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Why an attack like 9/11 is much less likely today than it was in 2001

A fiery blasts rocks the World Trade Center after being hit by two planes September 11, 2001, in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On September 12, 2001, friends and family asked me, a terrorism expert, whether al-Qaeda would hit us again. Almost 15 years later, the same question hangs in the air, albeit with ISIS substituted for al-Qaeda.

Back in 2001, I predicted that another mass-casualty attack on the United States was likely. Thankfully, I was wrong. The fact is that, for a number of reasons, the US homeland today is safer than it was 15 years ago.

This does not mean the US homeland is immune to terrorism: Orlando and San Bernardino are only the latest reminders that terrorism remains a real concern.

But the total death toll of 94 people killed by jihadists since 9/11 is less than single mass-casualty attacks like the 2015 strikes in Paris (130 dead), the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing (168 deaths), or the 1988 Lockerbie bombing (270 deaths), to say nothing of the almost 3,000 killed on 9/11.

Obviously, even 94 innocent people killed is far too many, but if we remember the post-9/11 doomsaying, it looks like an incredible success.

On the other hand, although the terrorist threat to the US homeland is minimal, terrorist groups threaten US interests in the Muslim world now more than ever.

15 years without a mass-casualty attack is more than luck

Luck no doubt explains part of this surprising track record, and near-misses like the 2001 shoe bomber or the 2009 underwear bomber should give us pause. Yet there are several factors that have contributed to making the US homeland a safer place than it was 15 years ago.

The first factor is the relatively small number of actual American jihadists. After 9/11, fears quickly arose of large pockets of American Muslims lying in wait to attack.

These were false: Few American Muslims support radical groups, and those who do tend to be isolated and not part of a broader organization. Within this small pool, many are often incompetent. Few are able to construct a bomb, deceive the FBI, or otherwise pose a serious danger.

Bumblers can still kill, and a few like Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter, may get lucky and kill many. But it is not an accident that the most lethal and sophisticated attacks are done by highly trained terrorists.

When amateurs gather in relatively large terror cells to pull off a bigger attack, the odds of at least one member babbling on the phone, bragging to an untrustworthy acquaintance, or otherwise accidentally tipping off security services rise dramatically.

Often, practice runs such as a trip to the shooting range or an effort to find bombmaking materials come to the attention of security services.

Before 9/11, al-Qaeda tried to solve this problem by bringing thousands of young Muslims to camps in Afghanistan, building a mini army there that enabled it to carry out terrorist attacks around the world.

But since 9/11, it has proven far harder for would-be American jihadists to travel and train: The fall of the Taliban devastated al-Qaeda’s training apparatus in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and constant drone attacks make it difficult for large groups to gather there.

So it is not surprising that some of the biggest post-9/11 attacks — Orlando, San Bernardino, and the Boston marathon, for example — involve wannabe terrorists who identify with jihadist groups rather than trained killers.

These attacks were deadly, but they probably would have been far worse if the killers had learned basic tradecraft and thus been able to sustain their attacks, build a more devastating bomb in the Boston case, or strike targets of greater symbolic importance.

A gay nightclub in Orlando and a regional health facility in San Bernardino don’t quite evoke American might like the Twin Towers and the Pentagon did.

The US government’s counterterrorism efforts — in the form of military strikes on terrorist infrastructure, CIA-led international intelligence cooperation, FBI domestic investigations, and Department of Homeland Security border security — deserve much of the credit.

Taken together, they make it harder for al-Qaeda, and now ISIS, to train, plot, organize, infiltrate, and otherwise carry out a terrorism spectacular.

The 9/11 attacks took several years of preparation to pull off, and involved operations and individuals in Germany, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, and other countries as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A similar plot today — with far more intelligence agencies on alert, and the organization’s core leaders in hiding or on the run — would be far harder to pull off.

The real threat today is from jihadist insurgencies abroad

Where al-Qaeda has succeeded, however, is in promoting an ideology of violence and anti-Western hatred, a sentiment now taken up by ISIS.

Before 9/11, the idea that the United States and its Western allies were at the heart of the Muslim world’s problems was not even taken seriously by most jihadist groups, let alone most Muslims.

Suspicion of Western intentions and values is now considerable, however, and terrorist violence — and the hostile rhetoric of Western politicians and petty discrimination like the burkini ban — makes this worse.

This ideology has proven particularly powerful in the Middle East. On September 12, 2001, there was a jihadist presence in several Muslim countries, but with the exception of Algeria it was marginal.

Today, powerful jihadist insurgencies, many linked to al-Qaeda and ISIS, can be found in Algeria, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, among other countries, with key allies like Egypt also facing a significant problem.

Jihadist groups prey on civil wars, exploiting them to recruit and worsening the bloodshed. Instability has swept the Middle East and parts of South Asia, killing hundreds of thousands and risking the stability of many US allies.

The United States has long expressed an interest in the stability of the Middle East as well as the security of Israel and the steady flow of oil (and, at times, even espoused the spread of democracy in the region): The spread of jihadist violence and civil wars are potential dangers to all of these concerns.

The political debate in the United States, however, seems to have it all backward. Politicians on both the right and left call for turning inward, ignoring how terrorist groups are devastating whole communities around the world.

At the same time, fulminating against American Muslims and playing up the chances of mass-casualty ISIS attacks misses the true reality of the threat and is self-defeating. American Muslims regularly cooperate with law enforcement, and alienating this community would be disastrous.

Solving the Middle East’s many problems — or even a few of them — seems like a bridge too far to many Americans. President Obama himself is skeptical of such ambitions, particularly in a region that has seen more US policy disasters than successes.

At the very least, however, counterterrorism and US policy toward the region must be better integrated, ensuring that states at risk of high levels of terrorism such as Tunisia receive additional attention and support while policy toward countries like Egypt recognizes that the government’s misguided crackdown on all Islamists could exacerbate terrorism there and around the world.

Despite not having a catastrophic attack on US since 9/11, terrorism remains an emotive issue. Its dangers should not be ignored, but too often they are played up or misconstrued, contributing to bad policies and helping the terrorists generate more fear.

Daniel Byman is a professor and the senior associate dean at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. His latest book is Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement: What Everyone Needs to Know. Find him on Twitter @dbyman.

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