America Hasn’t Learned the Lessons of 9/11

What’s Changed in the US 15 Years After the 2001 Terror Attacks

It seems like it was only yesterday. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was sitting at my computer lazily crafting a “masterpiece” about American life. Suddenly, the phone rang. It was my editor in Moscow, anxiously asking when I would send materials on the breaking news. “Breaking news of what?” I asked. “Turn on the TV.” I turned on the TV and was stunned: I had experienced the same feeling of unreality in October 1993, when I watched a CNN live feed of tanks firing on the charred White House in Moscow…

The bright gray Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were engulfed in black smoke, with tongues of yellow-orange flame licking out. Then came the horrid gray cloud that took the place of the collapsed south tower, with the north tower following… The dust spread throughout lower Manhattan. Toxic smoke filled the streets, houses, cars and lungs of people running from the wave… Underfoot were not only bits of ash-covered rubble, but also chunks of victims’ bodies. 2,606 people in the World Trade Center died that day; many leapt from the upper stories of the 110-story skyscrapers in order to keep from burning alive. It was apocalyptic …

It was also apocalyptic for the passengers of the four planes hijacked by members of al-Qaida. Two planes crashed into the Twin Towers, one into the Pentagon building outside Washington and the final one crashed in Pennsylvania after a struggle between the passengers and terrorists — that plane had been targeting the leadership of the U.S. government. Adding those onboard the aircraft and those in the Pentagon, the number of victims of the largest terrorist attack in American history comes out to 2,996 dead. More than 6000 were injured.

The terrible events of Sept. 11 took America by surprise, even though it shouldn’t have. There were plenty of warning signs prior to 9/11 that should have caused the authorities to wake up and take measures long before. The monument erected in New York at the site of the destroyed World Trade Center serves as a reminder: It is dedicated not only to the victims of 9/11, but also to a much-earlier terrorist attack at the same location. On Feb. 26, 1993, a bomb planted in the garage of the World Trade Center killed six people and injured thousands more. The explosion was the work of Islamic terrorists linked to al-Qaida, but the Clinton Justice Department ordered that the attack be treated like an ordinary crime. James Kallstrom, who headed the New York branch of the FBI in 1993, has spoken about this many times.

After the attack, mastermind Ramzi Yousef fled to the Philippines, where he planned a series of airliner bombings. It was only by happy coincidence that the plot was uncovered. Then there were the bombings of U.S. military targets in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996, the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the bombing of USS Cole guided-missile destroyer in Aden in 2000.

The U.S. authorities should have been working on the problem of Islamic terrorism long ago. In 1982, a detachment of U.S. marines was dispatched to Libya as part of a peacekeeping contingent — a civil war was raging in the country at the time. In October 1983, a suicide bomber blew up a truck filled with explosives, killing 241 marines. There were other overseas attacks too.

The authorities preferred to ignore the Islamist threat, despite alarms sounded by journalists and writers studying Islamic extremism. Writers like Steven Emerson, creator of the film “Jihad in America” (1994), the book “Terrorists Among Us: Jihad in America” (2004) and author of numerous incisive articles in the press. In 1995, a federal building was blown up in Oklahoma City; 168 people died. The explosion was the work of homegrown domestic terrorists. However, there are many indications that they shared links with Islamic terrorism. The journalist Jayna Davis makes note of the first FBI alert posted after the attack. It contained a directive to law enforcement to search for two Middle Eastern-looking men who fled the scene in a brown Chevrolet pickup. Within just a few hours, this FBI alert was suddenly canceled with no explanation.

Long before Bush and Obama, Clinton should have responded forcefully to Islamic terror attacks. Instead, he fired off missiles at Islamist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan. That was it. They told him where bin Laden was in Afghanistan and asked for permission to take him out. Clinton thought about it for three days, during which time the terrorist leader disappeared.

The inaction continued under Bush. Even alerts from FBI field agents about suspicious Arabs studying in summer schools — one of whom said that he wanted to learn how to fly, but wasn’t interested in landing — elicited no reaction. A special commission was convened after 9/11, which brought to light numerous oversights. Nevertheless, it failed to blame anyone for the death of 3000 people.

After 9/11, the world started living in a new reality. Americans and others reconciled themselves to frisking on public transportation, wiretaps, media censorship and, worst of all, the inevitability of more attacks. More continue all over the world to this day, although not on the scale of Sept. 11. This includes in America itself. One need only to recall U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan’s massacre of his fellow servicemen (2009), the bloody attack by the Tsarnaev brothers on the Boston Marathon (2013) and the December 2015 shooting by a “dynamic duo” of young Islamists in California.

The massive Department of Homeland Security, created in the wake of 9/11, has been unable to prevent these attacks. Neither have the uniting of 15 intelligence offices under the umbrella of an “intelligence czar” nor extraordinary laws. America is a powerful country, but even it can’t protect every home, train car, church, school and hospital against suicidal fanatics. In order to strike back at the terrorist international, which uses not only military units but also lone fanatics in every corner of the world, all countries must work together. This is especially true of the global powers.

Ten years ago, during the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a book came out in America called “The Kremlin and the High Command: Presidential Impact on the Russian Military from Gorbachev to Putin.” Much of the book is about the fight against terrorism. Author Dale Herspring, a professor at the University of Kansas and an expert in the military and political problems of Eurasia, believes that the U.S. needs to learn from Russia. This is because Russia has suffered many more terrorist attacks on its soil: bombings on subways, pedestrian tunnels, passenger trains and airplanes; terrorist raids in various parts of the North Caucasus and beyond; massive hostage-takings at Buddyonovsk, the Moscow theatre, and Beslan… Scholars note that Russia has plenty of experience fighting Islamic extremism, which comes from the Muslim regions of Russia and former Soviet republics.

But America is traditionally a slow learner, despite its constant willingness to teach others. Presidents change, but they all suffer from a “democratic messiah complex,” which only harms countries where the preconditions for democracy don’t exist. Perhaps at the end of 2016, someone will remember that 15 years have passed since the start of the “War on Terror” with no victory. On the contrary, a new, incredibly dangerous terrorist movement has appeared and is gaining strength: The so-called “Islamic State,” which is banned in Russia and the majority of countries. The “liberated” peoples of Iraq and Libya recall the days under deposed tyrants as manna from heaven compared to what they have now. The situation in “democratic” Afghanistan is no better than it was under the Taliban, toppled by U.S. efforts. People do not recall the “Arab Spring” fondly.

A necklace could be strung together out of relevant pearls of wisdom: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” “Piss or get off the pot” (meaning that you shouldn’t fight halfheartedly or cheaply, but rather go all-out or not at all), “Two heads are better than one,” etc.

But there is another gem: “Don’t gloat.” We will keep that in mind, just like Vladimir Putin most likely did when he was the first world leader to call George Bush on Sept. 11, 2001. And again, when he was the first to call one year later …

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