Politics & Policy

What Have We Learned?

The life of a nation ten years later.

As part of our extensive coverage of the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States, National Review Online asked cultural, political, and security experts about the lessons we’ve learned in the last decade.


September 11 impressed on us that there are organized networks in the world who aim to kill us for ideological reasons — and sometimes they succeed. That’s certainly important. Beyond that, I’m not sure how much we’ve learned from 9/11.

I recall so proudly our immediate collective responses to that day. Less cynicism. More sincerity. More seriousness in our public discussion. Greater awareness of what is truly important — and how fragile it all can be. A determination to defeat those who committed the murders and those who supported them. And a widespread belief that, in responding to the crisis, we might become a stronger, more united country.

Not much of this seems to have lasted. We have not suffered another major attack, and al-Qaeda seems to be seriously weakened — both great accomplishments. It also seems that the Libyans are grateful to us for helping them get rid of Gadaffi. But overall, given the stakes, it strikes me that we still have not learned very much about just war, or how to engage the Muslim world, or how to confront the global jihadist threat. Domestically, we seem to be pretty much as we were on Sept. 10, 2001, only more so. Enough cynicism in the land to choke a horse. Partisanship so ugly that it makes normal people sick. An almost complete absence of seriousness in our public debate.

What does this mean? Maybe it means that the experience of national unity, like glory, is fleeting, and that it takes more than we realized to keep us focused on a shared goal. Or maybe it suggests that muddling through is often as good as it gets.

— David Blankenhorn is founder and president of the Institute for American Values in New York.


When the 9/11 attacks hit, America’s military interrogators already knew that rapport-based interrogation works. Those of us, including myself, who became interrogators after 9/11 learned this lesson too. We were trained in rapport-based interrogation skills and we used them with success.

Today, the U.S. Army Field Manual 2-22-3 and its predecessor 34-52, which contain the guidelines we used for post-9/11 military interrogation, are readily available online. They are no secret.

But have Americans learned since 9/11 the importance of interrogation to our national security? I fear they have not.

I believe the main reason there has been such decline  in support for interrogation and such confusion over its definition since 9/11 is the deeply disturbing trend of public figures’ voicing support for torture.

Torture is wrong. Torture is unnecessary. Torture is counter to effective interrogation.

America still needs to learn that torture is not part of interrogation, rightly understood. And America still needs to learn how much it needs interrogation as a means of human-intelligence collection in times of war.

Jennifer S. Bryson has a Ph.D. in Near Eastern languages and civilizations from Yale University. She works at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J. and spent two years as an interrogator at Guantanamo.


1. We thought 9/11 signaled a clash of civilizations, and though at times we appeared to be ham-handedly doing all we could to create one, it hasn’t materialized.

Al-Qaeda hoped 9/11 would be the opening salvo in this clash: After U.S. aggression, Islam would radicalize under Osama bin Laden, and a caliphate would span from Spain to the Pacific. Sure, dreaming of a new caliphate was a delusional stretch, but well before 9/11, the West propped up many autocrats in the Arab world partly out of fear that the OBLs of the world could rush in during any change of power.

And after a decade with two U.S. wars in Muslim countries, in many of the very same nations OBL targeted to launch his caliphate, we see a rush of . . . democracy (or a close cousin).

2. We designed our policies around the convenient idea of one single foreign behemoth called “al-Qaeda.” The reality is worse: Al-Qaeda evolved into an “idea of mass destruction,” a franchisor of terrorism. We learned (very slowly) that while a foreign-borne threat aiming to hit us at home was possible, a more likely danger was from home-grown extremists already in our backyard: Of the over 30 foiled attacks against the U.S. since 9/11, over 75 percent were “homegrown.”

Local police, with their neighborhood-by-neighborhood situational awareness, must be empowered as “first preventers” who can thwart local terror — and not simply be asked to  pick up the pieces after it is too late.

