Ten years have passed since the United States was shocked by the most powerful attack ever carried out against the Continental US since the War of Independence. It came as a total surprise, without any warning and hit two citadels of Western civilisation, New York the financial capital of the world and Washington D.C. its political and military centre. Following the attacks it was discovered that various branches of the US intelligence community had bits and pieces of crucial intelligence, but were unable to interpret or tie them together so as to draw the necessary conclusions.

This act of terrorism against the world’s only true superpower was unprecedented in many respects;

  • in scale (approximately 3000 killed)
  • cold bloodedness (the victims were mostly innocent civilians) and
  • ingenuity (peaceful means of transportation were turned into unprecedented means of mass destruction, capable of producing large scale devastation, and psychological impact).

The attacks highlighted serious weaknesses in the protective measures modern democracies relied upon to guard against the threats of the 21st century. The events surrounding 9/11 have become the subject of numerous investigations and research. This modest essay does not pretend to be comprehensive or compete with such materials, written by armies of researchers and analysts. Its purpose is to help understand the most important lessons that have been identified during the past decade, as well as share some observations for the future.

The Attack

According to official version, on the morning of 9/11 four groups of radical Islamic extremists boarded four planes posing as normal passengers, once all the planes were airborne (more or less at the same time) the hijackers overpowered the crew members, took control of the aircraft and crashed two of the planes containing nearly-full fuel tanks into the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan, crashing the third plane into the Pentagon in Washington D.C.. The passengers on the fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, apparently understood what was about to happen and attempted to regain control of the aircraft, with the result that it crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. It was widely believed that the target of United 93 was the White House. All the passengers and crew members on board the four planes and many more innocent civilians on the ground died. This was mass destruction terrorism without the use of any weapons of mass destruction. The masterminds behind the attack succeeded in temporarily taking control of a modern peaceful technology (the aeroplane) and turn it into a powerful instrument of warfare.

The Enemy

It did not take long for investigators to conclude that Al Qaeda, a notorious terrorist network who were already responsible for deadly attacks against US targets in Yemen, Kenya, and Tanzania were also behind the attacks on 9/11. Al-Qaeda is driven by militant Islamic ideologies and was led by Osama bin Laden until his death on 2 May 2011 after which Ayman al-Zawahiri took over as its leader. One of the problems the US faced in combating al-Qaeda was that they had succeeded in finding several safe heavens around the world in regions like Central Asia and North East Africa, where they could run training camps for Islamic extremists, which were used for indoctrinating and training terrorists to commit acts of terrorism. These training camps were used to prepare deadly missions around the world, in such places as Kashmir, Central Asia, and the Russian Northern Caucasus, to mention a few. At the time of 9/11 al-Qaeda’s most important territorial base was located in Afghanistan and the tribal regions of Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was enjoying the hospitality of the Taliban and other sympathizers. The Taliban, by that time were in control of most of Afghanistan as a result of a prolonged civil war following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, and refused to hand over Osama bin Laden to the international community, leading the UN Security Council to authorise, the use of force against the Taliban in the autumn of 2011. Prior to 9/11 the alarming deterioration of Afghanistan’s domestic situation had remained largely unnoticed by the West, which had lost interest in the country, once the Soviet Union had withdrawn its forces. At the same time al-Qaeda were actively recruiting supporters around the world, including the US and Europe, as well as in other countries with substantial Muslim populations. These individual terrorist cells generally had operational command and acted autonomously, but were linked by common ideological and strategic objectives outlined by leaders such as bin Laden and Zawahiri. Al-Qaeda’s strategy was not designed to defeat modern armies in traditional military engagements, but rather to influence the behaviour of governments, primarily by holding their respective civilian populations in a constant state of fear. Contrary to earlier terrorist movements, the goals of this new generation of terrorists were not local or national, as was the aim of earlier established groups like the IRA and ETA. This new generation of terrorist’s goals had become much more ambitious, in that they now sought global change. The enemy was thus dispersed around the world making it much more difficult to prevent attacks and develop the proper responses to them, should they occur.

Reaction

The 9/11 attacks were viewed as a direct military assault against the US producing an outcome comparable to that of Pearl Harbour, which drew the US into World War II. This time, though, the attack was not against the US periphery, but against two of the most important cities on the mainland. One of the first things that came to light was that while terrorism had already been a widely discussed topic since the 1990s, the US and western intelligence agencies knew remarkably little about al-Qaeda. There were lots of unrelated pieces of information, but analytical capabilities were not at the level where they needed to be. However the political situation demanded a quick response which came in the form of declaring a “war on terror”. The “war on terror” was more than just a political slogan; it significantly altered America’s priorities in allocating resources.

Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq

The first important military operation was the war in Afghanistan which the US called Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). OEF started as a traditional type of warfare with the purpose of defeating the Taliban. The military action received approval from the UN Security Council, and the US succeeded in creating an extensive coalition of partners dubbed the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) consisting predominantly of troops from members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC). The actions of US and ISAF forces led to the relatively quick defeat of the Taliban’s regular military presence. However, after the defeat on the battlefield, and the establishment of the Karzai Administration in December 2001 the Taliban withdrew to remote mountainous areas, including the tribal areas of Pakistan and turned to the same insurgency and guerrilla tactics that had been successfully used during the “Soviet” Afghan war from 1979-1989. It is difficult to speculate, how the events would have unfolded had Afghanistan remained the focus of attention, but the fact remains, that by launching a second war in 2003 on Saddam Hussein, the U.S. diverted much needed military and other resources away from Afghanistan. It could be noted, that the argument about Saddam Hussein’s cooperation with terrorists and al-Qaeda, just as the references to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, which had been widely used in the run-up to the military campaign in Iraq, did not hold water. In fact militants moved to Iraq in large numbers after the invasion had taken place.

The decision of the Obama administration to turn US attention back to Afghanistan, where the situation continued to remain critical, was quite sensible. However, by that time the enemy had already spread to parts of Pakistan, which created additional political, legal and operational problems. It can be argued that military methods alone are not capable of resolving this kind of problem and that an excessive reliance on military methods at the expense of other approaches may be counter-productive. As mentioned above, the Taliban were defeated relatively quickly using traditional warfare methods, but were able to regroup by embracing insurgency tactics. The US response to these insurgency tactics included targeted assassinations, using drone attacks, which although effective created several new political, legal and moral issues in particular putting the internal stability of Pakistan under pressure. One of these legal issues concerned the US decision to conduct military operations in a country, which it officially recognised as an ally in the fight against terrorism, without seeking their prior approval. Such tactics have weakened al-Qaeda, but at the expense of improving the stability within Pakistan.

Over the last ten years terrorists managed to deliver several other deadly strikes – in Madrid (Spain), London (UK), Moscow and Beslan (Russia). None was as dramatic as 9/11, but each resulted in a massive loss of life, left long-lasting scars on the nations affected and, like 9/11, highlighted the unpreparedness of the authorities forced to deal with the prevention of, and protection against these lethal and massive acts of terrorism.

Protection, Defence and Deterrence

Good intelligence is a critical part of establishing a timely warning and 9/11 was clearly a failure in this respect. Given the great psychological impact of the event, the fear of new attacks coming from unknown directions, coupled with the extreme difficulty of penetrating diasporic terrorist networks, makes it understandable that intelligence services, in particular those in the US went to great lengths to collect information about terrorists and their supporters. The initial military success in the war in Afghanistan helped, as they produced a number of prisoners who could be interrogated in an attempt to gain valuable intelligence. In addition, an unprecedented world-wide campaign to track various suspects was initiated; extensive measures were taken to control passenger flows into the US. No stone remained unturned in electronic surveillance, including the screening of internet communication, telephone conversations and bank transactions around the world. The political pressure on intelligence agencies and the general atmosphere of fear of new attacks resulted in cutting corners which led to actions, inconsistent with modern privacy laws and human rights, including international law. Interrogation using torture, illegal kidnapping and detention, secret prisons in foreign countries, the infamous detention facility at Guantanamo Bay led to numerous scandals and tensions. It was with considerable delay that the US and other countries embraced the concept of safeguarding human rights in the fight against terrorism. Some of the excesses have been corrected, others proved to be very difficult to undo like the closing of the Guantanamo Bay facility. Generally, intelligence about major terrorist networks and their leaders is in much better shape today than it was prior to 9/11, although it is difficult to assert that this is a result of new “robust” intelligence gathering methods.

Special attention has been paid to the risk of terrorist use of WMD or their ‘surrogates’. There is still debate whether terrorists can produce a nuclear explosive device, but there is little doubt that a nuclear option has long been considered by some groups; thus the general trend to tighten nuclear security and national control over nuclear materials can be characterised as a positive development. Biological, chemical and radiological threats from terrorists appear to be more credible, in large part because there have been terrorist attacks that used chemical and biological agents. A whole new market for research and industry has emerged in this area leading to the development of all kinds of improved detection devices.

The 9/11 attacks also triggered a number of efforts in various nations to build and improve ‘Resilience’ capabilities to better react to terrorist attacks should they occur. A number of exercises have shown that there are still problems with inter-agency cooperation and communication, but the situation is gradually improving.

Also useful were a set of legal measures, adopted in a number of countries to fight terrorism by preventing unauthorised access to dangerous materials. Wide scale international cooperation is taking place in this area; however it needs to be further strengthened.

