People walk through the 9-11 Empty Sky memorial across from New York's One World Trade Center at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, NJ

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September 10, 2013

What Has America—and Its Enemies—Learned Since 9/11?

People in the 9-11 Empty Sky memorial across from New York's One World Trade Center at Liberty State Park in Jersey City

photo by Reuters/Gary Hershorn

The attacks on September 11, 2001 provoked America's global campaign against terrorism and jump-started the nation's efforts to improve intelligence, airport security, and emergency preparedness. Law enforcement agencies have strengthened their counterterrorism and homeland security capabilities. Public awareness and participation in protecting communities has grown. The United States has made progress over the last 12 years but do Americans feel safer at home, on planes, and abroad?

Meanwhile, al Qaeda, while weakened by the death of its leader in 2011, still generates fear. It has expanded its network and has benefited from the Arab uprisings—particularly from the instability of Egypt and Syria. Affiliates in the Magreb, Yemen, Somalia, and Iraq have become more active, while new al Qaeda fronts have opened in Africa and the Middle East.

In 2008, a terrorist attack killed 162 people in Mumbai. On September 11, 2012, an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi killed four diplomats, including a U.S. ambassador. The Boston Marathon bombings this April served as a reminder that terrorism can be homegrown.

RAND has been conducting terrorism research and analysis for 40 years but since 9/11 has focused on al Qaeda's resiliency and shifting tactics, homeland and embassy security, and jihadist terrorist radicalization around the world and inside the United States. RAND experts continue to examine U.S. policy options, recommend strategy, and shed light on various aspects of the terrorism threat.

What Has the United States Learned about Security?

  • U.S. consulate in Lahore, Pakistan

    Building a More Secure American Embassy

    The recent decision to close 19 U.S. embassies and consulates in the Middle East and Africa because of intelligence indicating terrorist planning for unspecific attacks underscores the need to continue focusing attention and resources on the danger al-Qaida and its affiliates pose to the United States and its allies.

  • Mumbai at night

    Could Terrorists Pull Off a Mumbai-Style Attack in the U.S.?

    There is, at present, no known terrorist group in the United States that has the organization and human resources to assemble an operation of the complexity and scale of the Mumbai attack, writes Brian Michael Jenkins.

  • a woman talking to Boston police near site of Marathon bombings

    Crowd-sourcing Our Security

    Involvement can transform members of the public from helpless bystanders into active participants in their own defense, thereby reducing fear and alarm, writes Brian Michael Jenkins.

  • Boston Marathon bombing - first responders

    Why U.S. Was Surprised, but Prepared for Boston Attack

    Although official after-action reports are still being compiled, it looks like Boston's first responders and hospitals delivered under difficult circumstances, writes Arthur Kellermann.

  • The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during a protest by an armed group said to have been protesting a film being produced in the U.S. September 11, 2012

    Embassy Security: From the Outside In

    U.S. embassies shored up security in the wake of the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Going forward, the security plan for the U.S. diplomatic presence abroad must include strategies to detect and prevent such attacks before they occur.

  • The Harbor Police K-9 Team explosive detection canine perform a search on luggage at San Diego International Airport

    More Secure or Less Free?

    It is not surprising that people report a willingness to trade convenience, money, and liberty for security. Legal precedent reinforces that decreased civil liberties may be accepted when confronting existential threats with demonstrably effective security—to a point, writes Henry H. Willis.

  • Al Qaeda Threat to U.S. Embassy in Yemen Raises Questions

    As in most war zones and high threat environments, one of the dangers to guard against is complacency...people become accustomed to a certain level of danger and assume that they have everything under control, when in fact they may have not fully thought through the problems posed by an enemy that is continually innovating, writes William Young.

  • Fake Boarding Pass Fears Inflated

    Instead of ratcheting back the PreCheck program because of manufactured fears about security lapses, TSA should be encouraged to expand this program to more airlines, more airports and more infrequent travelers, write Jack Riley and Lily Ablon.


Assessing Today's al Qaeda Threat

  • French nationals Philippe Verdon and Serge Lazarevic are being held hostage in Mali by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

    North Africa's Menace: AQIM's Evolution and the U.S. Policy Response

    Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is an amorphous, resilient, and adaptive terrorist organization that has shown extraordinary staying power in the face of counterterrorism operations. The United States should not be the tip of the spear in efforts against AQIM, except in cases involving a direct and imminent threat to the U.S. homeland.

  • Afghan al Qaeda members captured in Decemeber 2001

    What Would al Qaeda's PowerPoints Say?

    Over the last 12 years, the campaign against al Qaeda has dominated U.S. policy. From this perspective, al Qaeda has been a beneficiary of the Arab uprisings in general and of recent events in Egypt and Syria in particular. The longer the turmoil continues, the greater al Qaeda's possible gains, writes Brian Michael Jenkins.

  • Fighters from Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra

    Syria's Growing Jihad

    The escalating war in Syria presents a growing threat to the Middle East and the West more broadly. Led by groups like Jabhat al-Nusra (the Victory Front), an al-Qaeda-affiliated organization, Syria is becoming a training ground for foreign fighters and a microcosm of sectarian conflict.

  • Silhouette of soldiers against sunset

    Embassy Closings and the al Qaeda Threat

    Many people, including President Obama, have talked about al Qaeda's imminent defeat. But right now, all signs indicate that the group founded by Osama bin Laden is far from dead, says Seth G. Jones.

  • U.S. Army soldier pulls security as coalition forces search Ala Say Valley, Afghanistan

    The War on Terror Must End — but Not Yet

    While unending war is clearly bad for a republic and dangerous to U.S. security, the trickier task is defining the conditions that, when met, tell us that the war against al Qaeda is over, writes Paul Miller.

  • Timbuktu residents rally against control by Islamist group Ansar al-Din

    Al Qaeda Is Weak and Bungling—but Still Dangerous

    The swift march into Mali by a band of Islamist thugs demonstrates an efficient, opportunistic filling of a security vacuum more than an increase in jihadist power or influence, writes Andy Liepman.

  • Touareg rebels in Mali hoist a flag

    The al Qaeda Threat in North Africa

    Last week's terrorist attack at the In Amenas gas complex in Algeria, along with the recent success of the militant groups fighting government forces in Mali, indicate al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are gaining influence in North Africa. RAND experts weigh in on the latest developments.

  • Conflict with al Qaeda Will Continue Into Its Third Decade, Although Tactics May Change

    While al Qaeda's capacity for large-scale attacks has been drastically reduced and the organization seriously weakened, the United States can expect to continue its battle with the terrorist group for many years to come.