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Finally, the third possible interpretation of the data is that the War on Terror inadvertently fueled more anti-American terrorism. Without an ongoing American presence and an active military campaign helping to further radicalize and motivate potential jihadists, observers point out, it is reasonable to expect that there would have been far less incentive for al Qaeda and related groups to attack the United States. This is not to argue that al Qaeda and ISIS would not still have some desire to strike at American targets even if the United States were not active in the Middle East, but as noted above, it is clear that the Islamic State, at least, is using the American presence in the Middle East as a justification for anti-American terrorism.

If nothing else, continued American military action in the Middle East ensures that ISIS will remain highly visible in the news and in the minds of Americans, providing potential lone wolves in the United States inspiration to carry out future attacks. Although the level of terrorism aimed at Americans has increased only slightly since , the number of Islamist-inspired terrorist groups and terror attacks in the Middle East and elsewhere has skyrocketed. By this measure, the United States has failed to achieve its stated objective.

Although American military intervention in Afghanistan and Pakistan effectively put the central al Qaeda organization out of business for some time, al Qaeda affiliates have proliferated around the world, one of which — al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — is routinely identified as the most dangerous group operating today.

The growth of the jihadist terrorist enterprise since has been stunning.

When the War on Terror began, there were roughly 32, fighters comprising 13 Islamist-inspired terror organizations. By , as Table 1 shows, the estimate had ballooned to more than , fighters spread across 44 Islamist-inspired terror groups. This growth has led to an even more explosive rise in violence — most of which has occurred in the Middle East and Africa. As Figure 2 indicates, there were 1, terror attacks worldwide in when the U. In the number was 14, Fatalities caused by terror attacks have also increased. As the below figure indicates, fatalities worldwide have risen to unprecedented levels.

In , 38, people were killed by terrorism — a staggering percent increase from These figures strongly suggest that the War on Terror has not only failed to defeat al Qaeda and other major terrorist groups, but has also failed to contain the growth of Islamist-inspired terrorism more generally.

The argument that things might have been worse in the absence of such an aggressive American effort rings hollow, especially given the manner in which the war in Iraq produced the chaos that gave ISIS room to operate and provided additional motivation and justification for anti-Western attacks. Further, a closer analysis of the chronology of the War on Terror provides support for the conclusion that the United States has made things worse rather than better. To investigate the impact of U. Additionally, we created regression models to examine the significance, if any, of U.

As Table 2 reveals, the number of terror attacks rose an astonishing 1, percent in the seven countries that the United States either invaded or conducted air strikes in, while other Muslim majority states saw a much more modest 42 percent increase. The regression models also found that countries where the United States conducted air or drone strikes saw a dramatic increase in terror attacks compared to countries where the United States did not conduct strikes.

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In short, contrary to the intentions of the U. Figure 3:Terror Attacks Where the U. The list includes four entries that are not in the Global Terrorism Database. Neither the Bush nor the Obama administration imagined the War on Terror would be won quickly. Both acknowledged that changing the underlying context of instability and political conflict in the Middle East would take time. Unfortunately, no evidence exists to suggest that there is a single set of conditions which leads to terrorism, nor any evidence to suggest that terrorism will disappear once those conditions have changed.

But even if we accept the argument, there has been little sign of progress toward diminishing the underlying conditions that facilitate terrorism, at least as defined by the U. From the perspective of U. Winning the war of ideas involves assuring Muslims that American values are congruent with Islam and supporting moderate and modern Muslim governments.

Data show that the United States has failed to diminish the conditions that the government has argued produce terrorism. By , they had plummeted to the fourth and sixth percentile. The average corruption percentile ranking for the seven countries in which the U. Before the War on Terror began, Afghanistan was in the worst category extreme fragility and Iraq was in the second worst high , and they remain there today. Of the other five countries, three have worsened and two remain unchanged.

The failure of the War on Terror has two fundamental — and related — sources. The first is the inflated assessment of the terrorist threat facing the United States, which led to the decision to commit to an expansive counterterrorism campaign focused on a series of actions that have very little to do with protecting Americans from terrorist attacks. The second source of failure is the adoption of an aggressive strategy of military intervention, which was largely driven by the failure to define the terrorism challenge accurately.

