How a Decade of Terror Changed America


Dec 30, 2009

This commentary originally appeared on AOL News on December 30, 2009.

On Dec. 14, 1999, U.S. Customs agents on the Canadian border intercepted Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian terrorist trained by al-Qaida in Afghanistan, on his way to bomb the Los Angeles Airport. Ressam's foiled bombing was one of several planned terrorist attacks that came to be called the "Millennium Plot."

Fast forward an astounding decade to last week, when Umar Farouk Abdulmultallab, a Nigerian national living in the United Kingdom, boarded a U.S. airliner in Amsterdam and attempted to blow it up as it landed in Detroit. Abdulmultallab has claimed connections with al-Qaida's affiliates in Yemen, who have in turn claimed credit for his attack.

These two foiled airliner bombings bracket a decade that changed the world's understanding of terrorism as a new form of global warfare and has had profound ramifications we are still coming to grips with in the U.S.

Al-Qaida's shocking ambitious strategy to exhort, inspire, train and dispatch terrorists from around the world to wage war on and in the United States would blur the distinction between the frontline and the home front. It would end the idea of war as the work of a single hostile nation or alliance of nations. It would finish the notion that armies were made up mainly of soldiers from one nation under the control of one, or any, government. Al-Qaida's terrorist operatives would comprise many nationalities. They would come at the United States from all directions. Some would be homegrown.

By now, we all understand that the U.S. response to 9/11—first called the Global War on Terror and then continued under different labels—has changed the way America defends itself, organizes its intelligence and manages its internal security. It led to changes in U.S. military doctrine, billions spent on national security, swelling of the federal deficit and insidious effects on the American economy. The threat of terrorism changed our laws. It challenged our core values.

This is a decade that saw the most significant reorganization of intelligence since the National Security Act of 1947 and the creation of the vast Department of Homeland Security to better coordinate domestic security. The FBI substantially redirected its resources to make counterterrorism its top priority. The federal government took over aviation security.

It is a decade that has seen U.S. forces in Afghanistan for eight years and in Iraq for six. Soon these will be the longest continuous military engagements in America's history—not peaceful occupations, but ongoing conflicts that place a tremendous burden on U.S. military personnel. The issue of missile defense, a top priority up to 9/11, has diminished in relevance as U.S. military planners struggle instead with counterinsurgency strategies and field commanders openly warn of losing the fight against ragtag Taliban warriors.

The Executive Order prohibiting assassinations has been rescinded, and targeted killings by missile-armed drones are now routine—even in countries where U.S. forces are not engaged in combat.

Americans who have always viewed war as a finite undertaking are coming to grips with terrorist adversaries who view war as a way of life. We are reluctantly learning to plan for military contests that last decades, even while rejecting perpetual war.

At home, as federal investigators struggle to gather the intelligence necessary to thwart terrorist plots, preventive intervention is replacing reactive law enforcement. This has had a measure of success, judging by the number of terrorist plots uncovered and foiled. Yet the small number of homegrown conspirators also reflected an American Muslim community that rejected the jihadists' call to arms.

We have succeeded in scattering al-Qaida's training camps, decimating its leadership and degrading its operational capabilities. Yet its ideology still commands the fealty of fanatics from North Africa to Southeast Asia. Its narrative of divine-mandated violence still inspires a small pool of angry young men.

The past decade also saw an unprecedented assertion of presidential authority, electronic surveillance without warrants, the detention of individuals solely on the basis of their having been declared enemy combatants, secret and indefinite imprisonment without trial, and the use of coercive interrogation techniques that before 9/11 would readily have been labeled torture.

These were the greatest dangers posed by terror: that it would erode our own democracy, our traditional respect for human rights, our commitment to the law itself. Fortunately, these excesses were challenged in the courts, in Congress and by the electorate, and they are now being corrected.

As the decade draws to a close, the Detroit airliner plot reminds us that terrorism abroad and at home will continue for the foreseeable future. Yet despite unprecedented challenges, the republic has survived. It has weathered dark periods in the past, and it will continue to do so.

Brian Michael Jenkins, author of "Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?" (Prometheus, 2008), is senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

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