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TERROR: War on Terror Update

Author: Sharon Otterman
September 14, 2004

Three years after 9/11, has progress has been made in the war on terror?

Yes, most analysts say, but precisely how much is unclear. On the home front, considerable steps have been taken to protect potential targets, especially airplanes and airports. Terrorism experts say more still needs to be done. Internationally, the United States has captured and killed scores of al Qaeda members in Afghanistan and elsewhere, says Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at St. Andrews University in Scotland. But enlistments in al Qaeda and like-minded organizations, some experts contend, keep pace with those setbacks. "Every time someone is captured, there are people to take their place," says Matthew Levitt, a terrorism analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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In which areas has the most substantial progress in homeland security been made?

Among its achievements, the Bush administration cites:

  • Government reorganization: In 2002, the White House created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by merging 22 separate agencies into a single department whose primary mission is to protect the U.S. homeland. "The creation of the Department of Homeland Security is a major step in the right direction," says Warren Rudman, former senator (R-N.H.) and co-chair of the Council on Foreign Relations-sponsored independent task force on homeland security. But, he adds, "it will take time before we see total coherence in coordinating our [counterterrorism] efforts."
  • Aviation security: DHS officials say air travel is significantly safer than it was on 9/11. Hardened cockpit doors have been added to all large passenger aircraft. Inspectors have conducted vulnerability assessments at the nation's 75 largest airports. All checked baggage in U.S. airports is screened for prohibited items. Thousands of federal air marshals have been deployed in airports and aboard flights. All passenger names for domestic flights are checked against an expanded terrorist watch list.
  • Border security: In 2003, DHS launched the US-VISIT system, which links government databases to provide information to port-of-entry officials and consular officials overseas and creates a database of pictures and finger scans of everyone entering the United States with a non-immigrant visa.
  • Biological attack security: A new environmental monitoring system, BioWatch, monitors air samples in major U.S. cities, providing early warning of a potential bioattack. The program is intended to work in coordination with BioShield, a program to ensure that vaccines, drugs, and medical supplies are ready for rapid distribution in the event of an attack.
Which areas lag behind?
  • Port security: DHS says that every U.S. port has submitted a security plan that includes security measures such as surveillance cameras and background checks on port workers. But, says Rudman, "We've got a long way to go on port security." According to Stephen E. Flynn, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council and author of "America the Vulnerable: How Our Government is Failing to Protect Us from Terrorism," insufficient resources are devoted to securing U.S. ports. "The federal government has made available $500 million in grants to support the protection of our seaports," Flynn says. "That's what we're spending every three days in the war on Iraq. If this is the new threat ... then we're not waking up to that reality to recalibrate."
  • First responders: According to Flynn, those with the responsibility to respond first in a major terrorism emergency still lack the necessary funding and training. Communications problems persist; local police and fire departments, county, state, regional, and federal emergency response teams cannot easily exchange information. And protective gear and portable detection equipment needed in a chemical attack is in short supply.
  • FBI and intelligence reform: The 9/11 Commission report recommended the establishment of a national intelligence director "to oversee national intelligence centers on specific subjects of interest across the U.S. government and to manage the national intelligence program and oversee the agencies that contribute to it." On August 2, 2004, President Bush established such a position, but the extent of the new director's powers and responsibilities remain unclear. The president also announced on August 27, 2004, the creation of a National Counterterrorism Center intended to build on the intelligence-gathering capacity of the current Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC) and to better coordinate counterterrorism operations. CIA (www.cia.gov) and FBI reforms are currently being debated in Congress.
What progress has been made internationally?
  • Intelligence-sharing among governments. This has clearly improved since 9/11, experts say. "We're getting much better cooperation from the French, from the Germans, from the Saudis, from the Pakistanis," says Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Lots of people who are not huge fans of the war in Iraq, for example, are nevertheless providing substantially more cooperation on intelligence, on busting up terrorist rings now than they ever did in the past," he says.
  • Afghanistan and other operations against Qaeda leaders: After 9/11, the United States and its allies ousted the Taliban from Kabul and disrupted the operations of senior Qaeda leadership. Many Islamist fighters were killed or captured, but many escaped, including Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his primary deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Overall, the Bush administration says the war against al Qaeda has eliminated 70 percent of the network's leadership and captured or killed 3,400 of its members. But Ranstorp says it is difficult to know how significant these statistics are, because it's not clear who all the captured leaders are--the names are largely classified--or the roles they played in the network. Nor is it clear how rapidly killed or captured leaders are replaced in the organization and how quickly new members are recruited.
  • Tracking weapons of mass destruction (WMD):The Bush administration created the Proliferation Security Initiative, an international partnership of more than 60 countries to share intelligence information about WMD and interdict lethal materials in transit. Through this effort, U.S. and other intelligence agencies exposed a worldwide, Pakistan-based smuggling network that sold nuclear technologies and equipment to outlaw regimes, including Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Libya, a U.S.-classified terror state, has since renounced its WMD programs. On the other hand, "There's still tremendous concern that terrorists can get access to WMD, either cooperatively through state sponsors of terrorism or by stealing them," Levitt says.
  • Counterterrorism in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Indonesia, and Pakistan: These countries, which before September 11 often turned a blind eye to the activities of domestic Islamist militants, are now going after terror organizations. "But there is still so far for these regimes to go," Levitt says.
  • Terrorism financing. Nearly $140 million in terrorist assets have been blocked in more than 1,400 accounts worldwide since 9/11, according to a White House fact sheet. But much more needs to be done to halt the flow of funds to terrorists, especially in Saudi Arabia, whose citizens remain the largest single source of Qaeda funding, according to a recent Council-sponsored independent task force on terrorism financing.
What larger issues must be solved?
  • Formulating a long-term, strategic approach.Many experts say the Bush administration has not yet developed a strategy to counter the ideology of the Qaeda movement and radical Islam and to prevent a new generation of terrorists from emerging. "We need a real long-term strategy to press for reform in countries that are incubating radicalism," says Daniel Benjamin, a terrorism expert and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Our gains are fleeting because we aren't doing nearly enough to deal with the global radicalization of a lot of young Muslim men." Many experts argue that addressing the challenges posed by al Qaeda's ideology is as important as attacking the organization with military force, adds Levitt. "We have yet to really get in the game of the war of ideas," he says.
  • Getting Iraq right. In its current state, with its poorly secured borders, multiple armed factions, and surplus of weaponry, "the environment in Iraq is perfect from a terrorist perspective," Ranstorp says. The war in Iraq "exacerbated the global war on terror to some extent by radicalizing a lot of individuals locally and helping in mobilization," he adds. "We've cut off sanctuary to terrorists in Afghanistan and given them new sanctuary in Iraq," says Benjamin. If Iraq is to become a net gain in the war on terror, experts say much more needs to be done to get the situation there under control.
How likely is another large-scale terrorist attack inside the United States?

