After 9/11, We Thought It Would Be a Generation-Long Struggle; We Were Wrong

Fifteen years after deadly al-Qaeda attacks, terrorist threat remains.

ByABC News
September 8, 2016, 7:08 AM
A U.S. flag is placed on the 9/11 memorial before the ceremony to commemorate the 14th Anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2015 in New York City.
A U.S. flag is placed on the 9/11 memorial before the ceremony to commemorate the 14th Anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2015 in New York City.
AFP/Getty Images

NEWS ANALYSIS — -- Richard Clarke was the national crisis manager for the White House on 9/11. He served as national coordinator for security and counterterrorism in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. He has been an ABC News national security consultant since 2004.

In the days after the attacks of 9/11, Americans asked fundamental questions such as “Who did this?” and “Why do they hate us?” As a nation, we were eager for a fight, for revenge, but some had another question: “How long will this war go on?”

In the halls of the White House, President George W. Bush was asking us similar questions, and the administration, which was itself just beginning to understand the phenomenon that al-Qaeda represented, gave some frank answers. In a speech to Congress nine days after the attacks, Bush predicted “a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen,” without a decisive victory when the enemy surrenders. On the fifth anniversary of the attacks, Bush called it “the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century and the calling of our generation.”

We have now fought al-Qaeda and its progeny for most of a generation, and there is no reason to believe that the threat they represent will disappear in five years or a decade. Moreover, even as the territory held by al-Qaeda offshoot ISIS shrinks, there’s evidence the problem of large-scale, pseudo-Islamic terrorist violence may be putting down deeper roots.

There are five aspects of the problem, all of which appear likely to endure for some time to come.

Al-Qaeda, Still Fighting

First, the group that attacked us on 9/11, al-Qaeda, is still actively engaged in terrorism. Although the U.S. did finally find and kill Osama bin Laden in May 2011 — 10 years after the attacks on New York and Washington — as well as most of his senior leadership team, the organization is far from dead. Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is still nominally at the top of the terrorist network, presumably hiding in some comfortable abode in Pakistan. Just two years ago, he established a new branch of the terrorist organization, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), and it has grown strong in the slums of Karachi.

Today al-Qaeda is still engaged in deadly operations across several countries. American commanders in Afghanistan report that fighters identified as al-Qaeda are again in combat, and it is estimated that there may be as many as 300 al-Qaeda operatives in the country. Last year the U.S. discovered a major al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.

In Yemen, al-Qaeda held a city of half a million people for several months this year and has benefited greatly from the civil war in the country. Just in the last few weeks, the U.S. has conducted multiple drone strikes against al-Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP).

In Africa, al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-linked groups staged major attacks in the last year in Mali, the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.

The al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, al-Nusra, which has again changed its name recently, is also still a fighting force and may be providing a base to plan attacks outside the Middle East.

Al-Qaeda itself has had a significant presence in Syria as of late, and the U.S. carried out airstrikes against it as recently as 2014. The group and its affiliates seek to take advantage of the Syrian civil war, hoping to exploit the discontent among local Sunnis and gain members, and to some extent, it is working. As ISIS loses territory and becomes less attractive to disaffected youths wanting to fight, al-Qaeda and its affiliates remain an active alternative.

ISIS: Al-Qaeda’s Deadly Offshoot

Second, the Syrian-based terrorist group ISIS has so far proved more effective at attracting tens of thousands of converts, grabbing and holding territory and staging small-group and lone-wolf attacks in Europe and the U.S. While the U.S. was slow to recognize the magnitude of the ISIS threat, it has now led a coalition that is slowly taking back the many large cities the group captured in Iraq, Syria and Libya.

The terrorist organization does not need to hold cities, however, to be capable of sustaining a war against the West. When it loses its cities, it will morph into ISIS 2.0 and continue to stage attacks. The ruins of the cities it once held and the refugee camps and diaspora caused by the fighting will be breeding grounds for terrorists for generations to come. The enormous resources necessary to return refugees to rebuilt cities in their home countries simply will not be made available.

A Resurgent Taliban

Third, the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist group that gave al-Qaeda its sanctuary in Afghanistan and the regime that U.S. forces drove out of Afghanistan in 2001, is coming back. Swaths of Afghanistan, where U.S. forces fought and died to eject the Taliban, are now back in that group’s hands after the withdrawal of most U.S. troops. As ISIS’ strength and momentum wanes, the Taliban and al-Qaeda continue to improve their relationship with each other. Using the Taliban as cover, Al-Qaeda is organizing and preparing itself quietly.

President Barack Obama has halted the pullout of the last U.S. forces in order to shore up the government in Kabul, but it is unlikely that the U.S.-backed government will ever be able to defeat the Taliban. There is some risk that the Taliban will, over several years, grind its way to controlling most of the country.

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan after 9/11 because we wanted to eliminate a terrorist sanctuary, a place where foreign fighters could assemble and train. Much of the countryside there has now reverted to just such a sanctuary.

Europe’s Security Weaknesses

Fourth, Europe has now become an active battlefield for the pseudo-Islamic terrorists. Attacks in France and Belgium have demonstrated how ill prepared European security forces were to detect and prevent terrorist cells from staging major atrocities. European governments had not sufficiently resourced or enabled their internal security forces or forced them to share information and cooperate internally or across borders.

The roots of violence in many Western European states include anti-Islamic discrimination, exclusion, poverty and general lack of integration into society. Many Muslims live in de facto segregated communities with astonishingly high unemployment. In France, where Muslims make up an estimated 7.5 percent of the country, they reportedly account for more than half the prison population. Curing those social ills from which violent discontent and lack of cooperation with government stem will take generations.

Risks at Home

The fifth front where we confront a risk from pseudo-Islamic terrorists is here at home, and in many ways it is the place where the violent extremists pose the least threat. Certainly compared with Europe, for Muslim Americans, the U.S. has again proved a welcoming melting pot. American Muslims have generally cooperated with authorities to spot possible discontents who could turn violent. The FBI, while its tactics have sometimes bordered on entrapment, has prevented and deterred many possible terrorist events.

Nonetheless, in a nation of 320 million people and as many guns, there will always be a risk of small-cell and lone-wolf attacks. As long as there are vibrant terrorist groups abroad, staging another 9/11 in the U.S. will always be one of their goals.

Thus, until the ideological attractiveness of pseudo-Islamic extremism is countered or otherwise abates, until the root socioeconomic conditions that breed discontent are mitigated, we will continue to face the problem of terrorism. That means this is not just a generation-long struggle.

We were wrong. It will take even longer.