If there was one thing we all knew after Sept. 11, 2001, it was that another massacre was coming. The next terrorist attack on US soil, it was asserted time and again, was not a matter of if, but of when.
Americans weren't the only ones who expected al-Qaeda to commit another slaughter. Al-Qaeda did, too. Earlier this year, terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed confessed that in addition to 9/11, he had been planning to attack the Sears Tower in Chicago, the New York Stock Exchange, and the Empire State Building, and to blow up US embassies and nuclear power plants.
None of those attacks occurred. In the six years since 9/11, Islamist terrorism has led to scenes of horrific carnage in, among other places, Madrid, London, Bali, Istanbul, Israel, and Russia. Yet there has been no catastrophic attack on the American homeland something no one would have predicted in 2001. What explains such good fortune?
There is no definitive answer to that question. But surely the place to begin is with the belated recognition that we were at war.
The jihad against us didn't begin on 9/11. It had started long before, with the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 by a mob loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini. Years of Islamist bombings, hijackings, and hostage-takings followed, but few Americans recognized that war was being waged against us by a determined enemy that cried "Death to America!" and meant it. In a New York Times column two months before 9/11, the former deputy director of the State Department's counterterrorism office pooh-poohed as "fantasies" the belief that "the United States is the most popular target of terrorists" or that "extremist Islamic groups cause most terrorism."
The blood and horror of 9/11 ripped away such comfortable misjudgments. President Bush declared at once that we were at war with terrorism, and likened it to the global wars against Nazism and Communism. (A few days later he was more precise about the nature of the enemy, calling it "a fringe form of Islamic extremism.") The US government overhauled its counterterrorism operations, moving aggressively to disrupt and damage al-Qaeda's maneuvers abroad and to uproot would-be jihadists at home. After years in which terrorism had been regarded as a legal crime to be prosecuted after the fact, the Bush administration made before-the-fact preemption the overriding goal. Instead of waiting for terrorists to strike, the government armed with expanded powers to seize records, monitor communications, and search homes and businesses would strike first.
An all-but-unanimous Congress enacted the Patriot Act, which authorized many of those expanded powers and tore down the wall that had barred federal law enforcement and intelligence agents from sharing information. Terrorist funding channels were choked off. Reliance on human (as opposed to electronic) intelligence was dramatically expanded. American counterterrorism officers worked closely with their counterparts in friendly countries to identify jihadists and as with last week's arrests in Germany foil deadly attacks.
Taking the war to the enemy in Afghanistan deprived al-Qaeda of a secure base and crippled its leaders' ability to travel and communicate. Many al-Qaeda operatives have been killed; others have been seized by US troops and forcefully sometimes too forcefully interrogated. In all these ways and more, the United States has indeed been fighting a war on terrorism, a war more intense, more unrelenting, more sophisticated, and as six years of domestic safety suggest more successful than anyone could have conceived before 9/11.
But if the terrible events of that day finally concentrated American minds on the deadly threat from radical Islam, the US response to those terrible events may have had a similar effect on the minds of Osama bin Laden and his allies. It is one thing to launch spectacular attacks against a paper tiger that doesn't have the spine to fight back. It is something very different to attack a superpower that reacts with fury and a terrible swift sword.
Had al-Qaeda known what 9/11 would trigger the toppling of its Taliban protectors, the strangling of its financial network, the death or detention of thousands of its lieutenants and foot soldiers would it have gone forward? Having reaped the whirlwind once, would it be more inclined to risk it again? Or less so?
It is a contrarian thought, but Daniel Pipes, a noted expert on Islamism, argues that "terrorism does radical Islam more harm than good." That is partly because "it alarms and galvanizes Westerners," stiffening their resolve and intensifying their counterterrorist efforts. And it is partly because "terrorism obstructs the quiet work of political Islamism" it impedes the radicals' long-term goal of making Islam ever more dominant within Western society.
What is in the enemy's mind we cannot know for sure. What we do know what 9/11 made brutally clear is that we are at war. The enemy is in this till the finish. We had better be, too.