Most experts expect one. In a recent interview, Lee Hamilton, the vice chair of the 9/11 Commission, said, "We interviewed a very large number of people, over 1,000 people.... I don't think a single one of them said, 'Do not expect an attack.' Everybody expects an attack." Hamilton added: "We think the terrorist has: No. 1, the intent to kill as many Americans as possible, and No. 2, the capability. And that equation makes for a real danger."

Why hasn't there been an attack inside the United States since September 11, 2001?

It's impossible to say. It may be because the war on terrorism has made strategic planning for Qaeda and other terrorists more difficult, experts say. Or it may be that al Qaeda is taking time to plan an attack on a scale at least as significant as the 9/11 attacks. "They may be going for something spectacular again," says Rudman, "something that will take time to properly plan."

Is it possible to define victory in the war on terrorism?

It's not clear. "There will be no clear endgame--it's a long-term struggle," Ranstorp says. "The war will be won when we no longer fear catastrophic terror attack," says Benjamin. "We'll never be able to go back to where we thought we were on September 10, 2001, but if we can come up with a strategy to limit the appeal of radical Islam to moderate Muslims, we can live in a world where the threat of terrorism is no longer the center of our politics."Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says the goal is "not the elimination of terrorism; that's beyond our power. It's the reduction of it so it no longer drives our lives, it no longer drives our national security strategy."