Are We Still At Risk Ten Years After 9-11?

By Sherry L. Harowitz

This piece is Part I of Security Management's 9-11 Anniversary Special Focus. In this issue we examine the evolving terrorist threat and the progress made in understanding and countering it. In Part II, ASIS leadership recount how they dealt with events on that day. One of the architects of the Suspicious Activity Reporting program shares insights into its formation and expansion in Part III; and in Part IV, we review the prospects for the newest attempt at a trusted traveler program.

There’s an eerie pre-September 11, 2001, feeling in the air. Post-9-11 terrorist plots to hit targets within the United States have been, in the public’s mind, mostly nonevents. They ignore them just as they ignored the 1999 millennium bomb attempt, because most of the would-be terrorists have been thwarted before they could cause any harm. As a result, one reads statistics like this, from Harper’s Magazine: “Ratio of Americans killed by lightning since January 2002 to those killed by terrorism: 3:2.” The implication is that the threat is overblown.

A familiar complacency is building, leading to less tolerance of the measures and money that it takes to provide security. Bloggers and privacy rights groups rail against intrusive measures such as body scans. Government agencies are at the same time criticized for not doing more to keep out would-be terrorists and tighten border security. Obviously, there’s room for improvement, and no one can defend all the missteps—nor should they—but against this backdrop, it’s easy to lose sight of the enormity of the challenge and the real progress made in the 10 years since terrorists flew planes into the Pentagon and the Twin Towers.

Threat Level

Let’s go back to Harper’s statistic: More American civilians have died from lightning than terrorism since 9-11. What does that really say about the level of the threat? As we are learning the hard way, it’s a mistake to let down our medical defenses against diseases such as measles that seem in abeyance. If we remove the countermeasures that reduce the risk, the threat returns. The public confuses the risk (the size of the problem after preventive measures are put in place) with the threat (the underlying problem).

How should we assess the real level of the threat 10 years out from 9-11? One way is to consider how many people might have died if known terrorist plots had been completed. Former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker, speaking at a congressional hearing on aviation security, pointed to the 2006 plot to blow up 10 planes heading for the United States from Britain, among other known plots, to show that the threat is real, adding, “Many other efforts have been foiled at an early stage and have not become publicly known.”

Baker was referring specifically to airplanes. But, of course, they are not the only credible target. “Another area that we do have to pay more attention to is surface transportation,” says Brian Michael Jenkins, senior advisor to the president of RAND Corporation, who has been researching the issue with the Mineta Transportation Institute.

Jenkins notes that since 9-11, there have been six jihadist terrorist plots targeting surface transportation in the United States. All were disrupted, but they prove the threat is not theoretical.

Looking more broadly, Jenkins says he knows of 10 jihadist plots that reached the operational stage. Those numbers are sobering if you think about the havoc wrought on 9-11 by a single plot.

But Jenkins puts the threat in perspective. “There is no evidence of a terrorist underground, no army of sleepers. Just veins of resentment and hotheads. It doesn’t mean they are not dangerous, but...they have not proved to be self-starters or competent,” he says.

(To continue reading "Are We Still At Risk?," from the September 2011 issue of Security Management, please click here)

photo by Bernt Rostad  from flickr


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