Nine years on: Are we safer?

Has the U.S. neutralized al Qaida as a significant threat or has the global terrorist network survived and adapted?

“Are we safer now than we were on 9/11?” asked Fareed Zakaria in The Washington Post. Most Americans don’t seem to know it, but the answer is clearly yes. Despite some huge policy mistakes and overreactions, the U.S. military under two presidents has effectively neutralized al Qaida as a significant threat to the U.S. mainland, removing safe havens and training camps in Afghanistan, and eliminating and arresting key leaders. Our intelligence services, bloated and inefficient though they are, have managed to disrupt the “communications, travel, and—most important—money that fuels terrorism” in all its forms around the world. Airport security and locked cockpit doors make it nearly impossible for terrorists to turn airplanes into missiles.

That view is dangerously complacent, said Bruce Riedel in “Despite the largest manhunt in human history,” Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri are alive and well in the badlands of Pakistan or Afghanistan. Their global terrorist network has survived, adapted, and even thrived in the past nine years. An attack on the scale of 9/11 would be hard to pull off, but the new threat is from countless “self-starting jihadists,” like the Muslim U.S. Army major who killed 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas, or the Pakistani immigrant who tried to set off a car bomb in Manhattan’s Times Square, or the New York street vendor who was plotting to bomb the city’s subways. A new report by the Bipartisan Policy Center warns that jihadists continue to plot murderous attacks against Americans, and that most of these threats now come from within. Overseas, the jihadist threat is as real as ever, said Clifford May in National Review Online. Only a small minority of the world’s Muslims share bin Laden’s violent worldview—a mere 7 percent, by some estimates. But that amounts to “more than 80 million people—a formidable force backed by enormous Middle Eastern oil wealth.”

Then “let’s stop playing into bin Laden’s hands,” said Ted Koppel in The Washington Post. Al Qaida’s strategic goal on 9/11 was not just to kill Americans or destroy the twin towers. Bin Laden hoped the attacks would provoke America into an “excessive response” that would set off the proverbial Clash of Civilizations between Islam and the West, and rally the world’s Muslims behind al Qaida. He calculated right. “With one overreaction after another,” from the invasion of Iraq to the abuses at Abu Ghraib to Guantánamo Bay and the use of torture, America has handed a propaganda bonanza to Islamic extremists. That helps them recruit both here and abroad, and has made us less safe.

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The truth, said Brian Dickerson in the Detroit Free Press, is that we were never as safe as we thought we were. The collapse of the twin towers was a shocking wake-up call for Americans largely insulated from the chaos and anger outside our comfortable borders. Over the past nine years, that “profound sense of vulnerability” has only deepened, amid a cascade of disasters that our leaders were impotent to stop. We’ve watched a hurricane destroy a major U.S. city; a broken oil well spew nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico; and our savings and our prosperity destroyed by a global economic meltdown that no one seemed able to understand, let alone control. Are we safer than we were on Sept. 10, 2001? From terrorism, perhaps. But the reality is that we may never feel that safe again.

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