The War on Terrorism
A collection of features from The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Dispatches: "Ground Zero, the Day After" (September 19, 2001
A pilgrimage to the "ash-covered canyon" that was once the World Trade Center.

Flashbacks: "Coming to Grips with Jihad" (September 12, 2001)
Several Atlantic articles suggest that Osama bin Laden represents only the tip of the iceberg.

More Flashbacks from The Atlantic's archive.

The Triumph of Terrorism

September 11, 2001
series of apparently coordinated terrorist acts today have altered—no doubt permanently—Americans' sense of domestic security. Attacks so far have leveled New York City's World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, and a number of commercial jets are downed or missing. It is not yet known who orchestrated the well-planned attacks.

International terrorism has occurred with frightening regularity in recent decades. Over the years, a number of Atlantic contributors have considered why this is so and what can or should be done about it.

In "Thinking About Terrorism" (June 1986), Conor Cruise O'Brien argued that leaders in the United States and elsewhere fundamentally missunderstand why people turn to terrorism—and how to dissuade them from it. O'Brien went on to suggest that our current methods of combatting terrorism not only are bound to fail, but might even encourage attacks.
Today's world—especially the free, or capitalist, world—provides highly favorable conditions for terrorist recruitment and activity. The numbers of the frustrated are constantly on the increase, and so is their awareness of the life-style of the better-off and the vulnerability of the better-off..... A wide variety of people feel starved for attention, and one surefire way of attracting instantaneous worldwide attention through television is to slaughter a considerable number of human beings, in a spectacular fashion, in the name of a cause.
Mark Edington's "Taking the Offensive" (June 1992) argued that the United States and other countries should take a far more active role in stamping out terrorism. Excessive caution on the part of government leaders, he suggested, has prevented our military from taking measures to destroy known centers of terrorist training and weapons stockpiling.
Undercutting [terrorism] would require that the United States move away from its predominantly defensive approach to terrorism. It would also require us to decide how much weight ought to be placed on the right of people to be safe from wanton violence when protection of that right runs afoul of other foreign-policy objectives.

Whereas target countries must succeed every time in protecting themselves, terrorists have to succeed in their objectives only sporadically.... The defensive strategy toward terrorism has, in essence, made us sitting ducks.
In "Blowback" (May 1996), Mary Anne Weaver explained that a network of well-armed Islamic fundamentalist terrorists with bases throughout the world was inadvertently brought into being by U.S. efforts in the 1980s to support Islamic fundamentalist resistance against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
The CIA ... had been obsessed with driving out the Soviets. As a result the CIA helped to train and fund what eventually became an international network of highly disciplined and effective Islamic militants—and a new breed of terrorist as well....

One of [the jihad's] most charismatic and powerful champions is Osama bin Laden, the billionaire scion of a leading Saudi family. Fervent and devout, he was described to me by one U.S. intelligence official as "a religious fanatic with enormous wealth—a man with a vision, who knows precisely how he wants to convert that vision into reality."

When I asked Hosni Mubarak about Bin Laden, he winced. "He wants to take over the world," he said "He's a megalomaniac."
And finally, in "The Counterterrorist Myth" (July/August 2001), Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former high-level CIA operative, argued that the CIA's efforts to infiltrate bin Ladin's anti-American terrorist organization in Peshawar have been ineffective and misguided. The article highlights the difficulty of obtaining good intelligence about any tightly organized fringe group that may be targeting the United States.
No case officer stationed in Pakistan can penetrate either the Afghan communities in Peshawar or the Northwest Frontier's numerous religious schools, which feed manpower and ideas to bin Ladin and the Taliban, and seriously expect to gather useful information about radical Islamic terrorism—let alone recruit foreign agents.

Even a Muslim CIA officer with native-language abilities (and the Agency, according to several active-duty case officers, has very few operatives from Middle Eastern backgrounds) could do little more in this environment than a blond, blue-eyed all-American.... An officer who tries to go native, pretending to be a true-believing radical Muslim searching for brothers in the cause, will make a fool of himself quickly.
—Sage Stossel and Katie Bacon

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Sage Stossel and Katie Bacon are editors of The Atlantic Online.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.