Sept. 11: Are we safer 10 years later?

9 11 memorial photologo

Ten years after the terrorist attacks, five leading experts weigh in on the state of the jihadist movement, U.S. intelligence, and the cost of safety.

Martha Crenshaw It depends on what we mean by safer. If we're asking how likely it is that we'll experience an attack of the magnitude of 9/11, I don't that it's likely. Our awareness of the possibility is so much greater. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the attack, is in custody. Other major players are dead or under arrest. Osama Bin Laden is gone. The drone strikes in Pakistan have been very effective. However, we're not entirely safe from the threat of terrorism against U.S. interests and citizens abroad. We're still vulnerable in many ways. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are still threats. They've inherited anti-Americanism from the original Al-Qaeda, and while Al-Qaeda central is weakened, these affiliated groups will likely become stronger because of the power vacuum that's left in the jihadist movement. These different factions could unite. Al Qaeda itself was a merger of different national movements. This could happen again -- they could reconstitute themselves into a very powerful organization.

Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar We are safer -- up to a point. In 2003 I wrote that there was little reason to think we were safer than we were on Sept. 11, 2001, and that in order to improve our security we would need to invest in meaningful long-term changes rather than focusing on quick fixes. Much has changed today. American attacks have been devastating to al-Qaeda, showing how 9/11 was perhaps a tactical success for the group but almost certainly a strategic miscalculation. Americans have forged alliances with countries throughout the world, sharing financial intelligence and pooling efforts to disrupt terrorist mobility. Many communities have made important strides in safeguarding airports and chemical plants. Federal lawmakers enacted landmark, bipartisan food safety legislation to bolster the safety of the food supply, and doctors working with public health authorities have enhanced their capacity to respond to infections and biosecurity threats such as the H1N1 virus. Meanwhile, pressing issues like cyber-security and emergency preparedness are starting to receive much-needed attention.

But Americans continue to face profound challenges, too. We must work to enhance the infrastructure that protects our public health, cyber-security, and emergency response.  The Sept. 11 attacks starkly show the need to reconcile security goals with laws and constitutional principles. Policy makers and the public must focus attention on strengthening the economic and social foundations supporting America’s long-term position in the world. At the same time, the nation must remain determined, creative, and vigilant in confronting the continuing threats posed by non-state actors and failed states.

Karl Eikenberry If we talk about the defense of the homeland, we are clearly safer against the international terrorist threat. Our level of awareness is much higher. We were asleep when we got hit. And the systems that we've established, I think have made us safer. Now, that's very specifically against the terrorist threat. Is the United States of America stronger on a relative basis than on 9/11/2001 -- are we a stronger nation? I think the answer is no. I think that our economic strength has declined. And I think there's been a degree of militarization of our foreign policy over the last decade that’s made us less attractive globally.

Thomas Fingar We are safer with respect to the danger of a major terrorist attack than we were 10 years ago but not with respect to other risks that endanger more of our citizens and are more likely to occur. We have spent billions of dollars to detect, prevent, and respond to terrorist threats from abroad and we have reduced the already low probability of death or injury from terrorist attacks to even lower levels. These gains have had a high opportunity cost because achieving them was at the expense of efforts to reduce other dangers. Far more Americans continue to die from inadequate hospital procedures, unsafe food, drunk drivers, and other well-known dangers than have died in terrorist attacks. We will not be much safer until we address these and similar problems, repair and replace our aging infrastructure, and do more to prepare for the more severe weather that will result from climate change. 

Amy Zegart Osama bin Laden is dead. Yet 10 years after 9/11, it would be dangerous and wrong to think that the terrorist threat is behind us. Violent Islamist extremism comes from many places, not just the 50 to 100 core al Qaeda fighters holed up along the Af/Pak border. The years 2009 and 2010 have seen a spike in plots against the U.S. homeland. Nearly all of them have come from radicalized homegrown terrorists or “franchise” groups with loose and murky ties to the core al Qaeda organization.

In addition, WMD terrorism remains a haunting future possibility. And the FBI has not made the leap from crime fighting to intelligence. FBI analysts, whose work is vital to connect dots and protect lives, are still treated like second class citizens -- labeled “support staff” alongside janitors and secretaries, and relegated to middle and lower rungs of the bureaucracy. So long as FBI analysts are treated like second-class citizens, Americans will get second-class security. These three factors -- diversification of the terrorist threat, the potential to combine destructive motives with devastating weapons, and the FBI's continued weaknesses -- suggest that the future may not be any safer than the past.