Part of the series "Ten Lessons Since the 9/11 Attacks," in which CFR fellows identify the top threats and responses going forward.†Read more in the series.
U.S. counterterrorism policy since 9/11 has been phenomenally successful. Who could have imagined in 2001 that ten years later there would not have been a single successful attack on the American homeland? And yet, apart from a few lone-wolf attacks such as the shootings by Major Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood, the record has been close to perfect.
What accounts for this success? Part of it is due to factors beyond anyone's control, in particular the fact that the United States is located far from the Middle East and does not have a ready supply of internal terrorists. One of its biggest counterterrorism strengths is its ability to assimilate immigrants of many different nationalities, including Muslims; it doesn't have a disaffected population of Muslim immigrants, or offspring of immigrants, which has been a breeding ground for terrorism in Europe.
Using imported operatives, al-Qaeda was able to carry out the worst terrorist strike in history on American soil--but not to repeat it or even come close. Why not? I would credit many of the improvements made to counterterrorism operations after 9/11. Vastly more resources flowed into this area at the FBI, New York Police Department, CIA, and other relevant agencies, and many of the bureaucratic barriers that had prevented effective cooperation among them were knocked down.
More controversially, President Bush authorized a number of steps that went well beyond the bounds of traditional law enforcement, including the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" on high-value detainees such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (who was waterboarded 183 times after being arrested in Pakistan in 2003); the warrantless wiretapping of those who might have terrorist connections in the United States; the "rendition" of detainees back to their countries of origins even though some of those countries (e.g., Egypt, Algeria, and Jordan) were notorious for using torture; the indefinite detention without trial of eight hundred suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay and at CIA-operated "black sites"; the creation of military tribunals to try terrorist suspects without normal criminal-court protections; and the targeted assassination of al-Qaeda leaders with Predator drones in Pakistan and Yemen.
Such measures were denounced by civil libertarians and, once the immediate post-9/11 fear had passed, many of them were curtailed through a combination of congressional and court action. But key aspects of the Bush approach--from military tribunals and detentions at Guantanamo to Predator strikes--have been employed by the Obama administration. We now have a bipartisan approach to counterterrorism that has kept the United States safe for the past decade.