September 9, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Fifteen Years Since America’s Darkest Day

• The 15th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks comes at a time of unprecedented terror concerns, both real and inflated.

• Only one of the goals stated in the aftermath of the attacks has been realized; the U.S. has prevented another 9/11 scale attack.

• The other goals—denying terrorists sanctuaries, destroying al-Qaeda, countering violent extremism—have not been reached; all are worse now than before 9/11.

• Unfortunately, it is likely that current trends of increased global terror concerns will persist for many more 9/11 anniversaries to come.


Fifteen years later, the geopolitical consequences of the September 11, 2001 attacks have not diminished with each passing anniversary. Quite the opposite, the global terror threat has compounded and cascaded. In the aftermath of the deadliest terror attack in history, the U.S. and its allies laid out several goals and policy responses; chief among the goals was the prevention of another 9/11-scale attack; the denial of terrorist sanctuaries such as Afghanistan; the destruction of al-Qaeda; and countering the violent extremist ideology of bin-Ladinism. As the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, only one of these goals—the prevention of an attack nearing the scale of 9/11—has been met. While the prevention of another such attack is a significant achievement, many of the other post-9/11 concerns are considerably worse now than in 2001.

The U.S. toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan in December 2001 has been followed by nearly fifteen years of efforts to build upon that achievement. Now, the goal has been reduced to simply trying to avoid its reversal. The Taliban no longer holds the seat of central power in Afghanistan, but it does hold more territory now than at any point since September 10, 2001. The U.S. and other countries are frozen in Afghanistan. The coalition has been unable to make sufficient progress in propping up an effective Afghan military and government to allow for the departure of international forces. 

Like the impact the death of Usama bin Ladin had for al-Qaeda, the death of the Taliban’s founder Mullah Omar did little to change the current trajectory of the group. Al-Qaeda remains in Afghanistan, and the country remains a terrorist sanctuary despite extensive efforts to prevent such a reoccurrence. Al-Qaeda is stronger now than it was on September 10, 2001; fortunately, so too are the counterterrorism and security measures put in place to counter al-Qaeda. Still, the group is far more widespread than it was prior to 9/11, and remains highly determined to attack the West.

In Iraq—the invasion of which was tied to 9/11 by the Bush Administration—the situation is equally negative, despite military progress that has been made against the so-called Islamic State. As in Afghanistan, a tactical victory against extremist groups in Iraq bought time for political and social progress that never came to fruition. Like Afghanistan, abysmal governance, economic disaster, foreign meddling, and the persistence of violent extremist messages ensured the return of pervasive terrorism in Iraq. The Islamic State, which rose in various incarnations from the early days of the U.S. invasion, has in some ways surpassed al-Qaeda. The Islamic State’s fortunes in terms of holding territory have begun to wane, but its terror capabilities and the latency of conditions that feed the group’s existence show no sign of subsiding. Similar to the campaign against al-Qaeda, the Islamic State has absorbed significant losses amongst its senior leadership over the last several years without dramatic effect. 

The spread of violent extremism since 9/11 has surpassed anything bin Ladin likely thought achievable in a fifteen year period. Violent extremism has manifested itself in the West as both inspired attacks by lone actors as well as directed attacks carried out by cells; the threat of both types of attacks will remain for years to come. Governments are struggling with the speed and ease with which violent extremist messages spread both online and through peer-to-peer recruitment clusters. The highly individualized nature of radicalization and recruitment makes it exceedingly difficult for governments to devise effective programs with which to counter the threat. As with the goals of denying terrorists sanctuary and destroying al-Qaeda—and now the Islamic State—achieving the goal of containing and countering violent extremism will remain an elusive task for some time to come.


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