It is Sept. 1, and that means we are once again approaching the anniversary of al Qaeda's Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against the United States. In the 10 years that have passed since the attacks, a lot has happened and much has changed in the world, but many people can still vividly recall the sense of fear, uncertainty and helplessness they felt on that September morning. Millions of people watched United Airlines flight 175 smash into the south tower of the World Trade Center on live television. A short while later they heard that another plane had struck the Pentagon. Then they watched in horror as the World Trade Center's twin towers buckled and collapsed to the ground.
It was, by any measure, a stunning, cataclysmic scene, a kind of terrorist theater that transformed millions of television viewers into vicarious victims. Excerpts of the just-released memoir of then-Vice President Dick Cheney demonstrate that it was not just ordinary people who were affected by the attacks; America's leaders where shocked and shaken, too. And judging from the statements of foreign citizens and leaders in the wake of 9/11, those who proclaimed, "We are all Americans," it was also apparent that the toll on vicarious victims did not stop at the U.S. border.
One result of this vicarious victimization and the fear and helplessness it produced was that many people became fixated on the next attack and began anxiously "waiting for the other shoe to drop." This spawned an entire industry of fear as dire warnings were propagated by the Internet of the impending "American Hiroshima" that was certain to result when al Qaeda detonated all the nuclear devices it had hidden in major U.S. cities. Chain emails were widely circulated and recirculated quoting a dubious Israeli "security expert" who promised simultaneous catastrophic terrorist attacks against a number of American cities - attacks that never materialized outside of Hollywood productions.
Fast forward a decade and we are now commemorating 9/11's 10th anniversary, which seems more significant somehow because it is a round number. Perhaps of more meaningful significance is that this anniversary closely follows the death of al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden on May 2, 2011. Indeed, the buzz regarding this coincidence has caused many of our clients and readers to ask for our assessment of the terrorist threat inside the United States on this 10th anniversary of 9/11.
While we believe that today holds some degree of symbolism for many, the threat of an attack on Sept. 11, 2011, is no higher than it was on Aug. 11 or than it will be on Sept. 12, and below we explain why.
The State of Al Qaeda and the Jihad
All threats have two basic components: intent and capability. Al Qaeda's leaders have threatened to conduct an attack more terrible than 9/11 for nearly a decade now, and the threats continue. Here's what Ayman al-Zawahiri, now al Qaeda's No. 1, said to his followers on Aug. 15, 2011, in a message released on the internet via as-Sahab media:
"Seek to attack America that has killed the Imam of the Mujahideen and threw his corpse in the sea and then imprisoned his women and children. Seek to attack her so history can say that a criminal state had spread corruption on earth and Allah sent her his servants who made her a lesson for others and left her as a memory."
The stated intent of al Qaeda and the rest of the jihadist movement is, and has been, to strike the United States as hard and as often as possible. It logically follows, then, that al Qaeda would strike the United States on Sept. 11 - or any other day - if possible. With intent thus established, now we need to focus on capability.
One of the primary considerations regarding al Qaeda's capability to strike the United States is the state of the jihadist movement itself. The efforts of the U.S. government and its allies against the core al Qaeda group, which is based in Pakistan, have left it badly damaged and have greatly curtailed its operational ability, especially its ability to conduct transnational attacks. In January we forecast that we believed the al Qaeda core was going to be marginalized on the physical battlefield in 2011 and that it would also struggle to remain relevant on the ideological battlefield. Indeed, it has been our assessment for several years now that al Qaeda does not pose a strategic threat to the United States.
Since we published our 2011 forecast, bin Laden has been killed as well as senior al Qaeda leader Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who reportedly died in a strike by a U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle Aug. 22 in Pakistan's North Waziristan region. We continue to believe that the al Qaeda core group is off balance and concerned for its security - especially in light of the intelligence gathered in the raid on bin Laden's hideout. The core group simply does not enjoy the operational freedom it did prior to September 2001. We also believe the group no longer has the same operational capability in terms of international travel and the ability to transfer money that it had prior to 9/11.
Some people believe there is a greater chance of an attack on this year's 9/11 anniversary because of the killing of bin Laden, while others note that al-Zawahiri may feel pressure to conduct an attack in order to prove his credibility as al Qaeda's new leader.