Is the West safer after 9/11?

The attack on US soil raised terror to a global level.

World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Sara K. Schwittek)
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.
The 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 fate.
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.
From the 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 1980s.
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 scale.
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.
IN THE decade that has followed the attacks, al-Qaida and its associates have designed a broad terror campaign against various countries affiliated with the West.
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.
This 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 demands.
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 program.