers, who refused to release the passengers and continued to Cuba, where they were arrested. Realizing the potential mass lethality of such hijackings, the Federal Aviation Administration began full passenger and carry-on luggage screening at American airports shortly thereafter, starting on January 5, 1973.

Gerald Ford: The CIA and Domestic Surveillance

The American public profoundly distrusted the government in the wake of the Watergate scandal, which ended the Nixon presidency. Those feelings intensified four months into Ford’s presidency when the New York Times published a story, in December 1974, exposing yet another domestic surveillance operation, distinct from COINTELPRO. In this case, the CIA conducted a “massive, illegal domestic intelligence operation” called Operation Chaos, during the Nixon administration, in which a CIA unit kept files on ten thousand “dissident Americans” involved in anti-war activities and other protest movements. Truman’s 1947 National Security Act explicitly prohibited the CIA from conducting such internal security operations.

President Gerald R. Ford at his desk in the Oval Office, on March 25, 1975.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum

Senator Frank Church presides over a news conference at the release of the Church Committee’s final report on government operations with respect to intelligence activities, on April 28, 1976.

Boise State University Special Collections and Archives

Senate Report Exposes Spying on U.S. Citizens

The Senate convened a special committee to investigate abuses by the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency (NSA), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in response to the unlawful domestic surveillance operations carried out by the intelligence community. The Church Committee—chaired by Idaho Senator Frank Church—issued its eye-opening final report in April 1976, which exposed an even farther-reaching network of politically motivated intelligence operations taken against U.S. citizens. That same year, Attorney General Edward Levi created guidelines for government agencies, including rules that limited the FBI’s ability to gather domestic political intelligence. Subsequent attorneys general significantly weakened these guidelines to today’s standard; it is once again easier for the FBI to monitor and investigate American citizens even without clear proof of criminal activity.

Jimmy Carter: State-Sponsored Terrorism

American policymakers first seriously took notice of international terrorism as a threat to national interests in the 1970s amid a wave of high-profile attacks, perhaps most notably the killing of Israeli athletes in Munich at the 1972 Olympics. In response to these emerging threats, the United States monitored not just individuals but also entire countries that supported terrorism. The Carter administration initially singled out four countries: Iraq, Libya, Syria, and South Yemen, which unified with the North in 1990. Each of these countries also had Soviet-leaning sympathies during the Cold War. The State Sponsors of Terrorism list today designates Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria as state sponsors.

Members of the Libyan Armed Forces march at a military parade in Benghazi to mark the tenth anniversary of the overthrow of the monarchy, in September 1979.

Eberhard Klöppel/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi (left) and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad are seen in a car together during a conference of Arab leaders to oppose the Camp David Accords, in Damascus, on September 25, 1978.

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Congress Passes State Sponsors of Terrorism List

Congress passed the State Sponsors of Terrorism list in 1979 primarily to control weapons sales during the Cold War. Previously, the United States could sell planes to Syria and military vehicles to Libya with little to no oversight. With the dual threats of the Cold War and rising international terrorism, the list began as a tool to more closely monitor and regulate the sale of U.S. military equipment to countries that were actively supporting terrorism. Over the past forty years, the list has grown into a powerful foreign policy instrument used not just for monitoring weapons sales but also as a basis for justifying sanctions, travel bans, and similar actions.

Ronald Reagan: International Terrorism and the Cold War

Hundreds of U.S. citizens died at the hands of state-sponsored terrorist groups throughout the seventies and eighties. But unlike in the post-9/11 era, U.S. policymakers did not view such terrorist attacks as existential national security threats. Rather, these acts of terrorism continued to take a backseat to the Soviet threat, the Ronald Reagan administration believing international terrorism to be an unavoidable reality during the Cold War. It would take a catastrophic attack on American soil to restructure completely the U.S. government and the way the country dealt with terrorism.

A view of the damage to the U.S. embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, on April 29, 1983, a few days after a terrorist bombing.

U.S. Army

The explosion at the Marine Corps building in Beirut, Lebanon, on October 23, 1983, created a large cloud of smoke that was visible from miles away.

