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Today’s Rising Terrorist Threat and the Danger to the United States: Reflections on the Tenth Anniversary of The 9/11 Commission Report

Ten years ago today, we issued The 9/11 Commission Report, the official report of the devastating attacks of September 11, 2001. As we wrote in that report, we were acutely mindful of the responsibility we bore to the American people—and the families of the victims—to provide the most complete account possible of the events leading up to that terrible day. We used what we learned from that awful history to make recommendations as to how to make America safer. Most of those recommendations have been enacted into law or adopted as policy.

9/11 Commission Anniversary Report

A decade later, we are struck by how dramatically the world has changed. In the United States, federal, state, and local authorities have implemented major security reforms to protect the country. Overseas, the United States and allies went on the offensive against al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations. Ten years ago, many feared that al Qaeda would launch more catastrophic attacks on the United States. That has not happened. While homegrown terrorists struck Fort Hood and the Boston Marathon, with tragic results, and while major attempted attacks on aviation have been disrupted, no attack on a scale approaching that of 9/11 has taken place.

U.S. and allied efforts have hurt “core” al Qaeda badly. Al Qaeda’s leadership has been seriously diminished, most notably by the killing of Usama bin Ladin. The blows the United States has dealt those who struck on 9/11 are a credit to the ceaseless work of dedicated men and women in our military and in our intelligence services, who often serve their country without accolades or even public acknowledgement.

However, the threat from jihadist terrorism persists. While the core al Qaeda group that struck the United States on 9/11 has been damaged in recent years, its affiliates and associated groups have dispersed throughout the greater Middle East. Al Qaeda associates—some small, some worryingly large—now have a presence in more theaters of operation than they did half a decade ago, operating today in at least 16 countries. In The 9/11 Commission Report, we succinctly explained one of the key lessons of the 9/11 story: “No sanctuaries” for terrorist groups. Geographic sanctuaries (like pre-9/11 Afghanistan) enable terrorist groups to gather, indoctrinate, and train recruits, and they offer breathing space in which to develop complex plots (like the 9/11 attacks). ISIS now controls vast swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, creating a massive terrorist sanctuary. One knowledgeable former Intelligence Community leader expressed concern that Afghanistan could revert to that condition once most American troops depart at the end of 2014. The recent coordinated Taliban offensive against police stations and government facilities in Helmand Province, as well as Taliban attacks in several areas near Kabul, illustrate that danger.

Meanwhile, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remains interested in striking the United States. The Saudi-born Ibrahim al-Asiri, AQAP’s chief bomb maker, devised the underwear bomb worn by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Al-Asiri remains at large and there are concerns that he is gaining experience in the concealment and miniaturization of bombs and manufacturing them from nonmetallic materials, making them far harder to detect.

More than 10,000 foreign fighters have flooded into Syria, which is effectively a failed state. Once there, these fighters have access to on-the-job training in military operations, fashioning improvised explosive devices, and using assault weapons. Many come from Western Europe, but more than 100 are believed to be from the United States. One of these Americans, a Florida man in his early 20s, recently blew himself up in a suicide attack in northern Syria, the first instance of an American suicide bomber there. American counterterrorism and homeland security officials and European allies are deeply concerned that hardened fighters from Syria may redirect their venom and battlefield experience toward the United States or their European countries of origin. In at least one instance, this appears already to have happened: The suspect in the deadly May 24 shooting attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels had spent more than a year in Syria, where he is believed to have joined up with jihadist groups.

Senior officials with whom we spoke are uniformly alarmed by this development. FBI Director James Comey has described the situation in Syria as, in several respects, “an order of magnitude worse” than the terrorist training ground that existed in Afghanistan before 9/11. It is unclear whether the United States and its allies have sufficient resources in place to monitor foreign fighters’ activities in Syria (and neighboring Iraq) and to track their travel back to their home countries.

Nigeria’s Boko Haram, which can be translated as “Western education is forbidden,” bitterly opposes secular education and Western culture. Its violent attacks, killing teachers and students, have closed nearly all the schools in northeastern Nigeria. Between 2002 and 2013, Boko Haram killed more than 10,000 people; already in 2014, it has killed 1,500. On the night of April 14-15, well-armed Boko Haram militiamen kidnapped hundreds of young schoolgirls in the town of Chibok in northeast Nigeria, and drove off into the night. Unfortunately, this shocking atrocity may be a harbinger of things to come.

The convulsions across the Muslim world, from the Sahel to Pakistan, create opportunities for extremist groups to work their will. Opportunities to exert power may, to some extent, keep terrorists focused on their home regions. According to the State Department, terrorist attacks rose 43 percent worldwide in 2013. These attacks killed 17,891 and wounded 32,577. The department reports that the vast majority of these incidents were local or regional, not international, in focus.

It does not follow, however, that terrorist groups have relaxed their enmity toward the United States and its allies. The 2012 attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the American ambassador. In 2013, Al Shabaab attacked the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya, murdering more than 60 innocent people. And in mid-June, Al Shabaab struck again in Kenya, killing dozens of villagers in two coastal towns. These are reminders that dedicated terrorists can, at a minimum, successfully pull off deadly attacks against regional targets.

A senior national security official told us that the forces of Islamist extremism in the Middle East are stronger than in the last decade. Partly, this is a consequence of the Arab Spring and the power vacuums and ungoverned spaces that have sprung up in its wake. Partly, it is the result of America’s inability or reluctance to exert power and influence in a number of places. Officials are also deeply concerned at the region’s seemingly endless supply of disaffected young people vulnerable to being recruited as suicide bombers. We explained in our report that the “United States finds itself caught up in a clash within a civilization,” which “arises from particular conditions in the Muslim world.” This clash has only intensified since then.

In short, the terrorist threat is evolving, not defeated. While al Qaeda’s various affiliates are enmeshed in their own local conflicts, hatred of the United States remains a common thread. While some of these groups are not currently fixated on or capable of striking the U.S. homeland, they may seek to attack outposts of the U.S. presence overseas, including diplomatic posts, military bases, or softer targets such as American businesses in foreign countries.

Homegrown terrorism remains a serious concern as well. Purveyors of hatred spread their radical ideology over the Internet, attempting to recruit new terrorists both abroad and in the United States. The risk is not only that new terrorist cells are being created; online propaganda can also influence “lone wolf” terrorists, who can be extremely difficult for authorities to spot. The support of the American Muslim community in opposing extremism, increased awareness by the public at large, and a massive law enforcement effort have made the United States a much harder target than it was on 9/11. But the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombing is a reminder of how dangerous homegrown extremists can be, despite these advances.

In sum, the terrorist threat has evolved, but it is still very real and very dangerous. The absence of another 9/11-style attack does not mean the threat is gone: As 9/11 showed, a period of quiet can be shattered in a moment by a devastating attack. The pressing question is whether the United States is prepared to face the emergent threats of today—and those it is likely to face in the years to come.

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