It is Sept. 1, and that means we are once again approaching the anniversary of al Qaeda's Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against the United States. In the 10 years that have passed since the attacks, a lot has happened and much has changed in the world, but many people can still vividly recall the sense of fear, uncertainty and helplessness they felt on that September morning. Millions of people watched United Airlines flight 175 smash into the south tower of the World Trade Center on live television. A short while later they heard that another plane had struck the Pentagon. Then they watched in horror as the World Trade Center's twin towers buckled and collapsed to the ground.
It was, by any measure, a stunning, cataclysmic scene, a kind of terrorist theater that transformed millions of television viewers into vicarious victims. Excerpts of the just-released memoir of then-Vice President Dick Cheney demonstrate that it was not just ordinary people who were affected by the attacks; America's leaders where shocked and shaken, too. And judging from the statements of foreign citizens and leaders in the wake of 9/11, those who proclaimed, "We are all Americans," it was also apparent that the toll on vicarious victims did not stop at the U.S. border. One result of this vicarious victimization and the fear and helplessness it produced was that many people became fixated on the next attack and began anxiously "waiting for the other shoe to drop." This spawned an entire industry of fear as dire warnings were propagated by the Internet of the impending "American Hiroshima" that was certain to result when al Qaeda detonated all the nuclear devices it had hidden in major U.S. cities. Chain emails were widely circulated and recirculated quoting a dubious Israeli "security expert" who promised simultaneous catastrophic terrorist attacks against a number of American cities — attacks that never materialized outside of Hollywood productions.
Fast-forward a decade and we are now commemorating 9/11's 10th anniversary, which seems more significant somehow because it is a round number. Perhaps of more meaningful significance is that this anniversary closely follows the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on May 2. Indeed, the buzz regarding this coincidence has caused many of our clients and readers to ask for our assessment of the terrorist threat inside the United States on this 10th anniversary of 9/11.
While we believe that today holds some degree of symbolism for many, the threat of an attack on Sept. 11, 2011, is no higher than it was on Aug. 11 or than it will be on Sept. 12, and below we explain why.
The State of al Qaeda and the Jihad
All threats have two basic components: intent and capability. Al Qaeda's leaders have threatened to conduct an attack more terrible than 9/11 for nearly a decade now, and the threats continue. Here's what Ayman al-Zawahiri, now al Qaeda's No. 1, said to his followers on Aug. 15, 2011, in a message released on the Internet via as-Sahab media:
"Seek to attack America that has killed the Imam of the Mujahideen and threw his corpse in the sea and then imprisoned his women and children. Seek to attack her so history can say that a criminal state had spread corruption on earth and Allah sent her his servants who made her a lesson for others and left her as a memory."
The stated intent of al Qaeda and the rest of the jihadist movement is and has been to strike the United States as hard and as often as possible. It logically follows, then, that al Qaeda would strike the United States on Sept. 11 — or any other day — if possible. With intent thus established, now we need to focus on capability.
One of the primary considerations regarding al Qaeda's capability to strike the United States is the state of the jihadist movement itself. The efforts of the U.S. government and its allies against the core al Qaeda group, which is based in Pakistan, have left it badly damaged and have greatly curtailed its operational ability, especially its ability to conduct transnational attacks. In January we forecast that we believed the al Qaeda core was going to be marginalized on the physical battlefield in 2011 and that it would also struggle to remain relevant on the ideological battlefield. Indeed, it has been our assessment for several years now that al Qaeda does not pose a strategic threat to the United States.
Since we published our 2011 forecast, bin Laden has been killed as well as senior al Qaeda leader Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who reportedly died in a strike by a U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle Aug. 22 in Pakistan's North Waziristan region. We continue to believe that the al Qaeda core group is off balance and concerned for its security — especially in light of the intelligence gathered in the raid on bin Laden's hideout. The core group simply does not enjoy the operational freedom it did prior to September 2001. We also believe the group no longer has the same operational capability in terms of international travel and the ability to transfer money that it had prior to 9/11. Some people believe there is a greater chance of an attack on this year's 9/11 anniversary because of the killing of bin Laden, while others note that al-Zawahiri may feel pressure to conduct an attack in order to prove his credibility as al Qaeda's new leader.
Our belief, as noted above, is that al Qaeda has been doing its utmost to attack the United States and has not pulled any punches. Because of this, we do not believe it possesses the ability to increase this effort beyond where it was prior to bin Laden's death. As to the pressure on al-Zawahiri, we noted in December 2007 that the al Qaeda core had been under considerable pressure to prove itself relevant for several years and that, despite this pressure, had yet to deliver. Because of this, we do not believe that the pressure to conduct a successful attack is any heavier on al-Zawahiri today than it was prior to bin Laden's death.
