Reflections on the 9/11 Attacks, 16 Years Later
September 11, 2017

How should we think about the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the enduring threats, 16 years later? In response to the worst, deadliest terrorist attack on our soil, America reacted with full fury—invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, drone campaigns in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and elsewhere, and the establishment of a massive intelligence and homeland security architecture, including the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.

Al Qaeda spent roughly $500,000 to destroy the World Trade Center and damage the Pentagon. What did we spend in response?

According to a 2016 report by the Watson Institute at Brown University, the U.S. government has spent nearly $5 trillion in response to the 9/11 attacks—mostly to support the warfighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, but also for homeland security spending, which the Watson report calculates as roughly $548 billion from 2001-2016. This, of course, does not include the other costs—thousands of soldiers dead or wounded, and the long-term care of veterans and their families. Plus, there are the costs to our civil liberties and privacy rights, as the federal government has ramped up its domestic security and surveillance efforts.

There are also the opportunity costs—could the nation have spent $5 trillion differently over the last 16 years? Could we have spent those taxpayer dollars in a way that could have increased prosperity, reduced inequality, strengthened our infrastructure, and positioned America better for the competitive landscape of the 21st century world?

What would have happened if, instead of spending $5 trillion on counterterrorism and homeland security since 9/11, we’d spent that money on cancer or Alzheimer’s research? Or on driverless car technology? Or on public health and treatment efforts against opioid addiction? Would our society have been better off?

When I was receiving intelligence briefings during my first weeks and months in the Bush administration after 9/11, I have to admit I was frightened—as were my colleagues. The threats seemed dire, immediate, and persistent—and the drumbeat of attempted and successful attacks worldwide was constant.

But in reality, since 9/11, only 94 people have been killed in the United States by Islamist terrorists, and of those, most died in the mass shootings at Orlando, San Bernardino, and Fort Hood—all committed by U.S. citizens radicalized here. If you add far right and white nationalist terrorists, this adds another 51 people killed since the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City—including those killed recently in Charlottesville, Virginia. On average around nine or 10 people die a year from Islamist, far right, and white nationalist terrorist attacks occurring inside the United States. By contrast, over 8,000 people have been murdered in Chicago from local violence since 2001—an average of 500 a year.

What would have happened if, instead of spending $5 trillion on counterterrorism and homeland security since 9/11, we’d spent that money on cancer or Alzheimer’s research? Or on driverless car technology? Or on public health and treatment efforts against opioid addiction? Would our society have been better off?

It could be that we overreacted, and al Qaeda—and ISIL—were never 10 feet tall. Terrorists were able to pull off "Black Swan" events like 9/11 or Madrid, but those were difficult and hard to repeat. Compared to the Soviet threat we faced in the Cold War, the rag-tag group of extremists in Pakistan and Syria has been a minor threat. From the benefit of hindsight, opioids, drunk drivers, and trans-fats seem to be much more urgent threats to Americans than terrorists.

But what if the reason so few Americans have died from terror since 9/11 is because of the herculean effort made by the United States and its allies to prevent further attacks? Since 9/11, we’ve essentially destroyed al Qaeda as a functioning organization—killing not only Osama bin Laden in the raid ordered by President Obama, but also most of the organization’s command structure in drone strikes, and driving the organization into hiding in Pakistan and Yemen.

Even despite mistakes such as the Iraq War, it is indisputable that Americans are far safer from radical Islamist terrorism today than in the years immediately after 9/11.

We are in the process of doing the same thing to ISIL now, as the territory the "Caliphate" controls in Iraq and Syria shrinks every day under pressure from U.S. and other forces—with Mosul now in Coalition hands and the ISIL capital of al-Raqqa in our sights. We’ve better secured our borders and worked with our North American, European, and Asian partners to make it extremely difficult for foreign terrorist fighters to transport weapons or move through the global transportation systems—which makes it almost impossible for al Qaeda or ISIL to send a terrorist on a plane across the seas to North America. Working with their foreign counterparts, the intelligence community, and the FBI have become extraordinarily effective in detecting major plots directed by al Qaeda or ISIL leadership.

No doubt, we’ve made costly mistakes along the way. The Iraq War caused thousands of deaths and gave rise to so many of the problems we are dealing with today, including the Syrian Civil War and the rise of ISIL, an organization that began during the Iraq insurgency as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s brutal al Qaeda offshoot—al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. The invasion also destabilized the region and strengthened other U.S. adversaries, most prominently Iran. The Afghanistan War has also sadly become a seemingly endless quagmire, with an unclear mission and no end in sight.

But even despite these mistakes, it is indisputable that Americans are far safer from radical Islamist terrorism today than in the years immediately after 9/11. Given the success of our global and domestic counterterrorism efforts, it is no wonder that al Qaeda and ISIL have both resorted to "Plan B," which is to rely on social media networks to spread propaganda and hope that this will radicalize disenchanted youths like the Orlando attacker, "inspiring" them into isolated acts of mass mayhem. Certainly, al Qaeda and ISIL have executed some bloody attacks in Europe, such as the Charlie Hebdo shooting and the Brussels airport attack, but most attacks—both here and in Europe—have been by "lone wolves," inspired and radicalized by online propaganda. While those attacks, such as Orlando, have been bloody, they do not present the type of civilization-altering threat that we thought we were facing in the days and weeks after 9/11.

Long and short, our counterterrorism and homeland security efforts since 9/11 have been extraordinarily successful—and, for the most part, they have been bipartisan, as President Obama was, if anything, even more relentless in pursuing and killing al Qaeda and ISIL leaders than President Bush was, and members of Congress from both parties have consistently backed these efforts.

We must remain vigilant against major threats that would cause mass casualty. But arguably the greater threat these days is ourselves—an overreaction that changes the character of our country or destroys our economy.

Sixteen years after the 9/11 attacks, how should we view the terrorist threat? Just as crime can never be eliminated, so too will the threat of terrorism endure. But it is greatly diminished. Al Qaeda and ISIL have essentially been destroyed as organizations capable of planning and directing a 9/11-style mass casualty attack on America. They will still try and might occasionally succeed in launching something deadly—al Qaeda’s infamous bombmaker is still on the loose in Yemen, and he and his compatriots continue to develop more and more sophisticated and hard-to-detect bombs. But our intelligence is better, and our military efforts have these organizations on the run. As a result, the more likely threat comes from "Plan B"—individuals radicalized via social media and inspired to use everyday weapons, such the truck used in the Nice attack or the firearms used in Orlando, San Bernardino, or the attack by a white supremacist on Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston in 2015.

We must remain vigilant against major threats that would cause mass casualty. But arguably the greater threat these days is ourselves—an overreaction that changes the character of our country or destroys our economy. Indeed, we almost did this in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, as border security measures effectively shut down the borders to trade and travel, and threatened to bring the North American economy to its knees. Perhaps the $5 trillion we’ve spent on security since 9/11 could have been spent more effectively to make our people more competitive and prosperous in the competitive global economy. Instead of spending on rebuilding our failing infrastructure or education system, pushing the development of alternative energies, or preparing for the consequences of global climate change, we built the Department of Homeland Security and spent billions on screening technology, border security, and drones. We are safer from terrorists, perhaps, but poorer as a society as a result. Was that the right choice? Historians will need to be the judge.

Even as we work to make our people safer, our institutions of government and civil society must continually guard against this greater threat, as we protect the constitutional freedoms that make America truly exceptional and a beacon for freedom-loving people throughout the world.


Seth Stodder is a Pacific Council member and served in the Obama administration as assistant secretary of Homeland Security. He also served in the George W. Bush administration as director of policy for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He currently teaches national security law in the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.

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