In the nine years since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, America has been fighting two deadly wars aimed at destroying Al Qaeda. The cost has been very high, especially for the US military personnel and their families who have endured multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan
Gains have been made, but it’s been a long military and political slog. Meanwhile, the US (and other countries) have experienced lower-level attacks inspired or directed by Al Qaeda, and more such attacks and plots have been disrupted.
So is the US safer as a result of these efforts? According to a sobering new report by the heads of the former 9/11 Commission and other national security experts, it’s a mixed picture.
Although it would like to do so, Al Qaeda does not have the capability of launching an attack on the scale of 9/11, when hijacked airliners flown by suicidal Islamist terrorists slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing thousands.
But Al Qaeda still could carry out attacks against symbolic American targets such as the New York subway system or a passenger jet – two plots that were thwarted last year and could have killed hundreds of people. And, according to the report, “This level of threat is likely to persist for years to come.”
Al Qaeda and its allies also have established the beginnings of a terrorist recruitment, radicalization, and operational infrastructure in the US, according to “Assessing the Terrorist Threat” by the Bipartisan Policy Center. (The center is a nonprofit organization established in 2007 by former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and George Mitchell – two Republicans and two Democrats.)
“Last year was a watershed in terrorist attacks and plots in the United States, with a record total of 11 jihadist attacks, jihadist-inspired plots, or efforts by Americans to travel overseas to obtain terrorist training,” the report states. “They included two actual attacks (at Fort Hood, Texas, which claimed the lives of 13 people, and the shooting of two US military recruiters in Little Rock, Arkansas), five serious but disrupted plots, and four incidents involving groups of Americans conspiring to travel abroad to receive terrorist training.”
Two things in particular are worth noting, say the report’s authors: The increasing role of US citizens in planning and attempting to carry out terrorist attacks. And the increasing diversification of US-based jihadists, who do not fit any ethnic, economic, educational, or social profile.
“We are seeing more Americans turning on their country, going abroad and making common cause with terrorist groups,” said Bruce Hoffman, one of the report’s authors. “The array of perpetrators and the nature of their plots against America are remarkable and there is no single government agency responsible for deterring radicalization and terrorist recruitment. The terrorists may have found our Achilles heel – we have no way of dealing with this growing problem.”
Given the number of incidents involving domestic perpetrators – homegrown radicals, lone wolves, or trained recruits – the report’s authors conclude that “the U.S. is arguably now little different from Europe in terms of having a domestic terrorist problem involving immigrant and indigenous Muslims as well as converts to Islam.”
In the immediate wake of 9/11, many elected officials and national security experts predicted that another such mass attack on US soil would happen very soon.
That did not happen then and is unlikely to happen now, a subject of vigorous discussion and debate among expert analysts. But the threat to US security from Al Qaeda-inspired and directed terrorism remains.
“The American people have lost their focus on the threat and while we’re not trying to make people panic, this report reminds us that we cannot be complacent,” said former congressman Lee Hamilton, who headed the 9/11 Commission along with former New Jersey governor Tom Kean.