Together, these factors have promoted an American strategy that is both ineffective and counterproductive. This inflated view of the terrorist threat led directly to the excessive size, scope and ambition of the War on Terror. Declaring war on terrorism was an exercise in futility. Terrorism is not a disease that can be eradicated through vaccination, but a strategy that all kinds of people have chosen to use for all kinds of reasons in all sorts of places and situations.

History shows that terrorism has been a hallmark of wealthy states as well as poor ones, of secular as well as religious groups, and of conservative as well as insurgent and progressive causes. This is not to deny that al Qaeda and the Islamic State pose a threat to Americans. They do. By defining the threat in inflated, even existential, terms, the United States has expanded the War on Terror far beyond the necessary boundaries, creating new problems while failing to resolve the original ones, all at a cost that is far too high.

First, American intervention has aimed at the wrong target. Political grievances and competition for power in the Middle East, not a radical Islamist hatred of the West, are the primary sources of conflict both in the Middle East and between Islamist groups and the West. Unfortunately, since the beginning of the War on Terror, too many American officials have believed that the motivation for al Qaeda and ISIS terrorist attacks against the United States is primarily an anti-American ideology, hatred of our freedoms, or the desire to destroy the United States.

This long-run strategy involves not only reshaping the narrative about Islam and the West but also reshaping Middle Eastern governments in the Western image. Tragically, this approach has the United States working the wrong problem entirely. They seek, along with many others, to control the political systems of the Middle East. But as Osama bin Laden and other jihadist leaders have made clear, the United States is implicated in their plans not because the jihadists hate its freedoms or because the destruction of the Western way of life is their goal, but because American foreign policy blocks their path to power in the Middle East.

The second flaw in the American strategy is the reliance on military means. Misled by a misdiagnosis of the underlying problem, the United States has pursued an interventionist strategy focused overwhelmingly on destroying terrorist organizations and killing individual terrorists. Research has shown that this is rarely the path toward a permanent solution to terrorist groups.

In the longer run, however, military force is the wrong tool for the mission. As the former commander of U. American intervention has likely made things worse. Drone strikes, targeted killings, and the enduring American presence in these places have also generated more anger and resentment toward the United States, boosting jihadist propaganda and recruiting efforts. Public attitudes in many Muslim-majority countries toward the United States cratered in the wake of the invasion of Iraq and have remained dismal since then.

In the absence of continued U.

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The U. Finally, American leaders also fell prey to the conceit that they could reshape the politics of other nations. Both the Bush and Obama administrations believed that terrorism emerges, in part or whole, from factors such as poverty, deprivation, and an inability to engage in the political process. Although it might benefit the United States if Middle Eastern countries evolved into Western-style democracies, there is no evidence that the United States itself can play a determining role in making it happen, especially via military intervention.

The results to date from Afghanistan and Iraq suggest that not even massive American intervention is enough to ensure permanent, positive change. The real question is why anyone in the United States believes that it would be possible for Americans to reshape Middle Eastern governments and societies.


Well before Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States imagined it could impose political solutions on the Philippines, Vietnam, and the Dominican Republic, just to name a few failures. Nor does military victory improve the odds. The results of efforts to impose democracy via military means are dismal.

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  8. The notion that the United States could topple Saddam Hussein, for example, and then impose a new political system and an effective and nonsectarian new military force was a dangerous fantasy. The United States often fails to achieve desired outcomes in its own domestic matters.

    It is difficult to see why U. First, the United States can maintain the current course. The goal of such a strategy would be to contain and eventually defeat or simply outlast ISIS and other groups by continuing to rely heavily on local partners and without introducing much, if any, additional American firepower into the conflict.

    This group generally agrees that major American intervention was counterproductive and believes local forces are the best suited to fight ISIS, but sees an important supporting role for the United States. Second, the United States could choose to step up the fight. The goal of this strategy would be to increase — significantly — the American commitment to the maintenance of security and stability in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and perhaps even Libya and Yemen. By bringing enough firepower and pressure to bear, supporters argue, the United States could destroy the Islamist-inspired terrorism threat, encourage the development of peaceful political systems, and prevent the reemergence of terrorism.

    Despite widespread support for the status quo there is also a substantial minority that favors stepping up the fight against ISIS. Those who prefer this option believe that the terrorism threat is large enough to justify a great deal more effort than the United States is currently making. Former National Security Adviser General Michael Flynn, for example, has written that the fight against terrorism is a world war.

