Ten Years Later

"Then the second wave of al-Qaeda attacks hit America." A leading expert on counterterrorism imagines the future history of the war on terror. A frightening picture of a country still at war in 2011
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This is a transcript of the Tenth Anniversary 9/11 Lecture
Sunday, September 11, 2011
John F. Kennedy School of Government
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Professor Roger McBride

Dean, Honored Guests,

It is a great honor to be chosen to give this tenth-anniversary lecture. This year, more than at any other time since the beginning of the war on terror, I think we can see clearly how that war has changed our country. Now that the terror seems finally to have receded somewhat, perhaps we can begin to consider the steps necessary to return the United States to what it was before 9/11. To do so, however, we must be clear about what has happened over the past ten years. Thus tonight I will dwell on the history of the war on terror.

2001-2004: The Response to 9/11

Having ignored al-Qaeda until September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush responded to the attack in three ways. First, he ordered an end to the terrorist sanctuary in Afghanistan. For five years thereafter a token U.S. military force assisted the Kabul government in its attempts to rule the warlords and suppress the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Second, he moved to strengthen U.S. domestic law enforcement with the first Patriot Act (a law that civil libertarians would find benign from today's perspective) and the Department of Homeland Security, which in those early years of the war on terror was largely ineffectual.1 Third, Bush ordered the ill-fated invasion and occupation of Iraq, which effectively turned his administration into an active recruiting office for al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups around the world.

The move against Afghanistan did set al-Qaeda and the jihadi movement back. Although regional affiliates were able to stage spectacular attacks in Riyadh, Istanbul, Bali, Madrid, Baghdad, and elsewhere, and although there were twice as many attacks worldwide in the three years after 9/11 as there had been in the five years before that day, no al-Qaeda-related attacks took place in the United States in the years immediately following 9/11.

The several years without an attack on U.S. soil lulled some Americans into thinking that the war on terror was taking place only overseas. Few corporations increased security spending. Americans increasingly questioned President Bush's security policies, the Patriot Act, and Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge's ridiculed color codes. In the 2004 presidential election George W. Bush won a second term in part by dismissing such issues as whether the mishandling of the Iraq War had made us less secure, whether we had paid enough attention to al-Qaeda, and whether we were adequately addressing our vulnerabilities at home.

Then the second wave of al-Qaeda attacks hit America. Since then we have spiraled downward in terms of economic strength, national security, and civil liberties. No one could stand here today, in 2011, and say that America has won the war on terror. To understand how we failed to win, and exactly what has been lost along the way, I want to look at the past seven years in some detail.

2005: Return to the Homeland Battlefields

The U.S. government had predicted that future attacks, if they came, would likely be on financial institutions, noting that Osama bin Laden had issued instructions to destroy the U.S. economy. Thus when the casinos were attacked, it was a surprise. It shouldn't have been; we knew that Las Vegas had been under surveillance by al-Qaeda since at least 2001. Despite that knowledge casino owners had done little to increase security, not wanting to slow people down on their way into the city's pleasure palaces.2 Theme-park owners were also locked into a pre-9/11, "it can't happen here" mindset, and consequently were caught off guard, as New Yorkers and Washingtonians had been in 2001. The first post-9/11 attacks on U.S. soil came not from airplanes but from backpacks and Winnebagos. They were aimed at places where we used to have fun, what we then called "vacation destinations." These places were particularly hard to defend.

Peter and Margaret Rataczak, of Wichita, Kansas, were the first to die on June 29, 2005, in a new wave of suicide attacks launched against the United States in retaliation for the killing of Osama bin Laden that spring, and for the continuing presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. These attacks were every bit as well planned as those of 9/11 and, in typical al-Qaeda fashion, used low-technology means to achieve maximum public impact. What we know about the attacks' planning and execution comes in large part from tourists who provided photos and video from their travels. Without these images we might never have known that the Rataczaks' killers were non-Arab. It would also have been harder to discover that they seem to have entered the United States by driving across the border from Canada.3

In order to save money for the poker tables that night, Peter chose to stay at an RV campground, parking his Winnebago at around 4:00 p.m. Shortly thereafter a casually dressed Asian couple approached the Rataczaks' secluded campsite with a map unfolded in front of them. Only the birds heard the silenced shots. The first murders by the group calling itself al-Qaeda of North America had been carried out.

With the bodies in the back of the darkened camper, the Asian couple drove back toward a safe house they had quietly rented in the hills. (The landlord had no reason to suspect they were fundamentalist Muslims; their religion was of no concern to him. Nor, certainly, would his standard background credit check have turned up their association with an Indonesian al-Qaeda affiliate.) The man quickly backed into the garage and loaded an ammonium nitrate device into the van. His leader had said the device would force the unbelievers in "Sin City" to realize that even in their ignorance they were guilty of conspiring with the Zionists to destroy Islam. After a good night's sleep and his morning prayers, the man carefully helped the woman into her vest and belt before leaving her to finish dressing and praying.

It was only an hour's drive to the city limits, and the man was careful never to exceed the speed limit. State troopers at the exit ramp to the city ignored the van. At 3:00 p.m. the streets were packed as crowds wandered the Strip. On Tropicana Avenue the man stopped briefly to let his partner out with an exchange of nods and a whispered statement: "God is great." The woman blended seamlessly into the flow of people walking into the Florentine casino, looking like one of the millions of annual visitors to Las Vegas from the Pacific Rim. She seemed a little heavy for her frame, and the jacket she wore seemed a little out of place in the heat, but the doormen, as security videos later showed, didn't even give her a second look. She had been there many times before.

The woman never hesitated. She walked to the roulette table, fifty feet from the front door, and pushed a detonator, blowing herself up. The explosion instantly killed thirty-eight people who were standing and sitting at nearby tables. The nails and ball bearings that flew out of the woman's vest and belt wounded more than a hundred others, even though slot machines absorbed many of the miniature missiles.4 Eighteen of the hundreds of elderly gamblers in the casino suffered heart attacks that proved fatal when they could not be treated fast enough amid the rubble.

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