Assessing our learning curve 10 years after 9/11

Thursday, September 8, 2011
Cindy Combs

Ten years after the events of 9/11, if we want to assess how well we have learned about the threat of terrorism we need to look back. But we also need to look at our world today, to see how well our learning curve compares with those planning and carrying out terrorist events. And we must look to the future to decide how high the cost of failure – or success – could be.

The passage of time has not changed the number killed or the damage to our country, but during those 10 years at least three important things have changed: our perception of terrorism as a real threat to domestic security, our ability to detect and deter emerging terrorism threats, and our awareness of the critical need for cooperative effort in preparing for and responding to this threat. 

During the past decade terrorism has occurred with increasing frequency, but not on the scale of 9/11.  This suggests several possibilities about our ability to deal with terrorism today, compared to U.S. counterterror capabilities 10 years ago.  A brief look comparing the failures identified in the Report by the 9/11 Commission with more recent reports of patterns of global terrorism and counterterror initiatives offers insights both reassuring and troubling.  Our learning curve is improving, but terrorism may be changing more quickly than our counterterror measures.

The report issued by the 9/11 Commission in July 2004 identified four critical failures in U.S. policy and preparedness:  in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management.  Each contributed to the attacks’ catastrophic impact, and each has been addressed, with some measure of success.  Although the report detailed many different manifestations of these failures, we can look at just one to highlight the problem:  the failure of imagination which led us to assume that airline hijackings could generally be resolved by negotiation.  While numerous books and movies depicted suicidal airline hijackings, this was not built into our preparations for such events. Indeed, even though after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing attack – by al-Qaida operatives – we secured computer records indicating the group was planning to use planes as weapons of attacks in multiple cities, our imagination did not force us to envision this type scenario. So our pilots were unprepared. 

This has certainly changed in the past 10 years.  Today, training programs to prevent and, if necessary, deal effectively with the use of planes as weapons is fundamental to airports and airlines.  But our imagination, our willingness to think outside of the box when envisioning modes of terrorist attacks, remains limited. Two simple points make that clear:  First, we still do not match luggage with passengers on domestic flights. This allows a terrorist to buy two tickets, using one for travel and the other for the explosive-laden luggage which could be placed on a different flight, using the second ticket. Simple, yet we do not scan and match all luggage to prevent this.

Second, our airport checks focus on failed attempts to bring explosives aboard (in shoes and in small bottles of liquids).  Unless we continue to assume that terrorists are stupid, announcing that these are what we are checking makes the checking essentially useless – and unimaginative. 

Today, one area of assessment offers positive encouragement: We have substantially improved, particularly in the Charlotte region, on one of the other failures the report noted –the failure of management. While the report made clear that 10 years ago our country had a critical shortfall in interagency cooperation, organization, and convergence planning, Charlotte at that time already had substantial success in this arena with our ALERT system. Starting in 1998, emergency response agencies in Charlotte-Mecklenburg identified the area as a potential terrorist target and developed the Advanced Local Emergency Response Team (ALERT), made up of local law enforcement, fire, emergency medical and physician personnel to ensure preparedness for urban terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and natural disasters. Today Charlotte ALERT is a model for many cities, and in this arena Charlotte is ahead on the learning curve for counterterrorism response. 

But even if we are learning quickly, it’s important to remember that terrorists are growing in numbers and, potentially, learning at least as fast.  Terrorism today is more likely to be carried out by leaderless movements than by groups with fixed leadership structures and regular meetings.  Instead of going to countries like Afghanistan for training, training camps today are often mobile, even available online, as are most of the weapons of choice.  Today, password-protected Internet chat rooms are more likely venues for recruiting and motivating young people into terrorism than the coffee house and club meetings of previous decades.  Our ability to track, identify and prevent terrorist attacks is challenged by the volatility and diversity of the terrorist movements, even after the death of Osama bin Laden. 

So our learning curve concerning terrorism is good:  Courses are taught in schools across the nation and in the military academies; we have pooled substantial resources to develop counterterror strategies and to equip national, state and local law enforcement organizations; we perceive terrorism as a clear domestic as well as foreign threat to security.  Our problem tomorrow will be that terrorism is rapidly changing.  What we perceived in 9/11 to be a large organization led by Bin Laden is now a dangerous but scattered and leaderless movement, spanning many continents, and our ability to defeat it is not clear.  What is clear is that the technology that makes terrorism able to connect across vast spaces and to coordinate attacks, as occurred in Mumbai, also makes accessible weapons of mass destruction, particularly biological and chemical weapons such as sarin, ricin and anthrax.

In the future, we must be able to prevent, not simply most potential terrorist attacks attempted in the United States, as the FBI has done since 9/11.  If only one occurs successfully, using a nonconventional weapons, it will be far worse than 9/11.  So we must learn faster.

Photographs from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Cindy Combs is a Politicial Science and Public Administration professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She can be reached at