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Transatlantic Take

The Enduring Legacy of 9/11

Fifteen years on, the 9/11 terrorist attacks continue to shape perceptions and policies on both sides of the Atlantic.

Fifteen years on, the 9/11 terrorist attacks continue to shape perceptions and policies on both sides of the Atlantic. Images of the World Trade Center collapse, in particular, retain their power to shock even as a new generation emerges with no firsthand memory of the events on that crystal clear day on America’s east coast. As the international community confronts new waves of terrorist violence, it is worth reflecting on some elements of this legacy.

Successive American administrations have been compelled to frame their security policies with implicit reference to the September 11th experience. For President George W. Bush, the influence was immediate and direct. In policy and tone, the Bush administration remained a self-proclaimed wartime administration from beginning to end.  The rationale for the Iraq war was intimately bound up with perceptions of America’s exposure to terrorism with weapons of mass destruction. Other, broader arguments were part of the equation, but it is arguable that intervention in Iraq would not have unfolded as it did, when it did, absent the catalyzing effect of 9/11. So, too, it is doubtful that the fifteen-year war in Afghanistan could have been sustained without reference to its initial cause — a view that has shaped the approach of the Obama administration and NATO allies.  In terms of straightforward strategic logic, the coalition presence might have ended long ago. But the operation there carries a particular sense of mission and responsibility – and a test of credibility – that policymakers find hard to shake. 

In the struggle against terrorism, the failures are highly visible and the successes are often invisible — a difficult challenge for leaders anywhere.

Echoes of 9/11 abound in the rhetoric of the 2016 American elections, and are just as evident on the European political scene, where insecurity is the order of the day. Indeed, Europe remains more exposed to international and homegrown terrorism. And both continents are less exposed than Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East where the bulk of the world’s terrorism takes place.  But the prosperous, generally secure societies of North America and Europe have come to expect a high degree of national and personal security.  There is an expectation that the government will keep its citizens from being terrorized, just as there is an expectation that the state will protect society from the risk of war and invasion. Counter-terrorism is more akin to crime prevention than military deterrence and defense. Complete security is impossible, and the measures of success are less obvious. In the struggle against terrorism, the failures are highly visible and the successes are often invisible — a difficult challenge for leaders anywhere.

The current wave of attacks led and inspired by the so-called Islamic State – and the latest incarnations of Al-Qaeda – begs the question of what is next in the evolution of terrorism. The terrible incidents in France, Belgium, Turkey, and elsewhere have left publics on edge and have given rise to a pervasive sense of insecurity. But these attacks have not, so far, produced mass lethality on the scale of 9/11, and it is uncertain if the new crop of jihadi terrorists aspire to this, perhaps with weapons of mass destruction.  Yet, the potential exists, and the history of terrorism points to a competitive dynamic in scale and lethality, both within and between networks.  Today’s terrorists may or may not aspire to this, but it is a standing risk that cannot be ignored.

Does terrorism of the kind transatlantic partners are now experiencing constitute an existential threat? Short of the use of weapons of mass destruction, in strict security terms, it probably does not. But it could be existential in political terms for governments who ignore the strategic challenge. Terrorism has already had an effect on politics in Europe where it has combined with anxiety over immigration, borders, and identity to fuel the rise of right-wing populist movements.

In a more reasonable way, publics are seeking reassurance that national security policies are being reshaped to address the terrorist threat. Recent polling suggests that concern about terrorism runs high, not only in societies most obviously exposed, but also in parts of northern and eastern Europe where worries about Russia would be expected to trump such concerns.  Traditionally, both NATO and the European Union have had a difficult time with counter-terrorism as a strategic priority. It has long been at the top of public and official agendas, but it remains largely a national responsibility.  The transnational nature of the terrorist challenge, including the “foreign fighter” phenomenon, underscores the limitations of this approach, especially when it comes to intelligence sharing.  Politically, both institutions will have a hard time holding counter-terrorism at arm’s length. As the transatlantic community moves forward together to tackle future security challenges, it is worth remembering that NATO has only had one “Article V” contingency in its history — in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001.