3. The U.S. was ill-prepared for the war of ideas, and it showed. One example: Coercive interrogations, black renditions, and other controversial policies that were previously in the covert world should’ve remained state secrets — or (less likely) they shouldn’t have been done at all. The administration’s insistence on parading these policies publicly brought unnecessary international grief onto the U.S. Coupled with the embarrassment of Abu Ghraib, the public championing of these policies (more than the policies themselves) did an immense disservice to the global view of the U.S. as a force for good.

4. But we weren’t the only ones, OBL made a strategic miscalculation in the war of ideas by directing more violence against Muslims. Many Muslims didn’t start to hate al-Qaeda on 9/11, or when the U.S. entered Afghanistan or Iraq; they started to hate al-Qaeda after al-Qaeda started killing their friends. The 2005 hotel bombings in Amman (whoops, a wedding) were a turning point. Not only can’t you win a war of ideas with weapons; you can’t afford to fight one.

5. As compared to previous terrorist attacks, 9/11 and its bloody wave of follow-ons were much more deadly. There is some (only preliminary) indication that a global and shared sense of revulsion may have changed the perceived utility of terrorism by splinter groups. Did 9/11, ironically, reduce the usefulness of terrorism as a future tool of protest?

— R.P. Eddy is the CEO of Ergo, and a former director at the National Security Council.


Ten years after September 11, the Islamic Republic of Iran constitutes the most serious threat to American national security, and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is the world’s most deadly terrorist organization.

Under the leadership of the IRGC, the Iranian regime has waged a low-intensity war on the United States for over 30 years, developing a clandestine nuclear-weapons program, producing increasingly advanced ballistic missiles, and sponsoring acts of terrorism abroad. Through its terrorist proxies, Iran has killed Americans — from the 1983 Marine-barracks bombing in Beirut to the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing to quite possibly September 11, through the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s terrorist mastermind and Iran’s liaison with al-Qaeda in the 1990s.

Iran continues to support allied regimes and terrorist surrogates ranging from Bashar al-Assad’s Shiite Alawite government in Syria to Hezbollah to the Palestinian Sunni groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as well as Shiite militias in Iraq — and lately even their one-time enemies the Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan.

Unlike al-Qaeda, the Revolutionary Guards have the full support of an oil-rich nation, can travel abroad on diplomatic passports, and can hide their operatives in Iranian embassies all over the world, as they did in the attacks on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and the Jewish cultural center there in 1994.

More than 30 years after Iran declared war on the United States — and on this tenth anniversary of 9/11 — Washington must recognize the centrality of the Iranian threat to its interests in the Middle East and beyond, and provide a comprehensive approach to counter it.

— Mark Dubowitz is executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he heads projects on Iran and Syria sanctions and the use of technology to encourage democratic change.


Many children born in 2001 start fourth grade this week. They are part of a post-9/11 generation in America’s schools, growing up in a country powerfully reshaped by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, yet aware of those events only second hand. How will they learn what they need to about causes and consequences of that day’s attacks on the United States as well as the actual events? It falls largely on our schools to teach them — and there’s plenty of unfortunate evidence that our schools aren’t living up to this solemn obligation. Curricula being disseminated across the land betray a startling willingness to use 9/11 as a segue to advocate tolerance, multiculturalism, or just plain irrelevancy, while teaching little or no actual history.

A new 9/11 curriculum offered on the website of the New Jersey Department of Education, for example, wants elementary students to learn the “power of words” and the “beauty of colors.” (The federal Education Department’s offering is at least as problematic.) They listen to Mariah Carey and Enrique Iglesias songs about heroism. The actual events of that day are referred to only as subtext.

Yet teaching kids that all cultures can get along with a little love and understanding is reckless and ahistorical. Indeed, the main lesson of 9/11 is that, in reality, all perspectives don’t coexist in peace and harmony. Students need to know the history of 9/11, as well as what came before and after, in order to appreciate that there are fundamental differences between America and its enemies — differences that demand strength, courage, and patriotism to overcome. With each passing year, the costs of teaching this wrong get higher.

— Chester E. Finn Jr. is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where Tyson Eberhardt is a research fellow.


