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The Evolution Of Terrorism Since 9/11

Smoke billows out of the burning World Trade Center towers before their collapse in New York on September 11, 2001.
Smoke billows out of the burning World Trade Center towers before their collapse in New York on September 11, 2001.

The pretrial hearings for Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and his four co-defendants resumed in the last few days of May. The accused mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States has been held in Guantanamo Bay's detention center since March 1, 2003, and he and his fellow detainees have become the focal point of a debate about how the U.S. deals with terrorism suspects in a post-9/11 world.

Thirteen years after his detention, there is still no indication of when his trial will be held. The Guantanamo hearings were suspended in 2015 when one suspected terrorist, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, relayed messages back home to his family in Yemen through his defense council, raising concerns that the detainees could still be sending coded messages to Al-Qaeda. But as Public Radio International's Arun Rath points out, this was hardly the first delay, and the proceedings at Guantanamo Bay have revolved around the debate about the legal status and treatment of the detainees more than they have focused on the 9/11 attacks.

"The court had to deal with the discovery of hidden microphones in rooms where the defendants had confidential talks with their lawyers; authorities "ransacking" the defendants' cells while they were in court; and a mysterious, invisible censor shutting down audio feeds from the courtroom, to the confusion of the judge."

Rath also suggests that the narrative on the trial may be shifting. This week prosecutor Ed Ryan petitioned Judge James L. Pohl to let the court hear statements from the victims' families -- before the trial even begins. This is an unusual step, since court statements would be public and would hypothetically be accessible to potential jurors. Rath explains:

"In an impassioned delivery, prosecutor Ed Ryan referenced two witnesses whom he said the government had intended to call, but who passed away in the last several months. 'Passages of life are happening, and can happen quickly,' Ryan said, arguing they needed to record witness testimony now, rather than to "just sit back waiting for bad health to arrive.' He went on to list 10 potential witnesses with advancing age and health concerns.

"More broadly, it sounded like Ryan was trying to change the narrative of the hearings. The court had heard 'much about the treatment of the accused...the word "torture" used over 500 times,' he said, while noting the phrase '9/11' had only been used about 200 times."

Despite the complicated legal and moral issues at play in Guantanamo Bay, the prosecutor appears to be trying to remind the court, and perhaps the American people, that the entire purpose behind the infamous prison was to house those who are most capable of bringing about another nightmare like 9/11.

But we have not witnessed another attack of similar magnitude anywhere, much less on U.S. soil, in the 15 years that have followed 9/11. What are the chances of another 9/11-style attack occurring, and is it possible to measure the importance of the detainees who are still locked up in Guantanamo Bay?

There are many reasons why we have not seen another 9/11. The Al-Qaeda that Osama bin Laden built in the late 1990s does not resemble terrorist organizations that exist today. Terrorist groups are hunted wherever they try to settle. U.S. drones hunt terrorists from Africa to Asia, and raids like the one that led to the death of bin Laden demonstrate that even international borders cannot keep terrorists safe. It is not that terrorists have no place to hide; it is that there is no longer any country in the world where they can live without hiding. This is one reason why these groups have focused on establishing their own state-like organizations in places like Yemen, Libya, and of course Syria and Iraq: No sane government in the world would openly harbor these terrorist groups the way the Taliban did in Afghanistan.

The good news is that 9/11-style attacks have become more logistically difficult. In an interview with RFE/RL, Nicholas A. Heras, Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security and an associate fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, said that U.S. intelligence is now shared and counterterrorism efforts are coordinated at the federal, state, and local levels. Aggressive intelligence sharing, security procedures at air and sea ports, and if necessary counterterrorism operations, are also coordinated with overseas partners.

According to Heras, sophisticated attacks like 9/11 require too much coordination among the attackers at various levels, and so they are more likely to be disrupted by the United States and its allies. Both Heras and another expert we consulted, Kyle Orton, a research fellow with the Henry Jackson Society, agreed that there remains the strong possibility that a bomb could be detonated on an airliner; but 9/11-style hijackings and complex coordinated attacks are likely a thing of the past. Heras also pointed out that blind luck has played a role in thwarting some of these attacks.

But terrorism is very much alive. Terrorist groups have traded fantastic weapons for familiar ones. Large and relatively expensive operations like 9/11 have been replaced by less sophisticated attacks that utilize homemade bombs and readily available guns like the attacks in Paris, Brussels, and before that in 2008 in Mumbai. The 9/11 attacks gave Al-Qaeda the aura of an almost mythical all-powerful international terrorist organization, like Cobra from the fictional world of G.I. Joe. For months, or years, every jet airliner in the sky was cautiously eyed as a potential threat, every high-rise building and landmark was seen as a potential target. Sadly, terrorism has evolved. The smaller-scale attacks of the last decade are simultaneously harder to stop and more terrifying, since anyone capable of carrying a gun could be a threat and every shopping mall, coffee shop, or movie theater is a potential target.

Worse yet, terrorist organizations have proliferated in recent years, and while they have focused on developing state-like organizations in the Middle East and elsewhere, rather than launching attacks on the West, they have also adopted a strategy of appealing to those who already live in the United States and Europe to launch attacks for them. Heras explains:

"The global jihadist movement as a whole is more widespread and controls more territory than it did prior to 9/11/2001, and this includes the recent rise of the ISIS organization in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Many of the affiliates of the global jihadist movement, whether they identify with Al-Qaeda or ISIS or another organization, are generally more focused than bin Laden's Al-Qaeda was on controlling local territory, and building statelets that can then be used for community cover for global jihadist networks to plan attacks on the United States, or, increasingly, on Europe.

"In particular, ISIS has developed a more advanced form of strategic deterrence threat against the United States Coalition partners in Europe, and from the Middle East, from its territorial base in Syria and Iraq, than al-Qaeda ever enjoyed in Sudan and Afghanistan, or what it has in Yemen, and what it is trying to build in northern Syria's Idlib governorate. ISIS's network in Europe that conducted the Paris and Brussels attacks are an example of ISIS' increasing realization that even as it loses territory in Syria and Iraq, it can present a real and deadly strategic deterrent threat to use against the West, if not the United States as directly."

Kyle Orton, research fellow with the Henry Jackson Society, agrees. Islamic State (IS) "has been able to inspire true 'lone wolves' in a way Al-Qaeda largely failed to do, and IS is happy to claim credit for these attacks by people who are basically fanboys -- low-skilled and with no direct connection to the organization," he told RFE/RL. "This is a microcosm of the differences between Al-Qaeda and IS in their conceptions of jihad: For Al-Qaeda, it is an elitist pursuit of a vanguard; for IS, it is a more 'democratized' endeavor."

In many ways this is harder to stop -- a speech given in Syria or Yemen, echoed through the Internet, can inspire terror attacks on the other side of the globe without having to be coordinated and financed by Middle Eastern terrorists.

Virtually no one would argue against the notion that the dismantling of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda has made the world a safer place to live, but the ideology of terror has not yet been defeated. Guantanamo Bay's inmates still pose a threat. Both Heras and Orton stress that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence estimates that about one-third of the prisoners who have been released from Guantanamo Bay and returned to their home countries have conducted terrorist attacks.

This is why the Obama administration, even while it has pushed to close Guantanamo Bay, has not advocated returning all of the detainees to their home countries. Most of the remaining prisoners at the facility are said to be the "worst of the worst," who may eventually be transferred to the mainland United States to serve out their sentences in super-max prisons, but in all likelihood none will ever be sent to their home countries.

But as a result of the "democratization" of terrorism, the fate of those detained in Guantanamo Bay is unlikely to have a larger impact on the war on terror.