    The reasons given for the failure so far vary, but many believe that the central problem has been the unwillingness of the United States to commit enough military and political capital. The answer, from this view, is that the United States should do much more in the Middle East and surrounding region, including both bringing additional military pressure to bear and continuing the nation-building efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Our analysis, however, clearly illustrates that the United States should rule out both the step-up option and the steady-on option.

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    Neither ISIS nor the broader problem of Islamist-inspired terrorism represents enough of a threat to justify an expansive, aggressive, and costly series of overseas campaigns. Instead, the United States should take a step back from the fight. Though we do not attempt here to consider all of the potential strategies or tactics, we argue that the right general direction for the United States is to reduce the level of military intervention, suspend efforts at nation building, and end direct efforts to dictate political outcomes in the Middle East.

    This approach would seek to reduce the incentive for anti-American terrorism by disengaging from what are primarily civil wars in the Middle East. Although the eventual details will depend on many factors, the Trump administration should embrace four main recommendations as it rethinks U. In recognition that terrorism is a far more limited threat than U. Specifically, the United States must abandon the goal of destroying al Qaeda, its various affiliates, and ISIS, and the fantasy of eradicating the causes of terrorism.

    In addition, the United States should scale back its efforts to deny sanctuary to terrorist organizations, which have proven similarly hapless. The United States cannot rid the world of all terrorist organizations, eliminate the conditions that give rise to terrorism, nor can it prevent small groups from finding safe havens. As the past 15 years have made clear, the United States does not need to do any of these things to maintain a high level of security.

    Homeland security efforts may or may not have been necessary to prevent many attacks at home, but unlike foreign intervention, they did not make things worse. Instead of seeking victory in a War on Terror, the United States should work to manage the threat of terrorism, narrowing its counterterrorism strategy to focus primarily on the defense of the homeland.

    Intelligence services should continue to monitor global networks to track possible threats from terrorist organizations abroad but, since , those threats have come overwhelmingly in the form of individuals who already live in the United States and are not members of al Qaeda or ISIS.

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    In contrast to fighting a war on terrorism, the strategic management of terrorist threats requires recognizing that some amount of anti-American terrorism is inevitable. Although this is unpleasant to acknowledge, it is a necessary starting point for an effective strategy. The narrower goal of homeland defense does not require the United States to pursue the complete destruction of foreign terrorist organizations, the assassination of individual terrorist leaders, or the prevention of negative political and military outcomes in the Middle East or North Africa.

    It should also end the drone campaigns carried out as part of the War on Terror throughout the region. Although there may be situations in the future that warrant direct military intervention against a terrorist organization, military strikes should not be a regular part of U. Despite these cases, the most likely threat continues to be lone individuals or pairs inspired by jihadist ideology without the type of extensive plotting, communication, or travel activity that would tip off the layered counterterrorism defense system.

    A comprehensive, up-to-date source of online information about terrorist activity in the United States since The Threat is not Existential. Part IV. What is the Threat to the United States Today? It's been 17 years since the September 11, attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Although more than a decade has passed there are still some lingering effects of this devastating terrorist attack that haven't dissipated.

    Bush began bombing Afghanistan. Because the Taliban-run government refused to give up suspected terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden, the United States began bombing the country in October. But almost two decades later, the United States still has troops stationed in the country working to help the government rebuild itself and stabilize. President Trump announced in that he would increase the number of troops in Afghanistan by 3,, bringing the number of troops to 14, Cabin doors on airplanes are also now protected to keep pilots safe, and the screening process has increased in scrutiny and size.

    New technology has evolved to make it even easier for airport security officials to find restricted materials and advanced screening methods and background checks have expedited travel for those willing to submit. Overall, air travel has become safer as a result of the attacks. But there are those that worry the increased security allows for potential racial profiling.

    The Department of Homeland Security was created 11 days after the September 11, terrorist attacks. The DHS is an office put together by a number of appointed officials that oversees national strategy and national security. It was created to protect the country against another wide-scale terrorist attack through the use of information gathering and department-led investigations.

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    By , the office achieved Cabinet-level department status because of the Homeland Security Act passed by Congress. This department is responsible for anti-terrorism tasks, as well as national security and disaster prevention. It has grown exponentially since its creation, becoming the third-largest federal cabinet department. Today, this department has a major influence on security and terrorism prevention across the country.