Terrorism has been a big topic of debate in the United States since September 11, 2001. Previous attacks like the attempted World Trade Center and the USS Cole bombings did raise awareness, but because they were not as close to home or successful, the issue remained remote in the public’s consciousness. Terrorism was something that happened in Ireland, Israel, or India. The 9/11 attacks brought the issue to the forefront and serious debate finally began on how to appropriately react at home and abroad.
There is little doubt that terrorism presents an immediate concern to the United States, but it does not necessarily represent a serious crisis. While groups like al-Qaeda have the resources to plan attacks, their capability to carry them out has significantly deteriorated. There are several reasons for this. First, law enforcement and intelligence agencies are more adept at acting in concert. The lessons from the September 11, 2011 attacks are fairly clear: lack of information-sharing, poor coordination and uncreative thinking were all part of the problem that allowed 19 men to carry out inventive, deadly attacks.
New cooperation between agencies and information-sharing with international partners has made U.S. attacks much more difficult. Terrorist groups’ decisions to focus attacks on soft targets outside of the U.S. supports this assertion. For example, the 2004 Madrid train bombings sought to target a U.S. ally where attacks were easier to orchestrate. However disruptive such attacks may be, the fact that they take place outside of the United States is proof that current measures have had some degree of success.
The second reason terrorist organizations’ capabilities have deteriorated is because their bases of power have eroded through two means: regime change and financial law enforcement. The removal of the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, pressure and sanctions on Iran and regime changes ushered in by the “Arab Spring” led to changes that, in the short term, have removed a number of potential safe havens. In addition, new financial regulations and controls have successfully limited fundraising capabilities of terrorist groups. These actions, as well as assassinations of key terrorist leaders, have severely hampered the ability of terrorist groups to carry out attacks.
Finally, terrorist capabilities have declined because we have successfully controlled one of the greatest threats: the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by terrorist groups. We know that non-state actors have tried to acquire radiological, chemical and biological weapons. However, effectively developing and deploying such weapon systems requires a degree of expertise that is fairly well “controlled.” Increased international cooperation in law enforcement has made the detection of proliferation of WMD technology, material and know-how much more effective.
Of course, it would be foolish to completely dismiss terrorist threats. There are certainly still groups that seek to kill civilians, damage infrastructure and disrupt the U.S. economy. While the ability of such groups to successfully carry out attacks has deteriorated, our own rash reactions have led to significant and unforeseen consequences. For example, the United States initiated two very costly wars that strained the US economy. We will not know the true impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for some time, but instability, violence and extremism in both countries suggest the long-term outcome may not be what we expected.
Legal changes caused by the terrorist attacks at home are also likely to have long-term implications we cannot yet foresee. Implementing laws that limit financial transactions or give wide-ranging surveillance power to law enforcement could erode some freedoms, slow down the economy and open the door for potential abuse of power. It is too early to gauge the impact of these laws on society, but we must be careful that we are not sacrificing essential freedoms for security. People may disagree about how far security laws should go and further public debate is necessary.
It is clear that terrorism is still a danger and that vigilance is required as long as there are organizations willing to target the United States and its allies. However, terrorism does not present an existential threat to the United States. The September 11 attacks were horrific in their immediate scope and damage, but they did not threaten the United States on the same scale as the conflict started by Pearl Harbor, an event to which 9/11 is often compared. Policy-makers must remain aware of this fact and remember that history will judge us not by the spin we place on our actions, but of their long-term consequences.