‘Where were you on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001?’ is to Millennials what ‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot?’ is to Baby Boomers; namely, questions representing moments that became etched into the nation’s collective consciousness and subsequently shaped the views and experiences of a generation.
On 9/11, as it would come simply to be known, Americans awoke to scenes of previously unwitnessed carnage on their home soil, as two commercial jets hijacked by Al-Qa’ida terrorists slammed into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center complex in New York City. Less than two hours later, the massive buildings, a symbol of U.S. ingenuity, economic might and perhaps, until then, perceived invincibility, came crashing down in a heap of shattered humanity.
Concurrently, a third plane was flown into the Pentagon, the emblem of American military dominance in a unipolar world while a fourth hijacked airliner was, heroically, downed by passengers in a Pennsylvania field while en route to the White House, where the leader of the free world resides.
When the dust settled and the smoke cleared, 2,997 people were dead, another 6,000 were injured and the course of history was changed forever.
Prior to 9/11, terrorism, while rarely crossing the mind of the average individual, was viewed by analysts mainly as a geopolitical weapon limited primarily in scope to the Middle East. There had, of course, been various remarkable attacks outside the region such as the Munich Olympic Massacre in 1972 by the Black September Palestinian group, but that targeted Israelis. The 1988 Lockerbie Bombing, which killed 259 passengers and crew aboard Pan Am Flight 103, was attributed to then-Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi and was therefore viewed foremost through the prism of Mideast turmoil.
But 9/11 was different. While there were political undertones, it was inarguably religiously motivated, with Osama Bin Laden making clear that Islamic jihad was the driving force behind his targeting of America. The attack also brought into stark focus a fringe subject that had otherwise been relegated to the margins of the western psyche.
In response, the U.S. launched the “War on Terror” with a full-blown invasion of Afghanistan, where Al-Qa’ida was being harbored by the Taliban. At the time, the terror organization was highly centralized and Washington’s ostensible goal was to neutralize the group’s capabilities by decimating its “core.”
Even while on the defensive, though, attacks continued in the image of the “9/11 model,” with Al-Qa’ida orchestrating the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed 192 people and injured some 2,000, and the multi-pronged attack in London the following year, which killed 52 people and injured hundreds more. Other groups that had either direct ties to Al-Qa’ida, had sworn allegiance to it or merely shared its ideology carried out major acts of terrorism targeting foreign nationals or non-Muslims in, among other places, Bali in 2002 (202 dead), Turkey in 2003 (57 dead) and Morocco that same year (45 dead).
By the turn of the decade, however, mass-casualty attacks had become less frequent, as western forces were largely successful in destroying Al-Qa’ida’s infrastructure in Afghanistan, while intelligence agencies became much more adept at collecting the information necessary to thwart terrorism.
But while Osama and his henchmen were on the run in the far-east, an offshoot was becoming firmly entrenched in nearby Iraq. And it is there, amid the American-led war, that the nature of terrorism would change once more.
The Islamic State originated around the year 2000 as Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, which would pledge allegiance to Al-Qa’ida before participating in the post-2003 western invasion insurgency. During the ensuing decade, the group drew support from the local Sunni population that viewed itself as being under siege while over time becoming increasingly independent.
In the process, ISIS was empowered to such a degree that it was able to take over large swaths of territory and, by 2014, declare the formation of a “caliphate”—a state run according to strict, fundamental readings of Islamic law—spanning some 75,000 square kilometers across both Iraq and Syria. At its peak, ISIS comprised some 30,000 fighters (many of them recruits from the West), had an annual operating budget of an estimated $1 billion and governed up to 10 million people under its bootstrap.
From its base, like Al-Qa’ida before it, ISIS was able to coordinate large-scale operations against the West, specifically in Europe, where Paris in particular was brought to its knees in November 2015, with a spectacularly brutal attack targeting multiple venues that killed 130 people.
But so too, as in the case of Al-Qa’ida, the West would strike back, with ISIS since having lost nearly 75% of its territory in Iraq and 60% in Syria as a result of an ongoing U.S.-led military effort which includes some 70 other states.
