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Bipartisan Policy Center: Reflections on the Tenth Anniversary of The 9/11 Commission Report

Today’s Rising Terrorist Threat and the Danger to the United States

Published July 22, 2014

On July 22, 2014, Former 9/11 Commission Members (Thomas Kean, Lee Hamilton, Richard Ben-Veniste, Fred Fielding, Jamie S. Gorelick, Slade Gorton, Bob Kerrey, John Lehman, Timothy Roemer, and James Thompson) released a report through the Bipartisan Policy Center, titled: "Today's Rising Terrorist Threat and the Danger to the United States: Reflections on the Tenth Anniversary of The 9/11 Commission Report."

From Executive Summary:

The struggle against terrorism is far from over—rather, it has entered a new and dangerous phase. The dedicated men and women in the U.S. military and intelligence services have hit "core" al Qaeda—the Afghanistan- and Pakistan-based organization that struck the United States on 9/11—with hammer blows, most notably by killing Usama bin Ladin. But that does not mean that al Qaeda no longer poses a threat. Al Qaeda-affiliated groups are gaining strength throughout the greater Middle East. Two are most alarming. First, as of this writing, the fanatical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has conquered parts of Syria and much of Western Iraq, slaughtering thousands of people in the process. As we wrote in The 9/11 Commission Report: If "Iraq becomes a failed state, it will go to the top of the list of places that are breeding grounds for attacks against Americans at home." That nightmare scenario may now be coming to pass. Second, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has advanced bombmaking capabilities and has already attempted several attacks on U.S. aviation targets. While the various al Qaeda spinoffs are primarily focused on regional conflicts, they hate the United States and will not forego opportunities to strike at the U.S. homeland.

In short: The "generational struggle" against terrorism described in The 9/11 Commission Report is far from over. Rather, it is entering a new and dangerous phase, and America cannot afford to let down its guard. Strenuous counterterrorism efforts will remain a fact of our national life for the foreseeable future.

Foreign fighters returning from Syria (and now Iraq) pose a grave threat to the U.S. homeland and Western Europe. More than 10,000 foreign fighters have flooded into Syria. Many are fighting alongside extremist groups there and in neighboring Iraq, learning battlefield skills and absorbing extremist ideology. More than 1,000 of them hold European passports, which (in most cases) would enable them to enter the United States without a visa. Of even greater concern, more than 100 American citizens have traveled to Syria. When these battle-hardened, radicalized fighters return to their home countries, they will pose a serious terrorist threat to both the United States and Europe.

Cyber readiness lags far behind the threat. The senior leaders with whom we spoke are uniformly alarmed by the cyber threat to the country. One former agency head said, "We are at September 10th levels in terms of cyber preparedness." American companies' most-sensitive patented technologies and intellectual property, U.S. universities' research and development, and the nation's defense capabilities and critical infrastructure, are all under cyber attack. Former National Security Agency Director General Keith Alexander has described the ongoing cyber theft of American intellectual property as "the greatest transfer of wealth in history." One lesson of the 9/11 story is that, as a nation, Americans did not awaken to the gravity of the terrorist threat until it was too late. History may be repeating itself in the cyber realm.

Congress has proved resistant to needed reforms. In 2004, the Department of Homeland Security reported to 88 committees and subcommittees of Congress. We urged Congress to dramatically reduce that number. Incredibly, it has since increased to 92. This fragmented oversight detracts from national security by impeding the department's development. Nor has Congress reformed its system for appropriating funds for the National Intelligence Program, leaving control over the intelligence budget similarly fragmented. Congress has passed numerous laws requiring executive branch agencies to implement far-reaching reforms, yet it has stubbornly refused to change its duplicative and wasteful oversight system.

Counterterrorism fatigue and a waning sense of urgency among the public threaten U.S. security. Many Americans think that the terrorist threat is waning—that, as a country, we can begin turning back to other concerns. They are wrong. The absence of another major attack on the homeland is a success in itself but does not mean that the terrorist threat has diminished. The threat remains grave, and the trend lines in many parts of the world are pointing in the wrong direction. We cannot afford to be complacent—vigorous counterterrorism efforts are as important as ever. Without public support, the government will not be able to sustain the robust capabilities and policies needed to keep Americans safe.

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