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A Generation After The 9/11 Attacks, A Look Back On The War On Terror


This week, the nation is marking the 20th anniversary of 9/11. After those attacks came the so-called war on terror, a two-decade-long campaign that changed this country. The federal government poured money and resources into protecting the homeland from another terrorist attack, even as the nature of that threat evolved. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas has more.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Twenty years is a long time, a generation, and it's easy to forget the uncertainty, the fear and the anger that hung over the country in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. As the nation mourned the nearly 3,000 people who were killed, the George W. Bush administration frantically tried to find its footing and prevent what many feared would be a second wave of attacks.

RICHARD CLARKE: We had so many vulnerabilities in this country,

LUCAS: Richard Clarke was a top counterterrorism official in the Bush White House. He says at the time, they were worried about al-Qaida using chemical weapons or radioactive materials or attacking soft targets, like inner-city trains or subway systems.

CLARKE: We had a very long list of things, systems, that were vulnerable because no one in the United States had seriously considered security from terrorist attacks.

LUCAS: That, of course, quickly changed. Security became paramount. The government built out a massive infrastructure, including the Department of Homeland Security, all in the name of protecting against terrorist attacks. The Bush administration also empowered the FBI and its partners at the CIA and the Pentagon to take the fight to al-Qaida. The military invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq. The CIA hunted down al-Qaida operatives around the world, many of whom were tortured in secret prisons. On the home front, FBI Director Robert Mueller shifted some 2,000 agents to counterterrorism and tried to make the bureau a more intelligence-driven organization that prioritized fighting terrorism and preventing the next attack. Chuck Rosenberg served as a top aide to Mueller in those early years. The changes Mueller imposed, he said, amounted to a paradigm shift for the bureau.

CHUCK ROSENBERG: Mueller, God bless him, couldn't be all that patient about it either, right? It couldn't happen at a normal pace of a traditional cultural change. It had to happen yesterday.

LUCAS: It had to happen yesterday because al-Qaida was still plotting. Overseas, terrorists carried out horrific bombings in Bali, Madrid, London and elsewhere. In the U.S., al-Qaida operative Richard Reid was arrested in December 2001 after trying to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight with a shoe bomb. More plots were foiled in the following years, including one targeting the Brooklyn Bridge. In those days, Aaron Zebley was an FBI special agent and core member of the team investigating 9/11. He says that over time, the FBI and its partners got better at unraveling al-Qaida's plots by pulling together threads of intelligence quickly.

AARON ZEBLEY: If you have a little thread that could potentially tell you about a terrorist plot, not only were we much better at integrating the intelligence, but we did it at a pace that was tenfold what we were doing before.

LUCAS: But critics warn that the government's new anti-terrorism tools cut away at civil liberties, and the American Muslim community felt it was all too often a target of an overzealous FBI. By the early days of the Obama administration, the U.S. had to a large extent hardened the homeland against 9/11-style plots. But the terrorism landscape was evolving. At that time, Zebley served as a counselor to Mueller. Each morning, he would sit in on the FBI director's daily threat briefing.

ZEBLEY: One of my first thoughts was the map looks very different to me now. It's not just al-Qaida in the AfPak region. It's al-Shabab over here. It's AQIM over here. It's AQAP here and others.

LUCAS: Al-Shabab and AQIM are two al-Qaida affiliates in Africa, but it was AQAP, al-Qaida's franchise based in Yemen, that emerged as a significant threat to the U.S. homeland. That became clear in November 2009, when U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan shot and killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas. A month later, on Christmas Day, a young Nigerian man tried to blow up a passenger jet over Detroit with a bomb hidden in his underwear. It quickly emerged that both men had been in contact with a senior AQAP figure, an American-born Yemeni cleric named Anwar al-Awlaki.

JOHN PISTOLE: And my sense, when I first heard about him, was, well, he's some charismatic guy born in the U.S. and, you know, fluent English speaker and all that. But how big a threat could he be?

LUCAS: That's John Pistole. He served as the FBI's deputy director for six years.

PISTOLE: I think I failed to recognize and appreciate his ability to influence others to action.

LUCAS: Al-Awlaki definitely used the internet to spread his calls for violence against America, and they helped radicalize people in the U.S. and overseas. Al-Awlaki was killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen in the fall of 2011, a move that proved controversial because al-Awlaki was an American citizen. Although al-Awlaki was gone, just a few short years later the Islamic State, or ISIS, emerged from the cauldron of Syria and Iraq. Mary McCord was a senior national security official at the Justice Department when the militants declared their so-called caliphate.

MARY MCCORD: When ISIS came onto the scene, particularly that summer of 2014 with the beheadings and the prolific use of social media, it was so off the charts.

LUCAS: Like al-Qaida more than a decade before, ISIS used its stronghold to plan operations abroad, such as the coordinated attacks in 2015 that killed 130 people in Paris. But it's the group's mastery of social media that really set it apart. It pumped out slickly produced propaganda videos to instill fear and inspire sympathizers in Europe and the U.S. to conduct attacks where they were. People inspired by ISIS could go from watching the group's videos to action relatively quickly without setting off alarms. Chuck Rosenberg was serving as chief of staff to the new FBI director, James Comey, at the time.

ROSENBERG: It was clear, too, that there were going to be attacks we just couldn't stop, that a lot of bad things could happen, maybe on a smaller scale, but a lot of bad things could happen more quickly.

LUCAS: And bad things did happen. Europe was hit by a series of deadly one-off attacks. In the U.S., a gunman killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in 2016. And a year later, a man used a truck to kill eight people in Manhattan. Both men had been watching ISIS propaganda. The Islamic State's allure waned after a global coalition led by the U.S. managed to retake all the territory the group once claimed. By then, America's most lethal terror threat already stemmed not from foreign groups but from the country's own domestic extremists. In early 2020, FBI Director Christopher Wray had this message for lawmakers.


CHRISTOPHER WRAY: We elevated to the top level priority racially motivated violent extremism so it's on the same footing in terms of our national threat banding as ISIS and homegrown violent extremism.

LUCAS: The move came in the wake of a series of high-profile attacks by people espousing white supremacist views in Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, California, and El Paso, Texas. At the same time, anti-government extremist groups and conspiracy theories like QAnon were attracting more and more adherents. And those various movements converged in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021, in the storming of the U.S. Capitol, an assault that Wray bluntly described as domestic terrorism. The Biden administration has prioritized combating that threat, one that presents many of the same challenges as foreign terrorism but also some new ones.

Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEEB'S "FLUID DYNAMICS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.