Global Memo by RSIS, PISM, CIGI, CFR, and SWP
Sep 01, 2021
Global Memos are briefs by the Council of Councils that gather opinions from global experts on major international developments.
The scale and audacity of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, spurred sweeping changes in the way the United States, its partners, and adversaries used the machinery of state and technology to respond to threats. In this Council of Councils global perspectives, five experts reflect on the legacy of the attacks and offer insights into the biggest changes in counterterrorism, human rights, surveillance, international law of war, and border security.
The Full Circle of Counterterrorism
The 9/11 attacks were a defining event for global extremists and terrorists. Widely considered the most egregious act of international terrorism, it killed almost three thousand people (2,977 victims plus the nineteen al-Qaeda terrorists), injured an estimated twenty-five thousand, and inspired attacks in Bali, Djerba, London, Madrid, and elsewhere. The horror of 9/11 galvanized the world to come together to try to defeat terrorism. To address the common threat, military forces, law enforcement authorities, and intelligence services built common databases, exchanged personnel, conducted joint training and operations, shared intelligence, technology, expertise, and experience. The driving force behind the effort—the United States—now faces a new set of daunting threats.
The counterterrorism response to 9/11 evolved in four waves. First, the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan dismantled the Taliban and al-Qaeda infrastructure in 2001, captured 9/11 operational leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 2003, and killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden in 2011. Dismantling the terrorist sanctuary in Afghanistan, where three dozen terror groups were training, prevented countless attacks worldwide. Although the CIA took ten years to find bin Laden, U.S. intelligence efforts targeted and eliminated terrorist leaders time after time.
Second, the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003—a fatal mistake. The hollowing out of the Iraqi military and the collapse of the administration led to a civil war, fostering an environment for the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The U.S. drawdown created the self-proclaimed Islamic State, a movement that swept across Iraq and Syria. Although the Islamic State today is a shadow of what it was in 2015, its ideology and operational entities present a formidable threat to international security and stability.
Third, the United States established a dedicated Department of Homeland Security that brought its domestic intelligence and law enforcement entities under one umbrella. It also successfully prevented and preempted attacks against the U.S. homeland by fusing threat information and strengthening its counterterrorism capabilities to detect and disrupt threats.
Fourth, the United States spearheaded global counterterrorism programs by offering training and supporting governments that needed capabilities to fight their domestic and regional threat groups, networks, and cells. It built bridgeheads to penetrate and neutralize threats. The global war on terror was made sustainable. To complement the U.S. guiding search and destroy missions, U.S. partners built capabilities to challenge the quality of terrorist ideology.