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

As early as 2004 our nation's leaders were admitting that the war on terror would probably last a generation or more, even as they continued to argue among themselves about whether it could ever truly be won. If they had acted differently—sooner, smarter—we might have been able to contain what were at one time just a few radical jihadis, and to raise our defenses more effectively. Instead our leaders made the clash of cultures a self-fulfilling prophecy, turning the first part of the twenty-first century into an ongoing low-grade war between religions that made America less wealthy, less confident, and certainly less free.49

1. As of June 28, 2004, about a year after the Department of Homeland Security's operational startup, only forty of 104 key changes recommended by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) had been implemented. "Status of Key Recommendations," GAO-04-865R, July 2, 2004.

2. Surveillance tapes obtained in 2002 by Justice Department officials in Detroit and Spanish authorities in Madrid included footage of the MGM Grand, Excalibur, and New York, New York casinos on the Las Vegas Strip, along with the World Trade Center in New York and Disneyland, in California. Las Vegas authorities and casino representatives declined to alert the public, possibly fearing a decline in tourism or an increase in the casinos' legal liability. "Despite Two Terror Tapes, Public Not Alerted to Vegas Threat, Memos Show," Associated Press, August 10, 2004. Also "Las Vegas, California Authorities Reacted Differently to Same al-Qaida Footage," Associated Press, August 11, 2004.

3. Canada's ethnically diverse population, liberal immigration and refugee policies, and long border with the United States make it a good place for terrorists to raise funds, procure supplies and fake documents, and plan attacks. The Canadian Security and Intelligence Service acknowledged in 2003 that it considered more than 300 people in Canada to be members of various terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda.

The Mexican border is even more porous than the Canadian. More than 4,000 illegal immigrants cross into Arizona alone each day. Most are Mexican, but a large number hail from other countries. The Border Patrol, less than 10,000 strong, is no match for this enormous wave. For every person it picks up, at least three elude capture. "The Challenge of Terror," Time International, January 27, 2003. Also "Who Left the Door Open?" Time, September 20, 2004.

4. According to notebooks kept by jihadi students in Uzbekistan in the mid-1990s, instruction in explosive devices—from antipersonnel mines to bombs capable of destroying buildings—was a standard part of the curriculum at terrorist training camps. "The Terrorist Notebooks," Foreign Policy, March/April 2003.

5. After 9/11 the casino operator MGM Mirage—which owns the Mirage, the MGM Grand, and the Bellagio, among others—reported that its fourth-quarter earnings for 2001 were about a third of what they had been the year before (www.bizjournals.com/pacific/stories/2002/01/28/daily54.html).

6. The 9/11 Commission's investigation into the attacks of 2001 found that lax screening by immigration officials and poor communication between security agencies allowed the hijackers to enter the United States even though they used fraudulent passports, provided incomplete and false statements on visa applications, and were listed as suspect in intelligence-community information systems. As many as fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were potentially vulnerable to interception by border authorities, the commission concluded. The 9/11 Commission Report, Norton, 2004.

7. According to Belgian police, 19,050 blank Belgian passports have been stolen from various embassies, consulates, and town halls since 1990. Belgium's poor security, as well as the country's location at the crossroads of Europe (through which a high volume of human traffic passes), makes it an attractive base for terrorists and a global capital of identity fraud. Thousands of passports stolen from other countries also circulate on the black market. "How to Fake a Passport," The New York Times Magazine, February 10, 2002.

8. On July 19, 2004, days after wading across the Rio Grande, a Pakistani woman with a doctored South African passport was arrested at an airport in Texas. Because of inadequate funding, the DHS's Office of Detention and Removal is capable of detaining only about 200,000 illegal immigrants a year—even though some 1.2 million are apprehended. The lack of space has led to a system of "catch and release," in which border officials return hundreds of thousands of Mexican nationals to Mexico, only to see them return repeatedly to the United States. Non-Mexican illegals are released directly into U.S. communities on personal-recognizance bonds with summonses to appear in court. More than 90 percent never show up. Not even all those illegal immigrants from countries that sponsor terrorism, such as Syria and Iran, are detained, because the DHS is not required by statute to detain illegal aliens unless they are felons, known terrorists, associates of terrorists, or persons suspected of certain other criminal violations. "Transforming the Southern Border: Providing Security and Prosperity in the Post 9/11 World," House Select Committee on Homeland Security, September 2004.

9. These procedures for treatment of detainees are drawn from recommendations made by the anti-terrorism experts Philip Heymann and Juliette Kayyem in their final report for Harvard University's Long-Term Legal Strategy Project. In the report the authors strive to balance the need for increased security in the post-9/11 world with the obligation to protect civil liberties. Philip B. Heymann and Juliette N. Kayyem, "Preserving Security and Democratic Freedoms in the War on Terrorism," Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, November 16, 2004.

10. In August of 2002 Attorney General John Ashcroft indicated his desire to create separate camps for U.S. citizens held indefinitely as "enemy combatants." The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency currently operates or oversees more than fifteen detention facilities (most of which are categorized as Service Processing Centers) around the country for housing illegal aliens. "Camps for Citizens: Ashcroft's Hellish Vision," Los Angeles Times, August 14, 2002. Also www.ice.gov/graphics/dro/index.htm.

Presented by

Richard A. Clarke was the national coordinator for security and counterterrorism for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and is the author of Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror. Bridger McGaw assisted him with this article.

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