9/11: Not just About Us

The Power Problem: Part of a series of views on lessons learned in the exercise of American power in the decade since 9/11.

Graham Allison

Graham Allison

By Graham Allison

Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

The 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks that killed 3,000 people, innocents from more than 90 countries, is an appropriate occasion to reflect on an unhappy truth:  Al Qaeda has been, and remains, at war with civilized peoples everywhere in the world.  As Americans reflect on that fateful day, we should be clear that 9/11 is “not just about us.”

By any metric, 9/11 was the most catastrophic attack in Al Qaeda’s two-decades history.  It was not its first, however, nor its last.  Since 1992—when Al Qaeda targeted American troops in Aden, Yemen in a hotel bombing that ended up killing 2 Australians—Al Qaeda has killed 5,000 people worldwide.  A chart published by the Economist in May provides a summary of Al Qaeda attacks and casualties that span four continents.

Since 9/11, they have expanded their deadly footprint.  As the map below illustrates, Al Qaeda, its affiliates, and its acolytes have murdered hundreds more people with successful attacks in Europe, Bali, India, and most recently Russia.  They have tried repeatedly to strike the American homeland, including a plot to bomb the New York City subway in 2009 that was intercepted by law enforcement officials just days before the attack and the 2010 attempt by an American citizen to bomb Times Square.  Had these efforts been successful, hundreds of people—Americans and, undoubtedly, visitors from around the world—would have died.

Al Qaeda Attacks and Plots Since 9/11

When 19 hijackers turned passenger planes into piloted cruise missiles and crashed them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon that Tuesday morning 10 years ago, Al Qaeda not only committed an act of war against the United States.  It demonstrated that it is at war with the world.  Its attacks were not just against Americans. They were, as Kofi Annan, then-Secretary General of the United Nations, observed, “an attack on humanity itself.”

About Graham Allison

Since the 1970s, Graham Allison has been a leading analyst of U.S. national security and defense policy, with a special interest in nuclear proliferation and terrorism. He served as assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton Administration, and was a longtime member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board. He is the founding dean of the modern Kennedy School. Full bio >
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One Response to 9/11: Not just About Us

  1. Clint Sharpe says:

    The author should examine why there is terrorism:

    See section 2.3 in this Pentagon report:


    American efforts have not only failed in this respect: they may also have achieved the opposite of what they intended.

    American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies.

    • Muslims do not “hate our freedom,” but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in
    favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi
    Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states.

    • Thus when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy. Moreover, saying that
    “freedom is the future of the Middle East” is seen as patronizing, suggesting that Arabs are like the enslaved peoples of the old Communist World — but Muslims do
    not feel this way: they feel oppressed, but not enslaved.

    • Furthermore, in the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering. U.S. actions appear in contrast to be motivated by ulterior motives, and deliberately controlled in order to best serve American national interests at the expense of truly Muslim selfdetermination.

    • Therefore, the dramatic narrative since 9/11 has essentially borne out the entire radical Islamist bill of particulars. American actions and the flow of events have
    elevated the authority of the Jihadi insurgents and tended to ratify their legitimacy among Muslims. Fighting groups portray themselves as the true defenders of an Ummah (the entire Muslim community) invaded and under attack — to broad public support.

    • What was a marginal network is now an Ummah-wide movement of fighting groups. Not only has there been a proliferation of “terrorist” groups: the unifying context of a shared cause creates a sense of affiliation across the many cultural and sectarian boundaries that divide Islam.


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