As we solemnly remember that horrific day 18 years ago when the Twin Towers collapsed and 2,977 souls were lost, the result of an Islamic terror attack on the USA, it would be well to consider and understand the following.
FP – Sept. 11, 2019 marks the 18th anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attack in world history. It also marks a generational shift, with American children born after that date entering adulthood having grown up with their country perpetually fighting a so-called war on terror. The 9/11 attacks and their immediate aftermath belong to an era before Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
It’s hard for this younger generation to imagine a time when the U.S. communications system crashed and the Internet seemed to break, at least temporarily, as frantic Americans scrambled to learn about the fate of friends and relatives while false reports and rumors ran rife. In today’s information-saturated environment, it is difficult for them to internalize the confusion of the time, when Americans wondered about the scope of the attack, the perpetrators behind it, and what the country would do in response.As a professor at Georgetown University who teaches courses on terrorism and counterterrorism, I am reminded every day of how 9/11 is shifting from lived experience to history. My students’ views about al Qaeda are influenced by the emergence of the Islamic State, which captured world attention in 2014 with its beheadings, rapid military advances in Iraq, and declaration of a caliphate—around the time today’s freshmen turned 13. Despite the immediacy of terrorism and its role in the popular imagination, students’ understanding of it is often incomplete, both regarding the danger itself and the U.S. response.The 9/11 attacks represent an outlier. More than 10 times as many people died on that day as have died in any single terrorist attack before or after in the United States.
In the first years after 9/11, my students and I feared that terrorism would grow ever more dangerous: Student papers in that period dwelled on lurid scenarios involving smallpox, miniature armies of jihadi snipers, and other nightmares.
However, even more sober predictions that 9/11 would lead terrorists to escalate further, either in the form of even more spectacular strikes or of chemical, biological, and radiological attacks, have not materialized. The worst jihadi attack on U.S. soil since then—Omar Mateen’s killing of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which he claimed was carried out in the name of Islamic State—involved no direct link to the terrorist group and seems more akin to one of the many mass shootings making up the United States’ sorry record on gun violence than to a 9/11-style attack.
In addition to its unique lethality, 9/11 was also an outlier in terms of competence and capability. Mohamed Atta, the quiet and determined commander of the 19 hijackers, initially left Germany because he wanted to fight the Russians in Chechnya and got recruited for the 9/11 operation while training in Afghanistan.
He worked with senior al Qaeda commanders who exploited a truly global network spanning Afghanistan, Europe, Malaysia, and the Persian Gulf states, as well as the United States, to conduct the attacks. Students tend to see Atta and the global training and logistical network on which he drew as the norm, but he was not. He was exceptional.
Indeed, much of my time in the classroom is spent explaining the reasons that terrorists often fail, particularly if they attempt such ambitious plots. A few terrorists are steely-eyed professionals, but most—especially those who operate on U.S. soil—are untrained bumblers, rarely able to build a bomb, let alone orchestrate simultaneous mass-casualty attacks.Rather than keep their heads down, they boast about their plans on social media and are quickly arrested by the FBI. One bragged about the Islamic State flag tattooed on his back. Many do more damage to themselves than they do to the enemy. One Islamic State fighter in Syria blew himself up with his own drone bomb when it exploded after he flew the drone back toward him to replace a low battery.
Others who, like Atta, make it overseas to join a group like al Qaeda or the Islamic State often end up consumed by local civil wars rather than spending their time plotting attacks on the United States, and those who do turn to international terrorism are more likely to be caught and disrupted.
The common conflation of al Qaeda on 9/11 with the Islamic State today sows confusion. The primary goal of the latter was to build and expand its caliphate, and most of the foreigners who went to Syria fought (and many died) there, rather than training for terrorist attacks in the West. Some Islamic State members or supporters did plot and attack in the United States and Europe, but there were far fewer successes than anticipated.
The United States and many other countries have also developed a massive apparatus to identify potential recruits before they go, monitor those who leave, and prevent their travel. In some cases, these governments kill such fighters in foreign war zones. France, for example, worked with Iraqi forces to hunt down French nationals who had joined jihadi groups there.