What has changed since 9/11
Fourteen years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States is facing a different sort of terror, buoyed by social media abroad and lax gun laws domestically.
Perhaps the biggest change is that jihadist groups no longer lurk in the shadows.
On the eve of 9/11, relatively few people had heard of al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. Today, al- Qaeda has its own branch in Syria, complete with territory it controls and a substantial online presence for recruitment and the dissemination of propaganda.
Islamic State (ISIS), the group that puts al-Qaeda to shame with its brutality, has become even more ubiquitous, with people across the world acting as a horrified audience to it crimes or in some cases potential recruits. This has become the new reality of terrorism, according to William McCants, director of the US relations with the Islamic World programme at the Brookings Institution.
“The combination of holding territory, combined with social media, has markedly changed the nature of terrorism,” McCants said. McCants is the author of the forthcoming book The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State.
ISIS has at times managed to increase its territory seemingly overnight but McCants said ISIS is “not an immediate threat to the US or the West”.
He echoes a common sentiment among Washington analysts who say ISIS is mainly focused on building a caliphate in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the region. Attacking the West remains low among its priorities.
“Of course, ISIS inspires followers anywhere in the world to attack Western interests in its name. But damage from such attacks is relatively small and it’s very different from attributing ISIS resources to the planning and carrying out of an attack on the scale of 9/11,” McCants said.
“Though, of course, this may change at any time.”
Some security experts said the heightened state of security in the United States over the past decade and a half had made it impossible for a terrorist group to plan a large-scale attack, even when the heightened security is not all that it appears to be.
One security expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, said his firm continuously tests for weak points in airport security around the United States and had found many.
“In our last test, many airports failed because we were able to smuggle all sorts of explosives onto airlines,” he said. “Why terrorists haven’t taken advantage of this? I say they simply haven’t tried.”
Perhaps more ironic is that 14 years into the war on terror, it is a terror group, ISIS, that has managed to hijack US policies in the Middle East.
This is most evident in Syria, where the US-led coalition against ISIS finds itself sharing a common enemy with Jabhat al-Nusra, al- Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. McCants points out that the US bombs Jabhat al-Nusra positions as well as those of ISIS but the focus on ISIS has detracted from the main regional issues, such as dealing with Bashar Assad’s regime, which US President Barack Obama called illegitimate more than four years ago.
The Obama administration launched a programme two years ago to recruit and train Syrian fighters.
But it was aimed at fighting ISIS, not Assad’s troops, and Washington demanded fighters sign a pledge to this effect. The pledge drove away all but a handful of the Syrian recruits and the United States has made no changes to the programme.
“Nothing about that training programme makes sense to me,” said McCants. “The Syrian fighters were hell-bent on fighting Assad but the US shows up and makes them sign a pledge not to do that. Very bizarre.”
Many observers say the war on terror has blinded the United States to the rising and equally destructive forces of domestic terror, which has been manifesting lately in the guise of white supremacy or the “lone wolf” white male, helped by lax gun laws in many states.
Gun violence in the United States results in more than 30,000 fatalities every year, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
McCants suggests that moving forward, perhaps America’s gun laws might be the next focus in the country’s “war on terror”.
“I expect to see many more shooting sprees, which are harder to stop than terrorist plots involving bombs.
Guns are easy to get in America and jihadists have seen how shooting sprees can attract the media attention they crave just as well as a bomb can,” he said.