September 11, 2001, will forever be etched into the minds of the American public. The worst terrorist attack in U.S. history turned what was a blue, clear, sunny morning into a sea of ash, debris, death, and fear. Like many Americans, I can still remember where I was that day. I was sitting in my middle-school social-studies class staring at a television split screen, the burning World Trade Center on the left and the smoke-filled Pentagon on the right, wondering what was going on. That day was and continues to be a turning point in American history, with 60 percent of Americans saying it changed America forever.
Of course, we know how the story proceeds. The terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and the one diverted to Shanksville, Pa., ushered in a new era for U.S. foreign policy, in which searching the globe for terrorists to kill was the first, second, and third priority. The attacks produced considerable sadness in the U.S. as well as justifiable anger, two sentiments the U.S. president at the time, George W. Bush, wore on his sleeve during his speeches and public remarks. In less than a month, U.S. special forces, CIA operatives, and U.S. bombers would descend upon a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to wipe out Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network, kick the Taliban out of power, and send a message to any terrorist group remotely interested in attacking Americans that the costs of doing so weren’t worth the benefits. Before the U.S. got sucked into the unforgiving and fruitless work of nation-building and counterinsurgency, the early bombing campaign in Afghanistan worked like a charm, killing thousands of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters and sending bin Laden scurrying into the Tora Bora caverns (and later, Pakistan).
The 20th anniversary of 9/11 has prompted historians, policymakers, and foreign-policy intellectuals into a period of reflection about the successes and failures of the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Has the two-decade campaign been successful over the long term, or did it sow the seeds for a series of conflicts that have proven remarkably difficult for the U.S. to extricate from? Are Americans safer from terrorism today than they were two decades ago? What has the country learned — and more important, do we plan on applying any of those lessons in the future?
On the one hand, there is no question there have been tangible successes since 9/11. That massive attack forced the U.S. national-security bureaucracy to significantly cut down on the pointless turf wars, rivalries, and information stove-piping that contributed to the intelligence failure leading up to the event. The massive breach in U.S. security helped drive technological innovation within the U.S. intelligence community, with the unmanned aerial drone being the most impressive (how those drones are used is another subject entirely). There hasn’t been a major jihadist attack on U.S. soil since that awful Tuesday morning, a miraculous accomplishment given the pervasive panic and anguish that hovered over American society and the U.S. policy community in the weeks and months after 9/11.
Yet the 20-year war on terrorism is also characterized by 20 years of mistakes. Examples include poor to nonexistent oversight from the U.S. Congress; the enactment of programs, policies, and procedures wholly at odds with the values the U.S. proudly supports; a hollowing out of U.S. combat power as American service members were ordered to solve the problems of dysfunctional, divided societies that policymakers back in Washington didn’t understand; and the proliferation of Salafi-jihadist terrorist groups in regions from the Middle East and Africa to Southeast Asia.
Numbers don’t lie: There are now four times the number of State Department–designated Salafi-jihadist terrorist groups today than there were before 9/11. In 2002, the State Department recorded 199 international terrorist incidents around the world; in 2019, the most recent State Department terrorism report publicly available, that number jumped to an average of 692 per month. The Center for Strategic and International Studies counted a range of 100,000 to 230,000 Salafi-jihadist fighters in 2018, among the highest in four decades. There are more terrorist groups operating in more countries, across more continents, today than there were before the war on terrorism began. For some, this is evidence that America’s counterterrorism operators need to step on the gas and accelerate operations. For others, however, the numbers are a damning reflection of the failures of Washington’s foreign-policy elite. Those failures include a dastardly, totally counterproductive invasion of a country (Iraq) that not only had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, but whose invasion would eventually rejuvenate the al-Qaeda network while it was down and eventually lay the foundations for an even bigger terrorist organization: the Islamic State.
This isn’t to say the U.S. has spent the last 20 years flapping its wings without any solid victories. U.S. special operators, in partnership with the U.S. intelligence community, have become extremely skilled in finding, tracking, and neutralizing terrorists wherever they reside. The list is long: bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Anwar al-Awlaki, Qassim al-Rimi, Abu Khayr al-Masri, and Jamel Ahmed Mohammed Ali al-Badawi, to name just a few. The memory of the U.S. intelligence community is long, and its reach is even longer.
Even so, U.S. officials past and present would be doing a disservice if they didn’t at least acknowledge the many instances of failure along the way. Just as 9/11 produced perhaps the most intense period of patriotism in U.S. history since the end of World War II, it also placed intense pressure on the U.S. government to prevent additional terrorist attacks on U.S. soil — pressure that ushered in an exponential growth in the national-security establishment, turning entire areas of the country (such as Northern Virginia) into one giant HQ for security consultancies and defense contractors. The piercing pressure produced an interrogation program that amounted to torture, which the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded “was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information” on the terrorist threat. The fear that permeated Washington in the weeks, months, and years after 9/11 fed the growth of the national-security apparatus, providing agencies such as the FBI and the NSA permission to collect metadata from phone calls and emails in bulk (the NSA later shut down the program, a testament to its lack of effectiveness).
The 9/11 era also proved to be highly detrimental to the separation of powers, a sacred principle enshrined throughout the U.S. Constitution. Deciding war and peace, the most consequential topic any nation can debate, was suddenly handed over by Congress to the executive branch on a silver platter. The 2001 authorization for the use of military force, passed less than week after 9/11, gifted President Bush and his successors with virtually unlimited authority to bomb or deploy U.S. forces to any country on the face of the earth as long as lawyers at the White House could tie those activities to al-Qaeda. The 2001 AUMF has been used in 19 separate countries ever since, from the Philippines and Yemen to Niger and Libya. With few exceptions, lawmakers were perfectly content to outsource their responsibilities to the very branch they were supposed to be overseeing (only now are they attempting to reset the paradigm).
Perhaps one of the most consequential mistakes to emerge from 9/11, however, was the decision by Washington to treat the terrorism problem through a war framework. Embodied in the very sense of the word “war” is the assumption that the fighting will eventually end and the enemy (in this case, the menagerie of terrorist groups that roam the planet) could be permanently and irrevocably defeated. Yet terrorism in one form or another has plagued humankind for millennia. To believe the U.S. or any nation could be victorious over terrorism in the traditional (or even the definitional) sense was the essence of self-delusion.
Indeed, the war mindset only exacerbated the terrorism problem for Washington, which quickly confused the possible (managing the threat to the point where American society could function normally) with the improbable (full, unfettered, and unquestioned surrender from terrorist groups far and wide). A narrowly circumscribed, focused campaign against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan rapidly transformed into a global battle against any terrorist organization that claimed an association with the network, regardless of how thin or circumstantial that association was. Meanwhile, countries such as Pakistan, which used terrorism as an instrument of state policy, gamed Washington’s obsessions, soaking up $33 billion in U.S. taxpayer money at the very same time it was giving support to the Taliban.
As they do every year, millions of Americans will mark September 11 with moments of silence. People who lost loved ones on that day will remember them with a heavy heart and pained eyes. Twenty years removed, some are still demanding answers to critical questions about the full scope of the attacks and whether other individuals should be held accountable for them.
Back in Washington, D.C., U.S. policymakers should be asking questions of their own: Why was our judgment so poor? What lessons can we apply in the future to ensure U.S. counterterrorism policy is more effective and less costly in blood and treasure? And are we prepared to leverage history to our advantage by learning from our mistakes?
PHOTO GALLERY: 9/11 Attacks