Saturday, September 11, 2021

The Terrorist Attacks of 9/11: What Have We Learned?

The September 11, 2001 National Memorial, New York City
The solemn commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks this weekend highlight once again a key question.  What did the United States learn from the attacks?  What steps have been taken not only to prevent future terrorist attacks but to address the root causes of the attack?  As the US debacle in Afghanistan makes clear, what the United States has actually learned from 9/11 is not at all clear. 

One of the postive  US accomplishments has been to develop a security nexus which, to date, has prevented another 9/11 type attack from occurring.  Apart from the attack by a Saudi army officer training at the US last year which killed 3 American servicemen,  there have been no attacks in which the perpetrator has identified with al-Qa'ida or the so-called Islamic State.

To date, one of the core policies in the struggle against terrorist and violent extremist groups has been to focus on ever more sophisticated weapons systems.  Some of these systems make sense but others seem more designed to generate profits for large defense contractors than to enable the US to confront the threat of terrorism.

The last time the US fought a protected conventional conflict was the Korean War of the early 1950s.  The likelihood of the US becoming involved in a conventional war, say with China or Russia, is highly unlikely.  The threat to day is less from a country's military might, albeit important, but from cyber warfare and the use of weapons sales and economic assistance.  Think for example, of China's enormous Belt & Road initiative which is financing countless infrastructure projects, primarily in less developed countries (LDCs), and Russian arms sales, e.g., the S4600 anti-aircraft missile system which it sold to Turkey, a NATO member.

During the Obama administration, there was a significant increase in the sue of drones.  Although they disrupted the Taliban, al-Qa'ida and al-Shabab, they also caused considerable civilian casualties.  In Afghanistan, drone attacks which killed and wounded civilians were effective tools to recruit more fighters to join the Taliban.  The "hellfire," the latest version of the drone which uses shrapnel rather than explosives to kill targets, may reduce civilian casualties but eliminating leaders of terrorist groups, while  will not destroy the ideology that led them to become violent extremists in the first place

What is the US' secret weapon?  The answer is human resources. As was clear from the 20 year war in Afghanistan, policies were developed which showed little or no understanding of Afghan culture and society (as I argue in my post,  A Tale of Two Cultures - the US Debacle in Afghanistan).  What is needed is a massive education campaign by the Federal Government to provide culture and language studies for students, beginning at the secondary school level.  

In secondary schools, language study continues to be a weakness in the global studies curriculum.  Because knowledge of a foreign language is the gateway to the culture of the people who speak it, language should not be seen as an "add on" and less critical than STEM courses.  Because the United States is unique as a ethnically and religiously diverse society, teachers who are native or "heritage" speakers of languages other than English should be recruited to obtain degrees in education so they can begin teachers in the nation's public school system.

The Critical Language studies program at the US Department of State, which provides scholarships for studying languages from regions where instability prevails, should be expanded.  Many students in the social studies and humanities face difficult employment opportunities and career choices in the current Covid-19 economy.  Now would seem an ideal time to recruit young scholars to new careers in the State Department and US intelligence agencies where they can study foreign cultures and languages to help policy-makers make more informed and thus better decisions about US foreign policy moving forward.  

How would the Biden administration cover the costs of this large-scale education program? This investment in the nation's human resources in the global struggle against terrorism and extremism should be considered a "weapons system" on its own merits.  The United States does not need additional aircraft carriers, stealth bombers and other highly expensive weapons systems.  Rather it needs a military with a wide variety of new skills which can allow it to fight terrorism in asymmetric conflicts and engage in cyber warfare.  

What the US alo needs is a new generation of diplomats and intelligence analysts who will be able to develop creative ideas which can be used to combat extremism.  The US is uniquely positioned to work with recent immigrants from a wide variety of countries where extremism has taken hold.  Think, for example, of the large Afghan-American population which includes many of the most skilled professionals and educators from Afghanistan, not to speak of many Afghans in the US who have worked closely with the US military and international NGOs.

If the Biden administration were to take this educational mission seriously, it would provide an example for US allies in Europe and elsewhere to follow suit.  A more educated and culturally sophisticated generation of young analysts could also work with Muslim communities in their respective societies who reject extremism and the effort terrorists have made to appropriate Islam (just as Christians have rejected efforts of white nationalists to appropriate Christian doctrine).

In the struggle against terrorism, and in the spirit of truly commemorating the victims of the 9/11 attacks, the US and democratic nation-states globally need to start thinking in new ways to bring the scourge of violent extremism to an end.