Finally, we believe that if al Qaeda possessed the capability to conduct a spectacular attack it would launch the attack as soon as it was operationally ready, rather than wait for some specific date. The risk of discovery is simply too great.
There are also some who still believe that al Qaeda maintains a network of "sleeper operatives" inside the United States that can be called upon to conduct a spectacular terrorist attack. We do not believe this for two reasons. First, because the pressure on the core al Qaeda leadership to conduct an attack in the United States has been so high for several years there is no reason that it would not have activated any sleepers by now. It would certainly not be in the group's best interest to keep any such operatives idle for a decade, especially since U.S. intelligence has made such headway in rolling up the organization. Al Qaeda has been faced with a use-it-or-lose-it scenario.
Second, while there is a long history of al Qaeda and other jihadist groups employing covert operatives and inspiring jihadist grassroots operatives or lone wolves like Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, there is no history of al Qaeda employing true sleeper operatives, that is, operatives who burrow undetected into a society and then remain dormant until called upon to act. Because of this, we remain extremely skeptical that al Qaeda has ever had a sleeper network in the United States. If it had, it would have used it by now.
Would the al Qaeda core leadership like to conduct a spectacular terrorist attack on the 9/11 anniversary? Absolutely. Does it have the capability? That is unlikely.
A Grassroots Focus
As we noted in our annual jihadist forecast, we believe the greatest threat to the United States and the rest of the West in 2011 emanates from grassroots jihadists and regional franchises. However, the civil war in Yemen and developments in Somalia have preoccupied the attention of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Shabaab — the two regional jihadist franchises that have shown the intent and capability to conduct transnational attacks — leaving them very little opportunity to do so. Therefore, we believe the greatest threat of an attack on the 9/11 anniversary will come from the grass roots.
The bad news is that grassroots operatives can be hard to identify, especially if they operate alone; the good news is that they tend to be far less capable than well-trained, more "professional" terrorist operatives. And this means they are more likely to make critical mistakes that will allow their attacks to be detected and thwarted.
As the past few years have demonstrated, there are almost certainly grassroots jihadists operating in small cells or as lone wolves who are presently planning attacks. In fact, we know that since at least 1990 there has not been a time when some group of grassroots jihadists somewhere in the United States has not been planning some kind of attack.
Is it possible, then, that such individuals could be inspired to try to conduct an attack on the 9/11 anniversary if they can coordinate their attack cycle in order to be ready on that date. However, given the increased law enforcement vigilance that will be in place at hard targets on that day and the capabilities of most grassroots operatives, we can anticipate that such an attempt would be conducted against a soft target rather than some more difficult target such as the 9/11 Memorial or the White House. We also believe that any such attack would likely continue the trend we have seen away from bombing attacks toward more simple (and effective) armed assaults.
It must be remembered that simple terrorist attacks are relatively easy to conduct, especially if the assailant is not concerned about escaping after the attack. As jihadist groups such as AQAP have noted in their online propaganda, a determined person can conduct attacks using a variety of simple weapons, from a pickup truck to a knife, axe or gun. Jihadist ideologues have repeatedly praised Nidal Hassan and have pointed out that jihadists operating with modest expectations and acting within the scope of their training and capability can do far more damage than operatives who try to conduct big, ambitious attacks that they lack the basic skills to complete.
And while the authorities in the United States and elsewhere have been quite successful in foiling attacks over the past couple of years, there are a large number of vulnerable targets in the open societies of the West, and Western governments simply do not have the resources to protect everything. Indeed, as long as the ideology of jihadism survives, its adherents will pose a threat.
All this means that some terrorist attacks will invariably succeed, but in the current context, it is our assessment that a simple attack in the United States or some other Western country is far more likely than a complex and spectacular 9/11-style operation. In their primary areas of operation, jihadists have the capability to do more than they do transnationally.
Indeed, despite the concept of a "war on terrorism," the phenomenon of terrorism can never be completely eliminated, and terrorist attacks can and will be conducted by a wide variety of actors (recently illustrated by the July 22 attacks in Norway). However, as we've previously noted, if the public will recognize that terrorist attacks are part of the human condition like cancer or hurricanes, it can take steps to deny the practitioners of terrorism the ability to terrorize.