After the radical Islamist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the foiled effort to ram a fourth jet into the Capitol in Washington, no one envisioned that there would follow eleven years without another major attack. Since September 11, 2001, over 45 terrorist plots have been uncovered and foiled in the United States; al-Qaeda, as a terrorist threat, seems regionalized and without the ability to inflict mayhem on a similarly large scale on the Western world; bin Laden is no more; and the Arab Islamic world itself is divided and torn by the conflicting currents of theocracy, democracy, and dictatorship.
What brought all this about?
First, in the months after 9/11, Congress, at the urging of George W. Bush, passed the Patriot Act and other major anti-terrorism legislation, which, enhanced by a number of executive orders, led to Guantanamo Bay, intercepts and wiretaps, military tribunals, renditions, preventive detentions, and targeted drone strikes. These efforts led to the capture or death of thousands of terrorists, and so far have made it nearly impossible to replicate 9/11.
If another al-Qaeda cadre were to plan a second 9/11 from the Hindu Kush, that plot would now be almost certain to fail, given that terrorist communications would be unlikely to escape U.S. detection. Planners would be vulnerable to Predator-drone strikes or U.S. Special Forces incursions. Terrorists could not so easily use international jet travel. Sympathetic governments in the Middle East would be far more wary of aiding their cause. European nations would not be so likely to shrug at their efforts. They could not so easily enter and operate within the United States. And American public opinion would far more readily support tough measures to crush them.
That the Bush protocols were effective in stopping another 9/11 is evident not just from the record of the last eleven years, but also from the embrace or expansion of these anti-terrorism measures by those who at one time were most critical of their adoption. If someone in 2007 had suggested that then-senator Barack Obama one day as president would kill, in targeted assassinations, seven times as many suspected terrorists in three and a half years as George Bush had in seven years, he would have been considered unhinged. Guantanamo was as damned by Obama 1.0 as it was left open by Obama 2.0. Ditto renditions, tribunals, and nearly all the elements of the Patriot Act. Harold Koh, former dean of Yale Law School, would go from suing the federal government on behalf of Guantanamo detainees to issuing legal briefs assuring President Obama that using a Predator drone to blow up an American citizen suspected of terrorism was both legal and perfectly warranted.
Stranger still was the reaction of the once-loud Left that had caricatured George Bush and Dick Cheney as near-criminals who shredded the Constitution in their short-sighted efforts to fight imaginary terrorists. One of the unappreciated results of Barack Obama’s presidency has been the complete repudiation of the entire liberal assault on the anti-terrorism policies of the Bush presidency. That the venomous opposition to those policies ceased abruptly after Obama embraced them is not just proof of partisan cynicism, but seems to indicate that the measures were necessary and effective. So historians will be puzzled over how such protocols were widely praised in the aftermath of 9/11, then demagogued as useless, amoral, and illegal during the elections of 2004 and 2008, then embraced by the very critics who had demonized them — and all without an ounce of credit given to their originator, George Bush.
Note that alternatives to the Bush-era anti-terrorism protocols more recently proposed by the Obama administration — trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civilian court not far from Ground Zero in Manhattan, giving Miranda rights to detained terrorists, putting former
There are other reasons why we have not yet seen another 9/11 — the now unpopular Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. At terrible cost in blood and treasure, the United States military routed and killed thousands of terrorists in Afghanistan, removed the most prominent supporter of terrorists in the Middle East, Saddam Hussein, and then crushed al-Qaeda between 2006 and 2008 in Anbar Province in Iraq. And while we did not leave a small residual force in Iraq (which might, for example, have allowed Iraq to stop Iran’s use of its air space to supply Bashar Assad in Syria) and have tipped off the Taliban of the approximate dates when we will leave Afghanistan, nonetheless both countries have been far less hospitable to terrorists over the last decade than they would otherwise have been. For all the anti-Americanism of the Middle East, note that during the raging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, each year Osama bin Laden’s popularity fell. Had we not gone into Afghanistan — or Iraq — it is hard to know in what particular theater we would have been able to find, target, and kill thousands of terrorists. And despite the popular outcry against the war in the dark years in Iraq between 2005 and 2007, the widely caricatured “fly-paper” exegesis was largely accurate: Islamists flocked to Iraq, and very few left it alive.
We do not know the ultimate course of the Arab Spring upheavals. Nor can we ascertain the degree to which the removal of Saddam Hussein, and his replacement by a constitutional government, proved a catalyst to the current unrest. But the net result for now is that the world is witnessing how the Arab Street acts when it is free of foreign meddling and free of dictatorships propped up by Western governments. In other words, what we now see in Syria, Egypt, and Libya is not conducive to Islamist propaganda against the West, but often instead serves as a warning to the world of how Islamic fundamentalists distort democratic movements and can end up, in Iranian fashion, as oppressive successors to the dictators they overthrew. Western support for authoritarians did not per se create the bin Ladens of the Middle East, as the popular narrative went. Instead, Islamists were just as eager to subvert democratic movements as they were to oppose dictatorships supported by the U.S.
In short, after 9/11, al-Qaeda saw its popularity plummet. Most of its key operatives are either dead or in hiding. Bin Laden’s death proved anti-climactic. There is little controversy any more over the measures necessary to thwart terrorism aimed at the United States. The old formula of Arab authoritarian governments shaking down the U.S. for cash as supposedly the only viable alternative to the Islamists is over. The Middle East has no one to blame but itself should it reject consensual government in favor of theocracy. And the net result is that the Islamic fundamentalists have not, and probably cannot, hit the West with another strike similar to 9/11. So far, eleven years later, we are still winning and our enemies still losing.