Ten Years After 9/11: The War Can Still Be Won

A Special JINSA Report by Steve Pomerantz, JINSA Director for Counter-Terror Programs. Mr. Pomerantz was a career FBI Agent who retired as Assistant Director.

A Special JINSA Report by Steve Pomerantz, JINSA Director for Counter-Terror Programs. Mr. Pomerantz was a career FBI Agent who retired as Assistant Director.

Like everyone else in America, I will never forget where I was on 9/11/2001 or how the events unfolded. After my Assistant told me to turn on my office TV, I witnessed the second airplane strike the World Trade Center and, again like almost everyone else, I realized that we were under attack, most likely by terrorists. Within minutes, I was in a car, being driven from my Falls Church office to the FOX television facility in downtown Washington, where I was to spend a large portion of my time for the next few weeks. The driver’s route took me close to the Pentagon where I saw the rising smoke darken the sky. I will never forget my feeling of shock and horror, as the full understanding that my country was actually under attack struck me like a punch in the stomach.

I retired from the FBI as an Assistant Director in 1995 after a 28-year career that included serving as the Chief of Counter Terrorism with responsibility for all FBI terrorism investigations both at home and abroad. After my retirement, I remained concerned enough about the terrorist issue that along with other former FBI, CIA, U.S. Military and retired Israeli counter terrorism experts, I established an organization devoted to helping to counter this very serious threat to our country.

For a number of years prior to 9/11/2001, virtually every person knowledgeable about international terrorism felt confident predicting that sometime in the not too distant future we would be the victim of a serious attack here at home. Furthermore, although the panoply of terrorist organizations around the world included individuals of varied nationalities and religions, who collectively represented a great diversity of political and social causes, we were equally confident of the source of the impending attack. It would come, we knew beyond a reasonable doubt, from what we then called a Middle East Terrorist Organization.

For years, the United States, as well as other countries, had been the victims of deadly terrorist attacks carried out by a variety of organizations bearing names like Fatah, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the Abu Nidal Group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and a host of others. Over time, the attacks were becoming bolder and bloodier. Most of those attacks directed against the United States occurred overseas and targeted U.S. businesses, government entities, military facilities, and individual U.S. citizens traveling on business or pleasure.

Over time, the response of the United States government became predictable. Each time there was an attack it would galvanize our attention and we would usually mount some kind of response involving the CIA, FBI, State Department and sometimes the Military. Congress would make a great deal of noise and throw some more money in the budgets of those agencies with counter terrorism responsibilities. We would talk about taking action against those countries that sponsored and supported the terrorist groups, like Iran, Syria and Libya.

Quickly and inevitably, life would return to normal, and memories of the attack would fade until the next incident, when the cycle would repeat itself. And so, the terrorist groups grew. They became bolder, as did their state sponsors. It culminated with the incorporation of Islamic religious fanaticism as part of the terrorist ideology, the rise of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and their determination to carry the fight to the United States homeland.

Much has been written about the failures surrounding the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, there were many. There is much blame to go around. But far and away, the primary reason 9/11 occurred lies not with the failure of the CIA or the FBI or any other government agency. It rests squarely on the political leadership of this country for their decades of failure to address the obvious and constantly growing terrorist threat that included blatant support given to terrorist organizations by foreign countries. Both political parties bear their share of the blame.

All of that is history now. What we can do is learn from our mistakes and move forward. I admit to being incredulous when asked, as I often am, if we can win the war against the terrorists. The country that defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, that prevailed over the Soviet Union, that has arguably accomplished more than any society in the history of the world can surely defeat this enemy. What is required is leadership that remains focused on the problem. We need leadership that takes the fight to the terrorists and to those states that support them rather than hunkering down behind security barriers that should be our last line of defense.

The 10th anniversary of the horrific 9/11 attacks is a singular moment. Three distinct lessons of our collective experience present themselves. The attacks should galvanize our commitment to both defeating the terrorists that threaten us and neutralizing the state support they continue to receive. We should reflect on the mistakes of the past that made the attacks possible and renew our commitment never again to be so quiescent. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, with a decade under our feet and great challenges confronting our country, we must, through our actions, renew our commitment to honor the memories of those thousands who perished that day and we must never forget the thousands more who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the ongoing war to defeat those who threaten America.