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

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

Although the American Civil Liberties Union vigorously condemned these roundups, most of the public accepted them as not only a suitable precaution against possible future attacks but also a brake on further vigilante violence.11 The fear that follow-on attacks were likely was enough to satisfy the judiciary that state and federal law enforcement should be allowed to begin broad sweeps of communities suspected of harboring sympathizers.

Roundups based on ethnicity succeeded only in enraging local ethnic communities. This made it more difficult for the authorities to enlist cooperation in either investigating hate crimes or preventing future attacks from within these communities. Despite earlier warnings from sympathetic foreign officials, the U.S. government, with the support of federal judges and the American people, deemed these detentions the only way to hold those who had collaborated with the suicide bombers and to capture those who might carry out the next attack.12 In short, "the gravest imminent danger to the public safety," which had justified the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II, was invoked again to support the widespread use of pre-trial detentions and material-witness warrants.13

Over the objections of the Pentagon, Congress had in 2004 created a cabinet-level director of national intelligence and given the position budgetary control of all intelligence agencies and operational control over all agencies except the Defense Intelligence Agency and the armed services' individual intelligence branches. By this point most Americans were well aware of the lapses in U.S. intelligence produced by a lack of spies in the Middle East.14 Not long after 9/11 George Tenet, then the director of the CIA, had suggested that it would take at least five years to raise the CIA's human-intelligence capacity to where it needed to be. Although the new law gave the national intelligence director the muscle to manage all U.S. intelligence, Tenet turned out to have been right: it took more than five years to train even a fraction of the new field agents needed for a global war on terror.

One price the United States has paid for security is a significant decrease in foreign students at our colleges and universities, effectively preventing young people from all over the world from meeting one another and building bridges between warring ideologies. Foreign attendance is now down by more than a third from what it was in 2001, resulting in the closing or consolidation of some graduate programs in science and engineering, and producing severe budget cuts in others.15 At the same time, research institutions in France, England, India, China, and Singapore have all grown. Many of us are now using the Asiapac operating system on our laptops and taking drugs imported from such foreign companies as Stemlabs and EuroPharmatica.

The summer and autumn of 2005 passed without further attacks. By Thanksgiving many Americans believed what government spokesmen were telling them: that the attacks had been the work of eight isolated terrorists, the last of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad's al-Qaeda cells in America.

The government spokesmen were wrong.

On December 2, 2005, the Mall of the States became a victim of a low-tech terrorist attack. In the preceding years malls in Israel, Finland, and the Philippines had been attacked; so far, American malls had been spared. As security professionals knew, this was partly luck; such targets are difficult to protect.16 In June of 2004, after learning of intelligence reports indicating that the Madrid train bombers had originally planned to strike a suburban shopping area, Charles Schumer, a Democratic senator from New York, called for increased funding to secure U.S. shopping centers and malls.17 Congress chose instead to focus on defending other targets against more-sophisticated terrorist acts.

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