It’s been 15 years since the 9/11 terror attacks, but in some ways, we’re no safer from terrorism today than we were before 2001.
Al Qaeda still has a formidable presence across the world, and a new terror threat — ISIS — rose up during the chaos that followed the US invasion of Iraq.
The world is also now contending with spates of attacks carried out by radicalized individuals who have managed to fly under the radar of Western intelligence officials.
The Soufan Group, a strategic security firm, contended in a note this week that the terror threat against the US is actually more pronounced today than it was before 9/11.
Since September 11, 2001, “the global terror threat has compounded and cascaded,” said the note from The Soufan Group. We’re now facing “unprecedented terror concerns” that will likely persist for years to come, according to the firm.
The firm noted that after the attacks, the US outlined several goals with regards to fighting terrorism: preventing another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11; denying terrorists sanctuaries in countries like Afghanistan; destroying Al Qaeda; and countering extremist ideology.
“As the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, only one of these goals — the prevention of an attack nearing the scale of 9/11 — has been met,” the firm stated. “While the prevention of another such attack is a significant achievement, many of the other post-9/11 concerns are considerably worse now than in 2001.”
The US successfully toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan, but the group still controls territory there.
And the death of Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden hasn’t weakened the group to the point where it’s no longer a threat. Bin Laden’s ideology has actually continued to inspire and radicalize people across the globe, especially with the rise of ISIS, a group that borrowed from the ideological doctrine bin Laden espoused, and the use of social media by extremist recruiters.
Al Qaeda is in fact stronger today than it was before 9/11, The Soufan Group argued in its note. The intelligence apparatus in the US has grown to counter this threat, and new counterterrorism and security measures have succeeded at preventing many attacks, but some terrorists have still been able to slip through the cracks.
“The spread of violent extremism since 9/11 has surpassed anything bin Laden likely thought achievable in a fifteen-year period,” The Soufan Group note said. And the threat of attacks by lone actors as well as terrorist cells in the West “will remain for years to come.”
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, noted in a column this week how widespread terrorism has become since 9/11.
“September 11, 2001, was unique in the sense of its scale; otherwise it was anything but,” Haass wrote. “Terrorism has become commonplace.”
But Haass also puts things into perspective — while terrorism certainly is a serious threat, it is not yet a threat to the very existence of the US.
“Over the last decade, there have been, on average, more than 10,000 terrorist attacks per year, causing an average of more than 15,000 deaths per year,” Haass noted.
He continued: “Relatively little of this terrorism has involved Americans. Over this same decade, there have been fewer than 15 terrorist attacks a year in the United States. An average of five Americans per year have died on US soil and approximately 20 per year have lost their lives worldwide.”
Where terrorism could become an existential threat, however, is with the use of nuclear weapons or a “dirty bomb” with nuclear material.
“Such ‘grand terrorism’ has for decades been the nightmare of many strategic thinkers,” Haass wrote.
While such “grand terrorism” hasn’t become a reality yet, it could be in the future. Pakistan, for example, is country that has nuclear weapons, a significant terrorist presence, and a weak government. This could create conditions where nuclear material could fall into the hands of terrorists.
Even the US has nuclear material that could fall into the hands of terrorists, some of which is relatively accessible in places like hospitals.
Steven Brill noted recently in The Atlantic that “despite significant work done by the Obama administration, large quantities of radioactive material already sit unguarded in the US.”
“It doesn’t require a wild leap to imagine someone with terrorist sympathies planting shielded radioactive material in a car or a cargo container that then makes its way through one of our ports,” Brill wrote. “But it’s even easier to imagine a dirty bomb being constructed from material that doesn’t have to be snuck through the ports.”
As the threats have grown, Americans have also been forced to grapple with another reality: Terrorism doesn’t just threaten American lives — it threatens our way of life. Terrorists seek to sow fear and provoke overreactions that could fundamentally change not only US policies but how Americans live their lives day-to-day.
In his editorial, Haass wrestled with the balance between freedom and security.
“Terrorism will happen sometimes despite our best efforts,” he wrote, concluding, “This argues for resilience in addition to all else. This may require some compromise on privacy for individuals in order to promote collective security, but this is a price worth paying, since the threat to democracy would quickly become far greater if existential terrorism were to become a reality.”