Today we commemorate the 16th anniversary of what Al-Qa’ida termed its Planes Operation, the most consequential terrorist attacks in history. That operation left 19 dead jihadists, 2,978 dead innocent victims, plus thousands of injured. Not to mention the World Trade Center complex annihilated, four jetliners destroyed, the Pentagon badly damaged, and a nation changed forever.
In Lower Manhattan and at the Pentagon – all rebuilt with appropriate memorials to that day – the usual solemn 9/11 remembrances will take place. Those who recall may think back, briefly, to that sunny Tuesday morning when the world changed. Some will speak of it. Just as my parents and their friends once bored me with their exact memories of where they were on November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, now my friends and I bore our children with precise recollections of 9/11.
With the passing of time we can see the Planes Operation and its impacts with a clarity that was previously out of reach. In the months after 9/11, when shock turned to an outrage that birthed a national unity which proved as intense as it was fleeting, a new era dawned for America in a long-term struggle against Islamist terrorism and extremism. How has that conflict panned out over the last 16 years?
In the first place, it ought to be noted that our Intelligence Community has done a commendable job of keeping mass-casualty terrorism away from our shores since 9/11. In particular, FBI-NSA teamwork, in near-seamless collaboration with close foreign intelligence partners, has foiled hundreds of terrorist plots “left of boom” as they say in the spy trade. Jihadists have executed exactly zero “big wedding” attacks in the United States in the last 16 years – and it’s not for any lack of trying.
Indeed, since 9/11 the FBI-NSA counterterrorism partnership has grown so effective at stopping jihadists before they kill that civil libertarians routinely complain that many of these would-be terrorists are harmless ne’er-do-wells and fantasists entrapped by government informants. This is a by-product of the success of our domestic counterterrorism in recent years.
Although jihadists, usually self-styled, have killed Americans at home since 9/11, most of these terrorists have been inspired – not directed – by violent co-religionists overseas. In a typical case, the worst of these attacks, the June 2016 slaughter at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, killed 49 innocents; yet their murderer, Omar Mateen, a native-born American citizen, despite clearly being inspired by the Islamic State, was not directed by them except in his own diseased mind.
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