Remembering 9/11 in a Volatile World

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Eleven years ago today, terrorists shattered America’s sense of safety. Generations who did not remember Pearl Harbor suddenly knew the shock of an attack on U.S. soil.

Brothers, fathers, cousins, wives, and daughters were lost. And more sisters, mothers, husbands and sons would give their lives in the years that followed as they fearlessly joined the fight against terrorism around the world.


Because of the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform—and the hours put in scanning intelligence documents and patrolling the streets by our servants here at home—America has thus far avoided another 9/11. Since that day, at least 51 terrorist plots against the country (that we know of) have been foiled. Terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden has been eliminated.

But as the U.S. withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan, the world is not becoming a safer place.

Pakistan continues to serve as a safe haven for terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Taliban, and the Haqqani network, threatening to jeopardize everything the U.S. has fought for in Afghanistan since 9/11.

In a new Issue Brief taking stock of the war on terrorism, Heritage security experts Michaela Bendikova, Lisa Curtis, and Jessica Zuckerman warn:

[T]he U.S. counterterrorism strategy remains flawed. The U.S. needs to name its enemies, maintain the nation’s commitments abroad, fully fund the military, reach out to allies, and truly defend the home front.

The campaign has certainly seen its share of successes in addition to the bin Laden mission. Drone strikes have helped to disrupt al-Qaeda operations and planning. But the U.S. must concentrate simultaneously on “uprooting extremist ideologies that support terrorism, collecting information from captured terrorists, and convincing the Pakistanis to conduct joint operations that deal with the threat,” the authors write. Continued terrorist sanctuaries inside Pakistan’s borders remain a threat.

At home, we cannot combat terrorism under “a law enforcement paradigm that focuses on reactive policies and prosecuting terrorists rather than proactive efforts to enhance intelligence tools and thwart terrorist attempts long before the public is in danger,” they write. This strategy fails to recognize the true nature of the threat posed by terrorist groups (such as al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab) and state-sponsored terrorism, while thwarting terrorist travel and financing remain the most effective ways to protect the homeland.

Unfortunately, the reality is that terrorism—without the face of a particular nation—is not the only threat America faces. Iran and North Korea continue to invest in capabilities designed to kill Americans and our allies. Syria is wracked by civil war and has the potential to destabilize the entire Middle East.

If we are to meet this volatile world with a determination to protect U.S. citizens, our priorities must shift. The defense budget has already absorbed about half of all spending cuts even though it represents less than a fifth of the federal budget. If U.S. forces are weakened further, the country will be unable to maintain its superpower status.

Today, we remember those we have lost. Tomorrow, we must honor their memory by strengthening our defenses for those who do not yet know the horror of an attack at home—so that they never will.