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

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

At the same moment, at the Tower Place, in Chicago; the Crystal Place, in Dallas; the Rappamassis Mall, in Virginia; and the Beverly Forest Mall, in Los Angeles, the scene was much the same: four shooters and hundreds of dead shoppers. America's holiday mall shopping effectively ended that day, as customers retreated to the safety of online retail.

The December attacks were achieved with a relatively small amount of ammonium nitrate, some Semtex plastic explosive, and a few assault weapons in the hands of twenty people who were willing to die. Some of the terrorists were Iraqis, members of the fedayeen militias, who had been radicalized by the American presence in Baghdad. Others were Saudis. Only one was captured alive, at the Rappamassis Mall. Through continued questioning of him, said to involve CIA-trained interrogators, it was discovered that more shootings were planned for the New Year. Acting on this information, FBI agents, in concert with the Texas Rangers and the Seattle police, thwarted two follow-up attacks, aimed at New Year's Eve festivities on Sixth Street in Austin and in the Pike Place Market area of Seattle.

As the bloody year ended, the president pointed to our having prevented those two attacks as evidence that we had turned a corner, and that the United States would be safer in 2006.21

2006: Mobilizing the Home Front

W ell before the end of the first quarter of 2006 the economic effects of the previous year's attacks were clear. The closing of casinos and theme parks around the country had increased only regional unemployment, but the national effect on the already ailing airline industry was significant. The pre-Christmas attacks on shopping centers had been the most damaging of all. Economic indicators in the first quarter of 2006 showed the dramatic ripple effect of the collapse of retail shopping on top of the earlier economic devastation of recreational travel: GDP growth was negative, and national unemployment hit 9.5 percent in January.22

There were rumors that in his State of the Union speech the president would call for the military to take on more security missions at home and would federalize all National Guard units. Acting to pre-empt him, eighteen governors met and announced that they were abolishing their National Guard forces and creating state militias, which could not be put under Washington's control and could not be sent overseas.23 Speaking for the rebellious governors, Rhode Island's chief executive said, "The promises of more security at home have yet to be backed by concrete action. Our modern-day Minutemen are needed in Woonsocket, not Fallujah. My problem is empty shopping malls, not whether Shiites or Sunnis or Kurds or Turkmen run this or that part of Iraq." She then ordered the first units of the Ocean State Militia to begin screening cars and shoppers at three shopping centers. Rhode Islanders emerged from their homes in response.

In January, when the president actually delivered the speech, he called for immediate passage of Patriot Act III. "We are a nation at war," he said. "We need to start acting that way. We can no longer be in denial. We must mobilize the home front." To that end he proposed four things: adding 200,000 members of the Army, to compensate for National Guard shortfalls; deploying three squadrons of new unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to conduct reconnaissance in the United States; suspending the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act (which had prevented the military from conducting arrests in the United States); and modifying the charter of the National Security Agency to permit "unfettered use of its capabilities" in support of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.24 Several senators immediately denounced the plan as the militarization of America, and promised to filibuster to stop the law's passage. Polls showed that 62 percent of Americans believed the president knew best what was necessary to defend America.

Skeptical civil libertarians were concerned that the new UAVs, which included Predators and Global Hawks, would be deployed not only to kill or intercept terrorists but also to monitor Americans. Girded by the polls, the president pressed forward with his plan. The secretary of homeland security welcomed the additional monitors, saying, "The more eyes we have looking at our coastline and borders, the more likely we are to interdict future terrorists and deter their attacks." The Air Force announced that deploying these UAV patrols domestically would finally provide large municipalities with the air security they demanded. The governors and mayors did not complain.

Then came Subway Day. Public-transit systems in Atlanta, Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia were all struck at 8:15 A.M. eastern time, on a Monday in April. Unlike the previous year's attacks, these strikes did not appear to involve suicides. The bombs were apparently hidden on trains while they sat in rail yards, or were placed in newspaper racks and ticket machines. "We knew something was up," the homeland-security secretary said, in a remark that many believe led to his resignation a week later. "We hesitated to raise the alert level to red again because we lacked actionable intelligence and we didn't want an increase in the terror alert to tip off the terrorists." More than 200 people died and more than 3,000 were injured.25

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