World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/Sara K. Schwittek)
The terror attack of September 11, 2001, was undoubtedly a unique event,
unprecedented in its scope, pretension, boldness and consequences.
current age of global media allowed millions of viewers around the world to
witness the moment when the second plane hit the northern tower, and sentenced
them to repeated screenings of this atrocity and its fallout over the years.
Thus, for the first time in world history, a trauma was engraved in the
collective consciousness that constantly evokes the horror of the terror attacks
in the public mind, and the fear that the future might hold the same dreadful
Since the attack was against the United States, the sole superpower
in the world – representing world order, leadership and stability – and since
its weakness was exposed by an enemy that projected an image of almost
invincible power, it created a sense of unease and fear about the threat posed
by al-Qaida and its global jihad affiliates to the citizens of the US and to
many of its allies.
An attempt to understand whether this fear is
justified calls for examining whether there has been an escalation in violence
over the past 10 years, compared to the previous three decades.
late 1960s onward, and particularly during the 1970s and 1980s, there have been
hundreds of murderous international terror attacks in most Western countries,
including airline bombings, the hijacking of airplanes, the shooting of aircraft
on takeoff or landing, attacks on check-in posts at airports, boat and train
attacks, embassy takeovers and hostage-takings, the kidnapping of diplomats and
businessmen, and suicide attacks, which although they became al-Qaida’s
trademark method of assault, actually originated in Lebanon in the
World leaders and security officials in the West long ago
understood that international terrorism was not a passing phenomenon, and so
began taking comprehensive measures toward building a security infrastructure,
developing intelligence capabilities, establishing counterterrorism units, and
making legal preparations for punishing terrorists and their dispatchers. All of
these, along with unrelated external political circumstances, such as the
collapse of the Soviet Union and the successful deterring of countries from
sheltering and aiding terrorist organizations, helped in dealing efficiently
with the rise of global terrorism and led to a gradual decline in its
Hence, even though the decade preceding September 11, 2001, was
not without international terrorist acts in the West, there had been a notable
decline in this activity at the time al-Qaida began its independent
international terror operations and started to make its mark with the attacks in
East Africa and Yemen, culminating in the 9/11 attacks on US soil.
decade that has followed the attacks, al-Qaida and its associates have designed
a broad terror campaign against various countries affiliated with the
Their attacks were carried out in locations such as Bali, Tunisia,
Istanbul, Casablanca, Jakarta, London and Madrid, but the vast majority of the
conspiracies were thwarted in advance. However, despite their failure to
recreate spectacular mass terror attacks, it has become apparent that al-Qaida
and its associates are masterminds of psychological warfare who cleverly exploit
and harness modern technological developments to their advantage, strengthening
the perception of their power far beyond its actual scope.
propaganda system is essential to al-Qaida and its affiliates due to their
constant need to recruit new members into their ranks, and particularly for
refueling their opponents’ public opinion fears, which could lead to pressure on
governments to change their policies and conform to al-Qaida’s
There is one key operational aspect in which al-Qaida and its
affiliates managed to cause a gross escalation in the last decade: the
proliferation of suicide terror attacks. The last decade has seen an increase of
several hundred percent in the number of such attacks executed worldwide. In the
three main jihad arenas in which al-Qaida is involved (Iraq, Afghanistan, and
Pakistan), 2,400 suicide attacks have been carried out since 2001, which
constitute about 80 percent of all suicide attacks since they became part of the
repertoire of modern international terrorism.
The fear and awe cast by
al-Qaida and its ilk are based on their total disregard for the lives of both
their own and their enemy’s peoples. Their willingness to engage in mass murder
is driven by a divine calling and demonstrates the apocalyptic spirit of this
struggle, in which terror has become a legitimate tool in a zero-sum game. This
is also the source of their readiness to move forward to the next step and use
weapons of mass destruction, given the opportunity. This is something the world
must stop before it deteriorates into unconventional terror with devastating
results that might eclipse even those of 9/11.
Yoram Schweitzer is the
director of the Terrorism and Low- Intensity Conflict Program at the Institute
for National Security Studies (INSS). Shaili Kirshboim is an intern in the