For several years after 9/11, the outcome of the war against totalitarian Islam seemed certain, at least to me. Muslims worldwide would be dragged kicking and screaming through something like an Age of Reason — at which point Enlightenment values of rational inquiry and religious tolerance would supplant Islamic values of pious submission and spiritual purity. Islam would still exist, even thrive, but in a reformed, de-fanged condition. How could the war go wrong when the West held the trump card of absolute military supremacy?

That outcome still seems likely, but no longer a slam dunk. The twin idiocies of socialism and relativism are hollowing out Europe, leaving it defenseless against a Muslim demographic onslaught. (England and France should scrap their nukes now before the inevitable insurrections.) America, meanwhile, is beset by a crypto-Marxist (though many don’t realize it) pseudo-intelligentsia which has never forgiven it for fighting and winning the Cold War, and which now controls much of the media and most universities. Our children marinate in a worldview in which Muslims killing non-Muslims is America’s fault, and Muslims killing Muslims is America’s fault; in which defending ourselves is imperialist aggression and ending tyrannies is hegemonic exploitation.

The West remains salvageable. The war remains winnable. But the certainty is gone.

— Mark Goldblatt’s latest novel is Sloth, published by Greenpoint Press.


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.


After Osama bin Laden’s demise in Abbottabad, Pakistan, many Americans speculated that al-Qaeda’s days were numbered. Bin Laden’s death in early May undoubtedly weakened al-Qaeda — and probably more than any other kill or capture in the War on Terror. But al-Qaeda and its allies have not been defeated. The jihadist terror network has continually found new pools of talent from which it can replace fallen leaders, albeit with individuals of lower skill. One pool of talent, however, is highly-skilled: former Guantanamo detainees.

Senior leadership slots in both al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Taliban are filled by former Guantanamo detainees. Said al-Shihri, the current number two of AQAP, is a former Guantanamo detainee. So are AQAP’s chief mufti (theological guide) and some of its military commanders. Mullah Mohammad Omar’s top military commander is a former Guantanamo detainee known as Mullah Zakir, who is especially ruthless.

U.S. and U.K. military officials consider Zakir the most dangerous Taliban commander on the planet. This Gitmo alumnus has led operations that have killed as many as a dozen U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan and an untold number of Afghans as well.

Yet Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessments deemed Zakir a “medium” as opposed to “high” risk, despite his known ties to senior Taliban leaders. Intelligence analysts thought Zakir was more dangerous than the evidence revealed, but they couldn’t prove it. So, Washington decided to rely on the government of Afghanistan to keep tabs on him, and he quickly rejoined the fight.

The lesson is simple: If the U.S. will not hold suspected terrorists under the laws of war, no other nation can be counted on to do so either.

— Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an editor of the Long War Journal.


The chief lesson of the ten years following September 11? That our political and cultural differences are so profound that they yielded only temporarily to a surging sense of national unity following unprecedented disaster.

In 2001, solemnly recycled bromides portentously proclaimed that the murderous terror attacks had altered our nation forever and that “nothing would ever be the same.” But most things are, in fact, very much the same.

There’s an antique, almost other-worldly quality to the historic footage of Congressional leaders of both parties gathered on the Capitol steps, singing “God Bless America” together. Within months, their touchingly sincere, slightly off-key chorus had become a distant memory as Republicans and Democrats returned to their savage partisan habits, and the ACLU resumed its appalling habit of fighting any mention of God in public places.

In May, 2002, NFL player Pat Tillman inspired the nation by giving up his $1 million salary to enlist in the Army Rangers. Two years later, friendly fire killed him in Afghanistan, encouraging countless conspiracy theories and disgracing the military for its dishonest accounts of the tragedy. In short, the mood of patriotism and unity lasted no longer than the ubiquitous American-flag decals and “United We Stand” bumper stickers that briefly decorated our vehicles.

What undermined the “Spirit of 9/11” wasn’t CIA failure to snuff out Osama at Tora Bora or the Bush decision to invade Iraq. A short-lived sense of shared vulnerability and common destiny quickly gave way to the same splits that divided the country long before the attacks, and continue to do so today.

