The 9/11 Anniversary: 15 Years of Alarmism—and Counting

The September 11th Tribute in Light from Bayonne, New Jersey. Wikimedia Commons/Anthony Quintano

Were the attacks 15 years ago—a horrific tragedy—the norm or the exception?

In her 2008 book, The Dark Side, Jane Mayer reports that “The only certainty shared by virtually the entire American intelligence community in the fall of 2001 was that a second wave of even more devastating terrorist attacks on America was imminent.”

Under the circumstances, of course, deep concern was certainly justified. But the “certainty” and the attendant complete dismissal of the possibility that, like Pearl Harbor, 9/11 might prove to be an aberration rather than a harbinger, was not.

As military historian H.P. Willmott has pointed out of the Japanese, “not a single operation planned after the start of the war met with success.” Something similar seems to have happened to Al Qaeda.

Even tak­ing into consideration that it has been isolated and under siege, the group’s record of accomplishment since 9/11 has been rather meager: it has remained a fringe group of a fringe group that got tragically lucky once. Yet for 15 years it has provided fodder for serial alarmists in the West. At the extreme, it has been proclaimed to present an existential threat to the United States—or even to the world system or to civilization as we know it.

Al Qaeda does appear to have served as something of an inspiration to some Muslim extremists (though it could have done that even if it didn’t exist), and it has issued a parade of videos filled with empty, deluded, and self-infatuated threats. However, only two of the major terrorist plots against the West since 9/11, could be said to be under its “command and control,” and both of these, as it happens, failed miserably. In addition, Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen sent off the underwear bomber in 2009 outfitted with a device that was almost impossible to detonate and (like Al Qaeda’s shoe bomb of 2001) far too small to bring down the airliner if it had gone off. And, although millions of foreigners have been admitted legally into the United States since 2001, not one of these, it appears, has been an agent smuggled in by Al Qaeda.

That is not the way it looked to the intelligence community in 2002 when it informed reporters that between 2,000 and 5,000 trained Al Qaeda operatives were on the loose in the United States. Within a few years, the FBI determined that those operatives actually, pretty much did not exist. However, the Bureau’s director, Robert Mueller, remained unflappable, informing the Senate Committee on Intelligence on February 16, 2005, not that there didn’t seem to be much out there, but that “I remain very concerned about what we are not seeing,” an observation dutifully rendered in bold type in his prepared remarks.

In the meantime, Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge was informing us that “extremists abroad are anticipating near-term attacks that they believe will either rival, or exceed, the attacks that occurred in New York and the Pentagon and the fields of Pennsylvania,” Attorney General John Ashcroft with Robert Mueller standing beside him announced that “Al Qaeda plans to attempt an attack on the United States in the next few months [with the] specific intention to hit the United States hard,” and David Rothkopf was relaying the views of “more than 200 senior business and government executives, many of whom are specialists in security and terrorism related issues,” and almost three-quarters of whom “said it was likely the United States would see a major terrorist strike before the end of 2004” and that “the assault would be greater than those of 9/11 and might well involve weapons of mass destruction.”