There is still debate in the security community about what constitutes an effective deterrence against terrorism. It was easy to recognise that the Cold War model of deterrence based on Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) would not work here. However, some of the underlying concepts may still be applicable. Cold War deterrence was based on the simple assumption that neither side would be able to achieve their objectives without paying an unacceptable price. Today’s much improved intelligence, detection, protection and defensive measures along with broader international cooperation has improved deterrence because terrorists are now experiencing greater difficulties planning large scale attacks in today’s more security-conscious society.

Military vs. Root Cause Approach

Whilst initially, there had been disagreements between the US and a number of countries regarding the importance of a more balanced approach to combating terrorism, there has been a gradual move towards a ‘common ground’. Several factors contributed to this, including: the growth of the so-called “home-grown” terrorist, the increasing realisation of the importance of addressing the so-called root causes of terrorism and the recognition of the need for wider international cooperation against the phenomenon of terrorism, including through the United Nations. Of particular importance are Security Council resolutions 1373 (2001) and 1624 (2005), which criminalise various forms of assistance to terrorists, including financial assistance, providing them with safe heavens and incitement to terrorism, as well as resolution 1540, directed against access by non-state actors to weapons of mass destruction; however, as practice has shown, Security Council resolutions have one weakness in that their adoption does not include the majority of UN members. This weakness has been taken care by the unanimous approval by the General Assembly of the UN of its Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (A/RES/60/288, adopted 8 September 2006).

Results

The ten years that have passed since 11 September 2001 have been years of trial and error, and a continuing evolution of the global strategy against terrorism. On the positive side one might list the following results:

  • Serious weakening of the offensive capabilities of more traditional terrorist networks, like al Qaeda.
  • Considerably improving the knowledge base of relevant intelligence and analytical capabilities.
  • Significantly improving the capabilities to protect important targets.
  • Prevent non-state actors’ access to WMD materials. Although much remains to be done in this respect, the improved level of protection is beginning to serve as a deterrent.
  • The creation of a wide international network of agreements, legal norms and other arrangements to address the threat of terrorism.
  • The growing international recognition that greater emphasis should be made on preventive and non-violent means of countering terrorism, including, in particular, the prevention of radicalisation and  developing strategies and capabilities for de-radicalisation of groups of population, “vulnerable” to terrorist ideas.
  • The single most significant symbolic and political achievement in the fight against terrorism took place on 2 May 2011, when the notorious leader of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, was killed by US Special Forces. While this operation took an extensive period of time to prepare, its success reflected years of hard work on a number of fronts. By the time Osama bin Laden was killed, al Qaeda had already been significantly weakened in its ability to mount attacks of 9/11’s magnitude.

On the other hand, there are negative elements as well, that will require further attention, such as:

  • The inability of the international community, to help achieve national reconciliation in Afghanistan as well as greater stability in Pakistan; besides these two countries there are still too many other ungoverned areas of lawlessness and conflict elsewhere in the world, conducive to terrorist activities, particularly Somalia and Yemen.
  • The striking disproportion between the huge resources spent on counter-terrorism activities and the comparatively small resources used by terrorist networks to organise attacks and recruit supporters.
  • The continuing legacy of extra-judicial detention, renditions, deprivation of due process to suspects, and other similar practices, which appeared in the early stages of the “War on Terror.”
  • The continued risk of “home-grown” terrorism in a number of countries due to the social and cultural alienation of certain groups of the population.

Conclusions

The 9/11 attacks marked a new era in the strategic paradigm, highlighting new threats facing the international community in the 21 century. The response to 9/11, which initially relied on a predominantly military approach, gradually expanded to address other important factors. The war on terror with all its contradictions and shortcomings has produced important positive results, including the elimination of bin Laden. Much remains to be done, and it would be quite premature to say that the world is going “back to normal.” The weakening of al Qaeda as a fighting force has been in a way compensated for by the increased risk, coming from “home-grown” terrorist groups and “lone wolves”, as well as by other forms of radicalisation. One cannot yet exclude the recurrence of serious terrorist attacks, although their likelihood has decreased at the same time as our society has become increasingly more resilient.

Looking to the future, the international community, like any given nation would not wish to be in a state of war forever. A continued “war mentality” might sooner or later negatively affect decision-making and could even undermine democracy, which in itself was one of al Qaeda’s goals in planning 9/11. Therefore the question arises, whether or not the time is ripe to change the political discourse to something more constructive and comprehensive than the War on Terror, while continuing to work on a wide range of terrorism–prevention measures that have proven useful over the last ten years. One possibility could be to redirect resources more towards the task of preventing violent extremism in all its forms, including the problem of radicalisation. In this context the emphasis would have to shift from a military approach towards a more civilian law enforcement focus. Furthermore, the system of checks and balances to prevent and, if necessary to redress abuses and human rights violations, should be further strengthened, both at national and international levels.