Analysis: 9/11 Fifteen Years Later

By September 11, 2016 No Comments
Smoke from the Twin Towers in New York City, September 11th 2001. Image Source: Wikimedia

Smoke from the Twin Towers in New York City, September 11th 2001. Image Source: Wikimedia

By Alexandra Chronopoulos & Colin Baulke

In much the same way the world was forced to confront the threat of terrorism in the days post-9/11, on the anniversary of the attacks we are perennially forced to confront the legacy the attacks have left on our society, our security apparatus and the philosophies and practices of both.

Benchmarking the success of the post-9/11 standpoint is difficult and devoid of obvious metrics. The most tangible goal laid out after 9/11/2001, to prevent another attack of that nature and scale on American soil, has so far been accomplished. This can be credited in part to the overhaul of the travel industry and the robust response of national and international security agencies. It is also due to the fact that “Trojan horse” attacks such as the plane hijackings have a relatively low likelihood of success on even the first attempt, and almost zero likelihood of success thereafter when the strategy is known.

The other explicit goals of the post 9/11 strategy of denying terrorist sanctuaries, destroying al-Qaeda and countering violent extremism all remain unaccomplished.  Terrorists can find sanctuary as easily if not more easily than in 9/11. Iraq has become a haven for terrorist groups, as evidenced by Islamic State’s (ISIS) rise to prominence there. al-Qaeda has survived and intermittently thrived since 9/11, and symbolic victories such as the elimination of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar have not resulted in a structural weakening of the group. Policy failures and scandals such as enhanced interrogation, extraordinary rendition, FirstNet, Guantanamo Bay internment and the 2003 invasion or Iraq have served to alienate and increase radicalization rather than counter it.

The face of terrorism has changed in the last 15 years, as is evidenced by the rise of such terrorist cells as ISIS, as well as the imminent threats of self-starters armed with accessible weapons such as IEDS, firearms and vehicles. Moreover, the role of the web has revolutionized the way terrorist cells can radicalize, organize and function.

Steven Brill, the author of The Atlantic’s September cover story “Are We Any Safer,” examines the mindset of the “September 12 era”, wherein our Western democracies have become obsessed with preventing terrorist attacks before they happen.

Brill indicts the increased cost of air marshals post-9/11, which costs the U.S. government $800 million annually to deploy thousands of air marshals to hundreds of thousands of flights. Though the scale and profile of the 9/11hijackings necessitated rapid action to securitize air travel and assuage public concerns, the likelihood of a similar hijacking style attack was low to nil.

Also questionable is the ability to respond to chemical or biological attacks, a far more likely method for terrorist groups to launch a large-scale attack. In the week after 9/11,  Anthrax attacks killed five and hospitalized 17 after various envelopes containing the white powder were sent to media outlets and to two Senators’ offices. BioWatch is a $1 billion biochemical defense sensor system that is meant to set off alerts when a biohazard is detected. Currently, however, the technology is 10 years outdated.

CIA Director John Brennan has defended, perhaps justifiably, many facets of the American counter-terrorism strategy of the past 15 years. In a recent interview with the Combatting Terrorist Center (CTC) at West Point, Brennan credited the policies of targeted killings in impeding the ability of terrorist cells to operate and increased cooperation in the intelligence community as disrupting the flow of foreign fighters.

Canada’s resiliency to terrorist attacks similar to 9/11 or the more recent surge of self-started attacks in Western Europe is not easily explained either. Examples such as the Toronto 18 show our security apparatus’s ability to monitor terrorist cells and prevent attacks. Canada’s low population density and geographical distance from terrorist sanctuaries may affect how Canada is viewed as a potential target compared to the United States, as there are fewer major cities, it is more difficult to acquire weapons needed and a successful attack would not have the same level of global symbolism. Moreover, our refusal to participate in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 may contribute to less-hostile intentions directed at us from the terrorist groups like ISIS who find their ideological roots in that conflict.

In the 15 years since, the challenges of counterterrorism remain no less daunting and perhaps more opaque in nature. When examining the conduct and success of our CT campaigns since then, it is important that we evaluate our successes and failures equally in order to understand our best practices. Well-intentioned policies can exacerbate tensions and drive terrorism and unrelated phenomenon such as the digital revolution and globalization have morphed the concept of “terrorism” and “terrorists” into a form entirely unrecognizable from that of 15 years ago.



Alexandra Chronopoulos is a publications intern at the Mackenzie Institute. She is in her final year of completing her Bachelor of Journalism at Ryerson University. She has won the Ryerson School of Journalism’s award for her multimedia feature Seeking Asylum, which followed the journeys of five Syrian refugees from Aleppo to Toronto, as well as the Dean of Art’s essay award for her work chronicling her grandfather’s journey as a partisan fighter against the Germans in WWII and against the Russians during the Civil War. With keen interests in global affairs, the intersection of the media, intersectional feminism and human rights, she hopes to pursue a MA in international relations, and work as a foreign affairs journalist. 


Colin Baulke is Publications Editor at the Mackenzie Institute. He is a Canadian security policy student and practitioner. He is a post-graduate student at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. He has previously worked at the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Quilliam Foundation.