While there are parallels between the two situations, they differ principally in ISIS’ ability to adapt more quickly—a testament to the success in spreading its ideology and the hold it has taken on supporters abroad. This, in turn, has manifested in the emergence of what represents the most modern expression of terrorism—the so-called “lone wolf” attack.
According to Mordechai Dzikansky, a retired NYPD First Grade Detective who was deployed as the police force’s counter-terrorism liaison in Israel during the violent period known as the Second Intifada, the next major threat is the self-radicalized person. “Too many disenfranchised people want to be rock stars,” he explained to The Media Line, “and they are just trolling the Internet…[and are susceptible to] radical Imams and their mosques,” which has become a major concern for security services worldwide.
However, Dzikansky believes that “we are in a much better situation today because people are recognizing what radical Islam is and calling it by its name.”
By contrast, it is a realization that many analysts contend came too late and thus prevented the implementation of adequate counter-measures. They assert that one must be able to identify a threat correctly—”to know thy enemy”—in order to combat it.
Acts of terror by “lone-wolves” have continued to plague France, Germany, Spain, Belgium and other European countries, as well as the U.S., most notably those in San Bernardino, California and Orlando, Florida. While deadly in nature, the scope of their damage has been more limited. This does not suggest that ISIS has abandoned its ambition to inflict maximum casualties, but rather that its ability to do so appears to have been diminished. Even the dual-attacks in Barcelona last month, while coordinated by a structured cell, killed “only” 13 people.
According to Dr. Boaz Ganor, Founder & Executive Director of Israel’s International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, history may be repeating itself, as a major terrorist group formerly with large-scale destructive capabilities reverts back to a more primitive form. “ISIS is losing its base and it is a matter of time until the caliphate is destroyed,” he affirmed to The Media Line. “Then, ISIS will be in a similar situation as Al-Qa’ida—it will go back to being a more traditional ‘underground’ network.
“There has already been a big change in its modus operandi,” Dr. Ganor explained, “with a much larger focus on attacks by individuals which do not necessarily receive direct operational support.”
Nevertheless, he believes that ISIS retains significant capabilities in terms of the number of supporters it has in the West, and while the terror group “will find it very difficult to plan and prepare sophisticated attacks, which can take years, on the other hand ISIS might try and make a final big statement.
“The good news is that unlike ‘lone wolf’ attacks,” Dr. Ganor stressed to The Media Line, “security agencies have strong capabilities to interrupt large scale operations, as there are more people involved and it is easier to intercept their communications.” Therefore, he recommended, the emphasis moving forward should be on “traditional intelligence gathering, while closely monitoring the connections between whatever organized structures both al Qai’da—which is still trying to be relevant—and ISIS eventually retain and those who share their ideology abroad.”
Alternatively, Dr. Anat Hochberg-Marom, an expert on global terrorism who has briefed high-ranking U.S. and NATO officials, pointed to the importance of religious doctrine in the overall battle. “The West cannot contain the threat of terrorism so long as it uses the same strategies and maintains the same perceptions,” she asserted to The Media Line. “This is because the matter is multi-dimensional and multi-layered and there is no one enemy that you can characterize or define. It can be any teenager that is inspired by the global jihadist ideology.
“Air strikes can kill terrorists but it cannot kill the ideology,” Dr. Hochenberg-Marom elaborated, “and a war of ideas must also be initiated, especially on social media. The West must at the same time begin to articulate a constructive counter-narrative to combat the problem.”
But this is easier said than done. “It is much harder to be a counter-terrorist than a terrorist,” Dr. Ganor concluded, “as the former needs to protect the entire world at all times, whereas the latter needs only to strike in one location at any time.”
This, then, might represent the greatest change in the nature of terrorism since 9/11; namely, that a fanatical belief system has increasingly become rooted throughout the globe, thereby seemingly transforming everyone and everything, everywhere and at every given moment, into a potential target.