Beyond the various issues that separate liberals and conservatives, the core distinction centers on radically different conceptions of America’s place in the world. The Right believes we live in a uniquely blessed and freakishly benevolent country, and we hope the rest of the world will follow our example. The Left feels that the United States bears distinctive guilt for an array of sins (genocide against Native Americans, slavery, imperialism, economic exploitation) and hopes we can learn from more enlightened societies elsewhere on the planet.

The two sides both insist they love America, with the Left explaining that it adores what America could be and the Right revering what America once was. Neither side feels encouraged by the United States as it actually exists ten years after September 11, with polls showing fewer than 20 percent believing we’re headed in the right direction. The moment of unified, patriotic purpose that followed the mass slaughter at the World Trade Center led to admiring comments about the resilience of our national spirit, but it’s actually our underlying divisions that have proven sadly resilient. And our unjustified cynicism looks increasingly intractable.

— Michael Medved is a nationally syndicated talk-radio host and author (most recently) of The 5 Big Lies About American Business.


The experience of 9/11 notwithstanding, Americans seem to have an almost unlimited capacity to be surprised by the ability of the Islamic world to repeatedly repel Western ideals of moderation and modernity.

We were shocked when Yasser Arafat turned down the generous offers for peace made to him at Camp David in 2000, and we shrugged our shoulders when Mahmoud Abbas turned down an even more generous offer in 2008. The Bush administration was perturbed to realize that Iraqis saw the fall of Saddam Hussein primarily as a chance to assert their tribal and sectarian allegiances or that many, if not most, Afghanis see American aid primarily as something to be plundered.

We fell mostly silent when Lebanon’s hopeful Cedar Revolution was overturned by Hezbollah’s assassins. Hillary Clinton was surprised as Condi Rice had been before her when the “reformers” in Damascus defended their regime by brutalizing civilians. The New York Times was stunned to discover that the Moslem Brothers had vastly more support in Egypt than did the admirable students of Tahrir Square. And now, lo and behold, it turns out that the “freedom fighters” in Libya are led, in significant measure, by men with ties to Al Qaeda.

The reality is that in dealing with a culture whose long-term decline and great strength both derive from its ability to maintain itself by repelling outside influences, we optimistic Americans are bound to time and again misconstrue the situation. If we learn from our past misconceptions, we will realize that in dealing with the Arab-Islamic world the choices are between bad and worse.

— Fred Siegel is with Saint Francis College in Brooklyn and the Manhattan Institute.


We learned that Saudi Arabia has long been indoctrinating its students in an ideology of religious violence, which key U.S. intelligence officials have linked to facilitating and supporting terrorists.

Ten years on, Saudi textbooks, disseminated on websites and translated here, have yet to be cleaned up. They continue to teach:

– “Jihad has two concepts…[including] a specific meaning which is: putting effort and energy into fighting for the sake of God to spread Islam and defend it.” (12th grade);

– “The Jews and Christians are enemies of the believers.” (9th grade);

– “The clash between this [Muslim] nation and the Jews and Christians has endured, and it will continue as long as God wills.” (9th grade);

– “It is part of God’s wisdom that the struggle between the Muslim and the Jews should continue until the hour [of judgment]. The good news for Muslims is that God will help them against the Jews in the end.” (8th grade);

– Apostates and blasphemers should be punished by death. (10th grade);

– “Major polytheism is a reason to fight those who practice it [including Shiites, Hindus, etc.].” (12th grade);

– Magicians and those practicing witchcraft “must be killed.” (10th grade);

– “The punishment of homosexuality is death” . . . by being “burned with fire,” “stoned,” or “thrown from a high place.” (10th grade);

– “The apes are the people of the Sabbath, the Jews; and the swine are the infidels of the communion of Jesus, the Christians.” (8th grade).

We also learned that the U.S. government has been unwilling to take on the ideological challenge posed by Saudi-sponsored education. Over two administrations, it has annually praised Riyadh for the “glacial” (as a Wikileaks cable put it) pace of reform. Meanwhile Saudi Wahhabi extremism spreads in Somalia, Indonesia, Pakistan , India , Algeria, the Balkans, the U.K., and elsewhere.

— Nina Shea is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.


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.

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