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

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.

Just seconds later the man drove his van into the lobby of the Lion's Grand and detonated his cargo. This bomb was designed to wreak tremendous damage that would remain in the consciousness of the American people for years to come. Whereas the damage done to the Florentine casino was repaired in just under a month, the billion-dollar Lion's Grand was closed for more than a year while security enhancements and structural improvements were made. Losing the use of 5,034 rooms, plus casino gaming and concerts and other special events, cost the Lion's Grand a million dollars a day, and damaged its bond rating.

The long-term economic effects continue today: tourism in Las Vegas has never returned to its pre-2005 level, and unemployment in the city is at 28 percent.5

The attacks in Nevada occurred at almost the same time as the ones in Florida, California, Texas, and New Jersey. Two women strolling separately through Mouseworld's Showcase of the Future detonated their exploding belts in the vicinity of tour groups in the "Mexican Holiday" and "Austrian Biergarten" exhibits. Similar attacks took place at WaterWorld, in California; Seven Pennants, near Dallas; and the Rosebud Casino, in Atlantic City. By the end of the day 1,032 people were dead and more than 4,000 wounded. The victims included many children and elderly citizens. Among the dead were only eight terrorists, two each from Iraq, Indonesia, Pakistan, and the Philippines.

The next morning CNN's Los Angeles bureau received a video purporting to be from al-Qaeda of North America. On the tape the group claimed responsibility for the incidents and pledged that attacks would continue until America left the Middle East. We can all recall the soft, steely voice in which the chilling words were delivered: "We are not terrorists. We are patriots trying to throw off the mantle of an oppressive society. We do not look like you think we do. And we will kill you until you leave our holy lands."

Eyewitnesses supported the recording's assertions, telling investigators that some of the terrorists who had committed these atrocities did not look like Arabs. Three of the terrorists were women. The FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the local authorities were momentarily stunned, and began frantically trying to prepare for what they feared were further imminent attacks. The DHS raised the nationwide terror-alert level to red.

The social effect of the attacks was widespread. In Detroit, northern New Jersey, northern Virginia, and southern California armed gangs of local youths attacked mosques and Islamic centers. At the request of local clerics, the governor of Michigan ordered National Guard units into the city of Dearborn and parts of Detroit to stop the vigilante violence against Islamic residents.

The reaction from the White House and Congress was swift. Patriot Act II, which had been languishing on Capitol Hill, passed in July. As more evidence was made public, it became increasingly clear that the attacks had been perpetrated by terrorists who were in the United States illegally, either on false passports or having overstayed their visas.6 Two were Iraqis pretending to be South Africans, using passports that had been stolen in Cape Town the year before.7 Others had actually been picked up before the attacks for being "out of visa status," but had been released because immigration detention facilities were full.8

The attorney general sought broad emergency powers to impose extended pre-arraignment detention, investigative confinement, broader material-witness authority, and expanded deportation authority. After the passage of Patriot Act II, federal agents conducted large-scale roundups of illegal immigrants and members of ethnic groups that were suspected of hiding terrorists in their midst. Many citizens who had been forcibly detained were held "with probable cause" for allegedly "planning, assisting, or executing an act of terrorism"; they were denied access to an attorney for up to seven days, "by order of the judicial officer on a showing that the individual arrested has information which may prevent a terrorist attack."9 Many detainees, if they failed to produce proof of citizenship or immigrant status, were moved to new DHS illegal-immigration detention facilities for further investigation and possible deportation. The camps were in remote areas, including one in Arizona that ended up holding 42,000 suspected illegals.10

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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