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
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
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
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.
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....
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.
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."
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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More Flashbacks from The Atlantic's archive.
Sage Stossel and Katie Bacon are editors of The Atlantic Online.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.