Nine days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President George W. Bush stood before Congress to outline a two-pronged response to history’s deadliest terrorist act: dramatic improvements in security at home and an all-out assault against what he called a “fringe form of Islamic extremism” at war with the West.
Fifteen years later, the first goal arguably has been met, as Americans by almost every measure are safer today from another 9/11-scale attack than in 2001.
Yet the struggle to defeat the global network of violent, rabidly anti-Western jihadist groups has recorded fewer successes. Indeed, the problem appears to have grown bigger.
The al-Qaeda organization once led by Osama bin Laden has been decimated and is no longer capable of orchestrating a sophisticated, trans-national plot on its own, terrorism experts say they believe. Al-Qaeda’s branches in North Africa and Yemen also have been weakened by Western military strikes and ongoing fighting with rival factions.
But al-Qaeda’s powerful and locally popular Syrian branch, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, commands an army of thousands of trained fighters and now serves as a base for senior al-Qaeda operatives experienced in making explosives and carrying out terrorist attacks, U.S. officials and terrorism experts say. The Syrian group recently announced it had split with al-Qaeda, but U.S. officials say the claim is not credible.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State, despite military setbacks in Iraq and Syria, has demonstrated a growing capability to direct — or inspire — simple-but-lethal terrorist attacks around the world.
Both the Bush and Obama administrations thwarted multiple terrorist plots and achieved significant military successes against specific terrorist factions and key leaders, including al-Qaeda in Iraq founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006, bin Laden in 2011 and the Islamic State’s No. 2 commander, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who reportedly was killed in a U.S. airstrike last month. Yet both administrations struggled to find a formula for blunting the appeal of violent jihadist groups or preventing thousands of young Muslims from enlisting in a global movement fueled by hatred and bent on destruction.
Beginning in the fall of 2001, intelligence and law enforcement officials began bracing for follow-up attacks of equal or even greater magnitude, from the downing of passenger planes to biological or even nuclear terrorism.
Instead, despite its stated ambition to kill large numbers of Americans and disrupt the U.S. economy, al-Qaeda has been unable since 2001 to carry out another major strike on the U.S. homeland. The only significant acts of terrorism in the past 15 years involved lone actors or — apparently, in the case of the 2001 anthrax attack — a domestic terrorist.
“The cavalry did arrive, and we have good people still working on it,” said Mowatt-Larssen, now a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. One of the unheralded successes of the post-Sept. 11 era is “the fact that we haven’t had a WMD attack in these 15 years,” he said.
A hard-learned lesson of the last 15 years, current and former officials say, is that the most effective counter-radicalization messages can only come from Muslims themselves — religious leaders and institutions as well as governments, which must address the political and social disparities that fuel extremism. But U.S. officials have been largely frustrated in their efforts to persuade Muslim allies to take more aggressive measures in their home countries.
The Islamic State, widely regarded as the preeminent global jihad threat, has mastered the process of recruiting and radicalizing adherents to a far greater degree than al-Qaeda did, U.S. officials and terrorism experts say. And the Islamic State has shown itself to be far more willing than al-Qaeda to attack soft targets of limited strategic value, using recruits with little or no training and weapons that are simple but enormously effective in sowing fear and panic.
Such attacks have come to define jihadist terrorism in the second decade of the 21st century.
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