WASHINGTON – In the decade since terrorists attacked the U.S. with commercial airliners, killing nearly 3,000 people, the architect of the tragedy has been killed, al-Qaida’s administration has been disrupted, 80 terrorist plots have been foiled and 155 terrorist attacks were committed on U.S. soil with 32 fatalities.
The United States is a safer place since then, experts agree.
“The most compelling argument is that we’ve gone 10 years without a repeat of anything close to 9/11. Anyone the day after 9/11 would have said ‘Yeah we’re going to be attacked again,'” said Gary LaFree, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.
So as the nation prepares to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center and the downing of a hijacked aircraft in a field near Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 11, 2001, experts also agree the danger from smaller-scale, individual terrorist plots remains high.
“I think that our national leaders and intelligence community are correct when they tell us that government has made us safer against the large-scale complex 9/11-style plots that are the most dangerous, but what the data shows from the unsuccessful attacks is that since 9/11, and in the last several years, we have seen dozens of (smaller) plots and attempts within the U.S.,” said Erik Dahl, assistant professor at Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, Calif.
Dahl, who recently published a journal article about unsuccessful terrorist attacks, said there have been 80 unsuccessful terrorist plots and attacks within the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, with 12 foiled attempts within the past year, and seven of those targeting military personnel or bases.
“We saw an upsurge in attempted attacks in the years right after 9/11 that were inspired by 9/11, but then a few years ago, there was a downturn,” Dahl said. “We’ve seen, in the last couple of years, an increase once again….Understanding why that is, is the $64,000 question.”
Dahl’s answer to that is that although the U.S. was able to kill al-Qaida leader and Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and disrupt the group’s network, “there still is appeal among a very small but dangerous group of individuals who remain inspired by al-Qaida and by its message.”
The University of Maryland consortium created an online Global Terrorism Database that tracks information on terrorist events around the world from 1970 to 2010. A query of all attacks, between Sept. 12, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2010, in the United States, showed 155 terrorist attacks with 32 fatalities.
Those included the November 2009 attack in Ft. Hood in Texas where 13 people were killed and 31 were wounded; the attack in Austin, Texas, where a man flew his plane into an IRS building, killing him and a worker and injuring 15 others; and the incident in Silver Spring where a gunman took hostages at the Discovery Communications headquarters in September 2010.
Part of the credit for the nation’s safety should go to the Department of Homeland Security, which was created in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks with a mission prevent terror attacks and combat other hazards. That department, with an annual budget of more than $50 billion, has changed airline procedures, including employing new technology to screen passengers and cargo, and implementing more immigration enforcement programs.
“I think if another group of terrorists attempt another similar attack today we would prevent it,” Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said during a U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Wednesday, crediting the work of the Homeland Security department.
“Has it worked? Has it made us safer as a nation? Was it a good idea?” Sen. Susan Collins, D-Maine, asked about the creation of the department.
“I think we are definitely better prepared, and to the extent that we are better prepared, we are safer,” Comptroller General of the United States Eugene Dodaro said. “We need to be vigilant.”
Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Jane Holl Lutte said the department’s No. 1 priority is preventing another terrorist attack.
“That’s job one for us. We do it every day,” she said.
The anniversary of the spectacular terror event has brought anxiety and heightened wariness.
Janet Napolitano, Department of Homeland Security secretary, said in a statement that while there are no “specific or credible intelligence that al-Qaida or its affiliates are plotting attacks in the United States,” for the anniversary, the department remains dedicated to prevent plots against the United States.
“While threats remain, our nation is stronger than it was on 9/11, more prepared to confront evolving threats, and more resilient than ever before,” Napolitano said.
Ports, too, have seen more stress on security with the passage of the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 and the Security and Accountability for Every Port Act of 2006. Before Sept. 11, 2001, there were no uniform guidelines for security, said Susan Monteverde, American Association of Port Authorities vice president of government relations.
Ports have become more secure, she said, in that people can’t just walk up to a port anymore. Plus lighting has been improved and security guards deployed. There’s also the Transportation Worker Identification Card, which is a biometric credential for port workers.
The nation has moved on to other concerns, but the attacks remain a shadow in the background, LaFree said. The attacks do still cross his mind, he said, such as during the August earthquake in Virginia. “I thought ‘Maybe we’re being attacked,'” he said. “People are still thinking about it.”
The problem will not go away, LaFree said.
“You can’t spend all your resources to prevent terrorism. You still need a strong defense against terrorism. The reality is (preventative spending) will be in competition with other things that the government spends its money on.”