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.
September 11 was not as big a surprise as people think. It shocked everyone but terrorism analysts, who had warned that something so disastrous could well happen. Before 2001, experts warned of plots and options that groups like al-Qaeda were entertaining, including strikes more destructive than those on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, possibly with weapons of mass destruction. In response to intercepted communications in summer 2001, U.S. intelligence frantically sounded the alarm inside the government that a major terrorist attack was coming somewhere, soon.
Epochal surprise and shock despite ample warning can easily happen again. Because people hear of all sorts of conceivable dangers, experts' warnings barely register unless they predict exactly what, when, and where the disaster will be, which even the best intelligence can rarely do. Most people "know" in the abstract that catastrophe may come, but they don't feel it in a way that affects their plans or behavior until something happens. This normal psychological limitation affects government officials as much as anyone.
At the top, government is always overloaded with potential threats and cannot focus on all of them. Indeed, before September 11, the Bush administration deflected demands from Clinton holdovers to focus more on terrorism and downgraded the status of the counterterrorism specialist on the National Security Council staff. China, Iraq, and other problems seemed more pressing. Earlier recommendations by the Gore Commission to beef up airline security were blocked because of anticipated costs and resistance from travelers. Recommendations reported a year before September 11 from the National Commission on Terrorism (of which I was a member) languished for similar reasons: Until the actual disaster, the costs were certain, the benefits hypothetical. These judgments about priorities turned out to be wrong, but not obviously so until after the fact.
Still, the radical shift in priorities after September 11 reduced the risk of another attack on a comparable scale. Huge investments in precautions do have a payoff. Whole new organizations such as the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center were created (and old ones such as the FBI, harbor police, and Coast Guard were beefed up) for collecting intelligence, conducting surveillance, inspecting cargoes, checking personnel, correlating information, and other activities to constrict opportunities for infiltrating or plotting by terrorists.
It is much harder now for al-Qaeda to mobilize and apply resources effectively for a dramatic strike inside the United States. Yet before 9/11, few would have estimated al-Qaeda's capacity to infiltrate numerous hijackers, train them in our own flight schools, and commandeer four aircraft simultaneously. The odds of al-Qaeda getting nuclear weapons from Pakistan's stockpile in the course of a revolution or radical coup there are low, but not negligible. In principle, Americans are ready for such threats, but in practice they're likely to find themselves as unready for their impact as were in September 2001. We should focus as much on measures for resilience and coping as on prevention.