As someone who has dedicated years to fighting terrorism, both before and after 9/11, I find the anniversary of the attacks a moment for reflection. Amid the tragedy, 9/11 prompted heartening displays of unity. At home, left and right joined hands—literally, in the case of the members of Congress who came together to sing “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps. Social cohesiveness is one of the best predictors of a society’s resilience to terrorism; and our sense of common purpose and shared values in the weeks after the attacks helped preserve our commitment to free speech and the rule of law in the face of huge pressure.
By contrast, the principal goal of terrorism is to create and capitalize on disunity within the target society. Al-Qaeda has long sought to do this with respect to the United States: In 2010, from his Abbottabad lair, Osama bin Laden studied the American people’s dissatisfaction with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, giving orders to his commanders to seek ways of exploiting the discontent. Around the same time, Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American preacher who made English-language propaganda videos for al-Qaeda, declared with evident relish that “The West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens!”—a quote that began trending once again in the wake of President Trump’s executive orders restricting travel from Muslim countries.
Were he alive today, Awlaki would be delighted at the divisions plaguing America. As Americans struggle to recover from the most divisive election campaign in living memory, political, economic, ethnic, and geographic polarization are all at record levels. Islamophobia is on the rise, with scant condemnation from politicians. Americans cannot even agree on what to call our main enemy, with endless rounds of debates over the use of terms like “radical” and “Islamic.”
Meanwhile, extremism has infected American society: Between 2008 and 2016, domestic hate groups were responsible for nearly twice as many attacks and plots within the United States as Islamists, according to a study by a group of investigative journalists. The carnage in Charlottesville, in which a far-right fanatic adopted the sort of vehicle attack pioneered by Islamic State supporters, is a grim reminder that purely domestic terrorism can be just as dangerous as attacks inspired by foreign groups.
Let me be clear: America’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies continue to do a fine job of countering terrorism. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for our political leaders, on either side of the aisle. Indeed, Congress is so divided on the issue that it has failed even to update the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, despite the fact that our enemy has evolved almost beyond recognition over the past 15 years. If another 9/11 were to happen today, there exists a serious danger that American politicians would be too busy affixing blame to this or that ethnic group, or arguing over the role played by immigration, to take measured action to deal with the threat.
Internationally, too, the United States has squandered the goodwill occasioned by 9/11. The invasion of Iraq and the abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere angered many Muslims of all political persuasions and played directly into extremist narratives about an American “war on Islam.” But instead of learning from those mistakes, the United States persists in compounding them. President Trump’s state visit to Saudi Arabia to attend the Arab Islamic American Summit in May—at a time when millions of Muslim children are growing up as refugees: disaffected, poorly educated, and acutely vulnerable to extremist propaganda—would have been a good moment to reach out to ordinary Muslims worldwide with a message of understanding.
Instead, the administration chose to highlight the Kingdom’s “massive investment in America” and the additional $110 billion it was poised to spend on U.S. weapons. This message, no doubt inadvertently, chimed with Osama bin Laden’s oft-repeated claim that the United States was bent on “stealing” the wealth of the Muslim world—a claim that al-Qaeda repeated word-for-word in a statement released during the president’s visit.
The United States can ill afford such blunders; for the threat we saw materialize 16 years ago has not gone away. Bin Laden’s ideology has been taken up by groups around the world, including ISIS. At the same time, al-Qaeda itself remains a potent force. It is true that al-Qaeda today is not the same organization that attacked us on 9/11; in many ways, it is even more dangerous, having mutated from a tight-knit band of 400 militants based in Afghanistan to an international network that controls tens of thousands of fighters. Its Syrian and Yemeni branches have taken advantage of the chaos in their home countries to seize swathes of territory. Many of the commanders who made al-Qaeda so deadly in the years leading up to 9/11 are now out of jail and back in leadership roles. Meanwhile, the refugee camps in Syria and elsewhere offer deep pools of potential recruits.
It is true that, since the failed threats against U.S. embassies in 2013, al-Qaeda’s various branches have apparently not tried to attack America directly, preferring to focus on building their power in war-zones like Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Afghanistan. But there is good reason to believe that al-Qaeda’s period of recovery and consolidation may soon give way to one of renewed aggression toward the United States. Over the past two years, Osama bin Laden’s 28-year-old son, Hamza, has become an increasingly vocal spokesperson for al-Qaeda. Hamza’s messages on behalf of the group hearken back strongly to his father’s anti-Western rhetoric, calling for more atrocities on American soil like the Fort Hood shooting and the Boston Marathon bombing. Like the group’s founder, al-Qaeda’s shrewd and well-informed commanders are no doubt aware of the deep divisions plaguing American society, and will be looking for ways to exploit them.
What has made al-Qaeda so resilient over the years is the toxic potency of its message; as the group’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has pointed out, al-Qaeda is now an ideology first and an organization second. In order to win, our own ideas must be stronger. We can start by rallying around our common values, just as we did 16 years ago—and by making sure that, this time, we stick to them.
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