So far, so good; but there's no guarantee against attack

By Lee Hamilton
Feb 22 2009


It is much easier to explain why something happens than to explain why something does not happen.

Al-Qaida has not successfully attacked the United States on its own soil since Sept. 11, 2001. We can theorize about the reasons for this, but we cannot do so with certainty. There is still too much we don't know about our enemy, its intentions and its capabilities to draw definitive conclusions.

We know that al-Qaida still seeks to harm the United States. The statements of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri make this clear. And foreign-policy missteps, especially in Iraq, have amplified the threat. It is possible that al-Qaida believes that attacks on U.S. interests in Afghanistan and Iraq are more effective, less expensive and less risky.

For these reasons, complacency and self-satisfaction are hardly in order.

Clearly, our intelligence about al-Qaida has improved. Since 9/11, the intelligence community has directed greater resources toward the Middle East and South Asia. The National Counterterrorism Center pools the knowledge of experts across the government. The director of National Intelligence has begun to harness the collective power of the U.S. intelligence community's disparate components.

We are safer at home than before 9/11, in part because of steps we have taken domestically. Airline passenger screening, the visa process, the security of identification documents, the protection of infrastructure, the slowing of illegal immigrants entering the country, the presence of security professionals, and inspections at ports of entry are all improvements. But we are still not as safe as we would like to be.

The FBI has made counter-terrorism its highest priority and placed greater emphasis on intelligence analysis. Coordination between federal and state law enforcement officials has improved, but should be better. Unlike in parts of Europe, there is little threat from "homegrown" terrorists and no evidence of sleeper cells.

It seems unlikely that today foreign individuals posing a security threat could get a visa, enter the country, establish residency and take flying lessons, as the 9/11 hijackers did. Still, our homeland and border security efforts have a long way to go. For example, according to the Government Accountability Office, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have failed to stop one in 10 illegal immigrants and drug and weapons violators from entering the country.

Abroad, the United States has gone on the offensive and put al-Qaida on the defensive. Al-Qaida has suffered its own setbacks. Its brutal tactics in Iraq and elsewhere have alienated Muslims around the world, including prominent and influential clerics.

The single greatest blow to al-Qaida in the aftermath of 9/11 was the elimination of its sanctuary in Afghanistan.

While al-Qaida has re-established safe havens in parts of Pakistan, its freedom of movement and action in Pakistan is not comparable to the free rein it had in Taliban-era Afghanistan. Many of the leading al-Qaida figures, though not bin Laden and Zawahiri, are imprisoned or dead.

Al-Qaida and other terrorist groups also have seen their access to finance restricted. In addition to the armed forces and the CIA, agencies like the Department of the Treasury wield powerful weapons in the fight against terrorism.

Additionally, the American public has become more engaged. It was, after all, an alert airline attendant who noticed the shoe bomber, and passengers stopped him from carrying out his plot.

Of course, we cannot ignore that we may have been lucky. There are things in this world the U.S. government cannot control. We cannot achieve total security or eliminate every single threat to the United States. "It's better to be lucky than good," the old saying goes. When the stakes are this high, we need to be both. I do not believe we have seen the last terrorist attacks on our homeland.


(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)