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


The twilight of the Cold War and the economic prosperity that followed in the 1990s led many to think that peace and freedom around the world would increase at regular intervals without major disruptions and with only minimal tending by the U.S. The events of Sept. 11, 2011 obliterated this notion. The war against violent Islamist groups that accelerated after the attacks helped further reinforce the briefly forgotten yet age-old understanding that effecting major change requires major effort.

Initial force commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, proved too small to lead transitions in countries facing robust insurgencies. The U.S. did show, however, that the application of sufficient resources can achieve results once deemed nearly impossible: No attack operationally tied to a foreign terrorist group successfully occurred on American soil in the years after 9/11. The U.S. economy grew strongly in the mid-2000s. And al-Qaeda’s current control of territory pales in comparison to the safe havens it commanded a decade ago.

Skepticism about American power and reluctance to contribute resources on a large scale to national security have arisen again as we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11. As we remember that terrible day, we should recognize that while America does not enjoy the luxury of being able to step back from an assertive international posture, the U.S. can indeed reshape the world when it fully commits to creating change.

— Charlie Szrom is an associate at D.C. International Advisory. He can be followed on Twitter at @cszrom.

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the U.S. Treasury immediately went to work finding al-Qaeda’s funding. On September 23, Pres. George W. Bush issued an executive order designating a list of terrorist entities that were on America’s hit list. Targeted financial sanctions became an incredibly powerful tool for capturing terrorist funds. The 9/11 Commission report, released in 2004, gave our government’s efforts in this area high marks. We had reportedly captured tens of millions of dollars in terrorist funds — and perhaps more.

But by the time the 9/11 report came out, al-Qaeda and its affiliates were acutely aware that we were hunting their assets in the formal banking sector, and this drove the jihadi network’s financial system underground. Al-Qaeda now relies almost entirely on bulk cash smuggling, wherein couriers deliver suitcases full of cash to jihadi masterminds.

As a result, the United States rarely gets to freeze assets anymore. The work of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the U.S. Treasury is now more about deterrence, rather than capturing funds.

This is not to say that OIA’s role is not important. The office continues to uncover key nodes of the al-Qaeda network. Treasury’s designations have also had a chilling effect on the jihadi philanthropists (for lack of a better term). Wealthy donors to al-Qaeda know they are being watched, which has made them all the more careful.

A decade after the 9/11 attacks, the hard-working terror-finance analysts at the Treasury and other arms of the intelligence community have, in many ways, become victims of their own success. They have denied terrorists the use of the formal banking sector. But the days of electronically capturing funds that would otherwise be used for terror attacks may be behind us, and cash leaves a hard trail to follow.

— Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

We have learned that Hollywood can no longer make a movie about the heroism of United States soldiers. This, despite examples of real-life courage that would make John Wayne stand up and salute. Our wars are fought by the population of fly-over country. If this population is considered at all, it is not as victors, but as victims — as the pawns of George W. Bush. On the coasts, where elite opinion is codified in art and news, heroism is a vestige of a prior age, when we wrapped xenophobia and self-interest in the mantle of virtue. But heroism is as outdated as chivalry. Heroism in a fight implies there is something — America — worth fighting for. Anyone who has attended college or university in the last 30 years (at least) knows that entrance to elite society requires disdain for one’s country masquerading as cosmopolitan sophistication. And so it should have come as no surprise to hear our current president, a perfect creation of our university system, explain that, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” America has responded to an existential threat by electing the first post-exceptional president.

— Douglas A. Sylva is senior fellow at the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute.