Anniversaries of tragedies offer an occasion to reflect as well as to mourn, and the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks should lead us to think on our triumphs and shortfalls in the struggle against al Qaeda during this period.
The Bush and now the Obama administrations can rightly take pride in having prevented mass-casualty attacks on the U.S. homeland even though many pundits and officials have regularly predicted that another 9/11-scale attack was just around the corner. Luck of course explains part of this success, but so too does the hard work of government officials and, in the case of the “shoebomber” (December 2001) and the “jock-strap jihadist” (December 2009), vigilance on the part of airplane passengers.
But U.S. offensive measures against al Qaeda also make it harder for the terrorist group to strike the U.S. homeland. Predator strikes, disrupting the haven in Afghanistan, and the worldwide police and intelligence hunt for al Qaeda operatives all make it far harder for the group to plan and organize on a grand scale, though of course such measures do not stop all attacks from going forward.
The bigger problems lie in the more nebulous but perhaps more important realm of working with allies, choosing the right enemies, and strengthening the anti-al Qaeda narrative. Many groups share parts of al Qaeda’s agenda, but not all of these are subservient to the organization itself, and Washington is often better off leaving local regimes and forces to fight these organizations rather than attacking them directly. Persuading Pakistan to embrace the fight against al Qaeda and its allies rather than cut side deals with jihadist organizations has proven difficult at best and farcical at worst, and Afghanistan – a problem briefly thought largely to be solved—edges toward disaster. While al Qaeda has suffered ideological blows when former salafi-jihadist fellow travelers denounced the organization, U.S. efforts to gain the goodwill of Muslims, or at least further demonize al Qaeda, have often met with little success. Ugly domestic political issues, like the contretemps over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” have worsened the U.S. image far beyond what skilled public diplomacy can counter.
So nine years later it is right for many hard-working officials to pause and give themselves credit for keeping our country safer. But it is also time to focus on how to make sure the years to come see no return of mass-casualty terrorism to our shores.