U.S. Marine Corps

Beirut Barracks Bombing Kills Hundreds

Suicide bombers linked to Hezbollah, an Islamist militant group based in Lebanon, drove truckloads of dynamite into the barracks of U.S. Marines and French paratroopers, killing 305 people, in an attempt to expel foreign peacekeepers from Lebanon. Reagan promised a muscular response to what was then the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history. But the United States pulled out of a planned air assault with France, and the White House did little to support ambitious counterterrorism legislation when it stalled in Congress. Reagan’s response was typical for the Cold War period when, once again, conflict with the Soviet Union largely overshadowed the concept of international terrorism.

George H. W. Bush: Rogue Threats and Weapons of Mass Destruction

At the start of the George H. W. Bush presidency, the Cold War was nearing its end and new global threats were rising. American policymakers feared that deadly chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union could potentially fall into the arms of terrorists. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Saddam Hussein’s regime had just ended a brutal war against Iran, during which his regime flagrantly abused chemical weapons, including to massacre thousands of Iraqis in 1988. Such weapons of mass destruction—particularly in the hands of rogue countries and terrorist groups—are still of tremendous threat to the United States.

People from East Germany climb the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate after the opening of the East German border was announced, on November 10, 1989.

Reuters

American soldiers, part of a U.S.-led coalition preparing to liberate Iraqi-occupied Kuwait, wear gas masks during a chemical warfare exercise in Saudi Arabia, in December 1990.

Peter Turnley/Corbis via Getty Images

U.S. Passes Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act

In 1975, twenty-two governments ratified the Biological Weapons Convention, an international treaty aimed at preventing nations from developing, stockpiling, and deploying biological and toxic weapons. Fourteen years later, the United States joined the convention by passing the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989. The legislation sought to strengthen the United States’ defense against biological warfare and individuals who may use these weapons. It was even strengthened after 9/11 and is still in effect.

Bill Clinton: Terrorism in the National Spotlight

In the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States enjoyed unprecedented global primacy. But the 1990s were also marked by terrorist threats against U.S. citizens both at home and abroad. In 1993, Ramzi Yousef carried out the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York. Two years later, Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing at least 168 people in the then-deadliest domestic terrorist attack to date. President Bill Clinton sought to enact powerful and unprecedented counterterrorism policies to address this growing threat.

An FBI agent comforts a man at the site of the bombed Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, on May 5, 1995.

Rick Wilking/Reuters

House Speaker Newt Gingrich makes opening remarks as President Bill Clinton looks on at a question and answer meeting between the two leaders in Claremont, New Hampshire, on June 11, 1995.

Jim Bourg/Reuters

Congress Blocks Clinton Counterterrorism Bill

In the face of growing and varying terrorist threats, the Clinton administration proposed the first reforms to U.S. counterterrorism policies in nearly a decade. Known as the Omnibus Counterterrorism Act of 1995, the Clinton legislative initiative sought to grant the government significantly enhanced surveillance powers, including loosening restrictions on the government’s abilities to listen in on phone calls. Many of the proposals closely resembled the Patriot Act, which would come into effect six years later. But unlike the George W. Bush administration, the Clinton administration faced steep resistance from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress who argued that the proposal would threaten civil liberties. The act failed to get through Congress. It would take another six years and the 9/11 attacks before Congress would seriously revisit such a legislation and debate the balance between civil liberties and national security.

George W. Bush: 9/11 and the Aftermath

In the deadliest terrorist incident on record, militants from the terrorist group al-Qaeda hijacked four planes and used them as weapons to kill 2,977 people and cause extraordinary destruction. The nineteen hijackers crashed two planes into the World Trade Center in New York and flew another into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. The fourth plane was heading toward Washington, DC, when passengers overtook the terrorists and crashed the aircraft in Pennsylvania. After 9/11, U.S. counterterrorism strategy changed remarkably. No longer a marginal issue, counterterrorism took center stage in U.S. policy both at home and abroad, prompting two wars, a vast government reorganization, and a series of sweeping security measures.

