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