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

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.

The 4.2-million-square-foot mall, located in Minnesota, was globally recognized as the largest entertainment and retail complex in America, welcoming more than 42 million visitors each year, or 117,000 a day. On this day neither the 160 security cameras surveying the mall nor the 150 safety officers guarding it were able to detect, deter, or defend against the terrorists.18 Four men, disguised as private mall-security officers and armed with TEC-9 submachine guns, street-sweeper 12-gauge shotguns, and dynamite, entered the mall at two points and began executing shoppers at will.

It had not been hard for the terrorists to buy all their guns legally, in six different states across the Midwest. A year earlier Congress had failed to reauthorize the assault-weapons ban. Attorney General John Ashcroft had announced a proposal, on July 6, 2001, to have the FBI destroy records of weapons sales and background checks the day after the gun dealer had the sale approved. This meant that if a gun buyer subsequently turned up on the new Integrated Watch List, or was discovered by law-enforcement officials to be a felon or a suspected terrorist, when government authorities tried to investigate the sale, the record of the purchase would already be on the way to the shredder.19

The panic and confusion brought on by the terrorists' opening volleys led many shoppers to run away from one pair of murderers and into the path of the other, leading to more carnage. Two off-duty police officers were cited for bravery after they took down one pair of terrorists with their personal weapons, before the local SWAT team could get to the scene. Meanwhile, one of the other terrorists used his cell phone to remotely detonate the rental van he had driven to the mall; this resulted in even more chaos in the parking garages. Once the SWAT team arrived, it made short work of the two remaining terrorists. By the time the smoke had cleared, more than 300 people were dead and 400 lay wounded. In the confusion of the firefight the SWAT team had killed six mall guards and wounded two police officers.20

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