20 years after 9/11, war on terror persists and there are more threats than ever

By Michael Wilner

WASHINGTON – The day after the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States issued a warning to the Taliban: No government that provides a haven for terrorists is safe from the American military.

“We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbored them,” President George W. Bush said at that time.

Within weeks, the United States had invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban and hunt al-Qaida operatives responsible for the 2001 attacks.

In the two decades since, three consecutive presidents have scaled back the number of American troops on the ground to wage that war against terrorism and have increasingly relied on remote surveillance and strike capabilities.

President Joe Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover last month completed that transformation.

Focusing intelligence and military resources toward future threats will require more emphasis on remote technologies, such as drones based in allied countries and in international waters.

“The fundamental obligation of a president, in my opinion, is to defend and protect America — not against threats of 2001, but against the threats of 2021 and tomorrow,” Biden said in addressing the end of America’s longest war.

“The threat from terrorism continues in its pernicious and evil nature,” he added. “But it’s changed, expanded to other countries. Our strategy has to change, too.”

Intelligence experts say the United States has succeeded tactically at thwarting new attacks, even as it has struggled strategically to prevent militant groups from splintering, swelling their ranks and spreading into new countries.

“The idea of anything like 9/11 — foreign terrorists traveling to the U.S. to carry out a significant terrorist attack inside the United States — is vastly diminished,” said Suzanne Spaulding, an under secretary at the Department of Homeland Security from 2011 to 2017 and now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But as former President Barack Obama learned after pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011, terrorist threats can evolve rapidly in a vacuum. The rise of Islamic State in that country, where it conquered vast swaths of territory in a short period, forced him to send troops back into Iraq in 2014.

The fear of a resurgence of terrorists organizing in Afghanistan and of continued threats from other militant groups overseas will force the United States to remain engaged in the fight against terrorism as it has over the last 20 years.

“There are many, many more people radicalized to violent extremism than there were on 9/11,” said Matthew Levitt, a terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who worked on intelligence at the FBI, State Department and Treasury Department. “There are many more groups, and they are in many more places around the world.”

Terrorism has ‘metastasized’

In 2001, the U.S. focus was on al-Qaida when it was a localized, centralized, top-heavy group that had found safe haven in Taliban-controlled lands. But it still took a decade for the United States, under the Obama administration, to find al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. In 2011, Navy SEALs raided his compound in Pakistan and killed bin Laden.

Today, Biden’s administration faces a more diffuse set of groups seen as threats.

“This is a new world. The terror threat has metastasized across the world, well beyond Afghanistan,” Biden said.

“We face threats from al-Shabab in Somalia, al-Qaida affiliates in Syria and the Arabian Peninsula, and ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and establishing affiliates across Africa and Asia,” Biden said.

Groups that remain intent on striking U.S. interests, according to intelligence agencies, include al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Islamic State in Somalia and Islamic State in the Khorasan (ISIS-K), which carried out the suicide bombing at the airport in Kabul that killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 170 Afghans.

The United States retaliated against ISIS-K targets with a drone strike.

Spaulding said that remote capabilities are not as effective as having eyes and ears on the ground.

“We’re not flying blind,” Spaulding said, “but we’re unlikely to have as good intelligence as we have presumably had over the last 20 years when we were on the ground.”

Biden was emphatic that the United States will “maintain the fight against terrorism” with “over-the-horizon” capabilities in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

“We’ve shown that capacity just in the last week,” he said. “We struck ISIS-K remotely.”

Intelligence limitations

Washington’s increased reliance on drones began over a decade ago. While Biden was vice president, Obama expanded the program and ultimately ordered 10 times the number of strikes conducted by his predecessor, according to government data released at the time.

The United States no longer has a base in Afghanistan to launch, land and refuel drones to maintain near-constant surveillance over emerging threats. Drones will have to be launched from afar, requiring more fuel and offering less time to conduct missions.

The unexpected closing of the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan and the lack of agreements with some of the neighboring countries are added limitations for intelligence gathering in the region, Levitt said.

“I can tell you many people in the intelligence community are very, very worried,” he said. “They are being asked to be able to forecast threats before they happen at a time when we are losing or relinquishing significant collection platforms in an important place like Afghanistan.”

“I don’t know if we’re going to go dark, but it’s going to get very, very gray in terms of the kinds of intelligence we’ll be able to procure,” Levitt said.

CIA Director Bill Burns acknowledged that concern to Congress in April, when Biden was debating the timeline for withdrawal with U.S. generals.

“When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That’s simply a fact,” Burns said.

The Biden administration continues to express confidence in its ability to maintain remote drone and surveillance capabilities not just for Afghanistan, but around the globe.

But some national security experts warn that threats from al-Qaida in Afghanistan, degraded significantly since the U.S. invasion in 2001, may resurface.

“I have every reason to think the military and the intelligence community will work as hard as they can within the constraints they face to defend us,” John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Bush and national security adviser under President Donald Trump, said in a recent interview.

“But there is simply no way you can say truthfully that we will be as secure relying on over-the-horizon technology as we would be if we’d kept a presence in Afghanistan,” he said. “It would be a false sense of comfort to think otherwise.”


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