What Have We Learned?
The life of a nation ten years later.


The United States has had significant success combating Islamist terrorism since 9/11. Start with the obvious: Al-Qaeda has failed to carry out another mass-casualty attack on American soil. That’s an extraordinary accomplishment.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, every national-security official I worked with believed a follow-on attack — or two or three or four — was inevitable. If anyone had suggested that we’d go a full ten years foiling Al-Qaeda’s best-laid plans to attack America again, they’d have been declared delusional.

Dozens of plots have been disrupted. Al-Qaeda’s leadership has been decimated. Thousands of its foot soldiers have been killed. Bin Laden, himself, now swims with the fishes, apparently fretting to the end about his movement’s rapidly eroding appeal among the ummah.

Perhaps most importantly, the battle against the murderous ideology that fuels jihadism has slowly been joined. Witness the Arab uprisings of 2011. Millions of young Muslims — al-Qaeda’s primary target audience — demanding societal transformation, not in the service of “Death to America” and the resurrection of some eighth-century Salafist imperium, but on behalf of values most closely identified with the West: accountable government, the rule of law, and the inherent dignity of each individual citizen.

Of course, success does not imply perfection. Waste and blunders are, tragically, the incidents of any war. The War on Terror has been no exception. 

Nor should success be mistaken for victory. Though diminished, small groups of dedicated terrorists remain committed to attacking the United States, including with weapons of mass destruction. This year’s Arab revolutions could still take a dark turn.

From a standing start, America has in the last decade established a framework of policies and institutions that put victory against the scourge of Islamist terrorism within reach. Securing that victory will require continued resolve and vigilance, a determination to build on our successes and learn from our mistakes — and not to quit the field prematurely by taking false comfort in our substantial achievements.

— John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and served as senior policy advisor to Vice President Richard B. Cheney.

We have learned that we should treat foreign terrorists as wartime enemies, not as criminal defendants.

Before September 11, terrorists were prosecuted as ordinary criminals. But 9/11 taught us that radical jihadists are not deterred by the prospect of a criminal prosecution. In the last decade, we changed our focus from punishing terrorists to preventing terrorist attacks.

After ten years of vigorous debate, there seems to be a growing consensus around specific counterterrorism policies designed to safeguard our national security. These include targeted killings, detention at Guantanamo, and military commissions. We have acknowledged that Mirandizing suspects to preserve evidence for a criminal trial may undermine the counterterrorism goal of gaining intelligence to thwart attacks and neutralize security threats.

President Obama seems to have learned these lessons as well: There is no longer talk of closing Guantanamo; Osama bin Laden was targeted and killed; military commissions have been reinstated after a two-year suspension; and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s military trial has been resumed.

— Stephanie Hessler is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute. She served as a constitutional lawyer for the Senate Judiciary Committee, which she advised on counterterrorism policy.