A U.S. flag flies near the base of the destroyed World Trade Center in New York, on September 11, 2001.

Peter Morgan/Reuters

A Navy F-18 Hornet takes off from the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the Arabian Sea, on November 12, 2001. Planes from the ship took part in Operation Enduring Freedom strikes against al-Qaeda and Taliban targets inside Afghanistan.

Jim Hollander/Reuters

The Invasion of Afghanistan

Three days after the 9/11 attacks, Congress authorized the president to respond militarily to those who had “planned” the 9/11 attacks and “harbored” the attackers. This law, the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), provided the legal basis for the invasion of Afghanistan and the start of the so-called war on terror. Thus began a war against a concept—terrorism—a conflict without end and certainly without clear boundaries. U.S.-led coalition forces retaliated against not only al-Qaeda, which had planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks, but also the Taliban, which had protected the terrorist group in Afghanistan. Nearly twenty years later, the United States is still in Afghanistan. More than two thousand Americans have died in Afghanistan, more than twenty thousand have been injured, and trillions of dollars have been spent in this ongoing fight against terrorism, now the longest war in U.S. history. There are American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan today who were born after 9/11.

Barack Obama: The Global War on Terror

The 2010s brought frequent reminders of the globalized threats of terrorism. Global deaths from terrorism soared starting around 2013, largely due to the rise of groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and Boko Haram in Nigeria. While the Bush administration launched the war on terror, the Obama administration expanded the scope of its operations to respond to these new threats. More than fifteen years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Obama administration used the 2001 AUMF to carry out counterterrorism training or operations in six continents, most notably the killing of the al-Qaeda leader and 9/11 architect Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011. In this expanding fight against terrorism, the Obama administration conducted drone strikes even in non-battlefield settings in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.

U.S. troops stand guard at the site of a suicide car bomb attack in Kabul, on February 10, 2014.

Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

A U.S. Air Force airman marshals an RQ-1 Predator aircraft at the Tallil Air Base in Iraq, on January 20, 2004.

Staff Sergeant Suzanne M. Jenkins/U.S. Air Force

Drone Strike Assassinates U.S. Citizen

On September 30, 2011, the United States carried out a targeted drone strike in Yemen on a senior al-Qaeda recruiter and spokesperson, Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen. The assassination of al-Awlaki marked the first time that the United States had deliberately killed an American citizen by drone strike, denying him constitutional rights to due process, including the right to a fair trial. The targeting of the radical cleric raised constitutional questions about the war on terror and shed light on the Obama administration’s increasing use of drone warfare. Obama authorized at least 542 drone strikes during his presidency, killing an estimated 3,797 people, including 324 civilians, though these numbers are difficult to verify.

Donald Trump: Radical Islamic Terrorism

The United States operates in eighty countries in the fight against terrorism. Beyond the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the United States is expanding counterterrorism operations across Africa in countries such as Libya, Niger, and Somalia. Notably, Trump focuses on “violent Islamic extremism” and “radical Islamic terrorism,” threats he says “must be stopped by whatever means necessary.” Previous presidents avoided linking Islam—the second-largest religion in the world, with more than 1.5 billion adherents—to terrorism. But Trump has consistently singled out Muslims in both his campaign rhetoric and actions as president, eliciting sharp criticism for anti-Muslim bigotry.

U.S. President Donald Trump observes a demonstration with U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division troops, an attack helicopter, and artillery as he visits Fort Drum, New York, on August 13, 2018.

Carlos Barria/Reuters

Demonstrators protest against the Trump administration’s immigration ban at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, on January 28, 2017.

Dennis Bratland via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Trump Signs Contested Travel Ban

During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Just one week into his presidency, Trump signed Executive Order 13769, which barred citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States and suspended the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Despite the United States having some of the strictest immigration laws in the world, Trump argued that the order was vital for national security. The executive order—referred to by critics as the Muslim ban or the travel ban—faced significant protests and public condemnation as well as legal challenges. It was ultimately replaced by a revised version, which the Supreme Court upheld.

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