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The greatest, most haunting debate

Two years after the 9/11 attacks, one question haunts and divides policy makers like no other: why hasn’t al-Qaida struck America again? Brave New World.
National Guard troops on the Manhattan side of the Holland Tunnel in March. The tunnel connects New York City and New Jersey.
National Guard troops on the Manhattan side of the Holland Tunnel in March. The tunnel connects New York City and New Jersey.
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Two years on, many questions posed by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 remain unanswered. Is air travel finally secure? What about ports? Nuclear power plants? Water systems? Are American skyscrapers safe? Did the government grant enough power — or too much — to homeland security agencies? Will the Iraq war help or hurt the war against al-Qaida? Among these questions and many more, one, in particular, haunts senior policymakers like no other: Why hasn’t al-Qaida struck again on American soil?

To understand where the debate is today on this critical question, it is important to cast your mind back to the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks. The nation, rocked violently back on its heels, watched the gruesome attacks over and over again on television; Osama bin Laden became a household name; the National Guard appeared on bridges and in F-15s and F-16s over major cities.

The media belatedly began paying attention (and retainers) to people like John Hamre, a former Pentagon official, Gary Hart, a former Democratic Senator, and Bruce Hoffman, vice president of the Rand Corp., all of whom had, in one form or another, warned in the late 1990s that America was vulnerable to a major terrorist attack.

“A week ago, anyone suggesting terrorists would kill thousands of innocent people in downtown New York would have been dismissed as alarmist,” Tony Blair told his parliament on Sept. 14, by which time such people had been horrifically vindicated.

In the coming months, through anthrax attacks and a buildup to war in Afghanistan, law enforcement and intelligence agencies made it clear they fully expected the United States to be hit again, most likely sooner rather than later.

With American air travel in a state of virtual lockdown, the spotlight gyrated from crop dusters to reservoirs to truck bombs to nuclear power plants to suicide bombings at shopping malls. Spurred by bin Laden’s murders, officials had a new national alert system jumping up and down like an electrocardiogram.

Referring last summer to one scenario pondered by homeland security officials — an attack using a tanker truck filled with botulinum-infected milk — an aide to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, Michael Osterholm, warned a Minneapolis audience: “You wouldn’t have enough body bags in Minnesota to handle that event if it occurred here.”

So what gives?
With another year now past and with both the Taliban and Iraq’s dictator toppled, if not destroyed, the ongoing debate over the missing “next wave” of al-Qaida attacks on American soil breaks rages on. Talk about the “inevitability” of another attack is less frequent now, though no one rules it out.

Those familiar with the debate, including some at the heart of the administration’s policy making on counter-terrorism, say that three very distinct schools of thought have emerged on the question of why a second attack on the American homeland has not occurred.

1) The war on terrorism, including steps taken domestically and the military action in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond, is working. Adherents to this theory, which not surprisingly include many of the nation’s top security officials and Bush administration stalwarts in Congress, see al-Qaida as a somewhat over-rated adversary which spied a chink in peacetime America’s armor and exploited it with expertise.

“We know now that al-Qaida understood these flaws,” said Attorney General John Ashcroft in a recent speech. “And we know now that al-Qaida exploited the flaws in our defenses to murderous effect.”

Those who hold this view tend to think changes since Sept. 11, from passage of the Patriot Act to the international campaign against al-Qaida, has made a second attack by bin Laden’s group unlikely.

“I think al-Qaida has spent its magazine, that it doesn’t have another bullet,” says Raymond Tanter, a former National Security Council advisor in the Reagan administration and Middle East experts. “I don’t think you will see another 9/11. You may have 5/12s, as they’re now calling the bombings in Saudi Arabia, but nothing like what we saw in New York and Washington.”

2) Al-Qaida is reloading and the worst may be yet to come. This more pessimistic view is found in all political camps, including within the administration, but appears to be particularly strong among the military officer corps, the intelligence community and — again, not surprisingly — among Democratic critics of administration policy.

“Their pattern is that they take a lot of time, they’re patient, they prepare carefully and execute flamboyantly,” says James Gilmore, the former Republican governor of Virginia who heads a Pentagon panel on terrorism. “I think this is fairly described as the most predominant opinion in Washington right now.”

The theory resonates primarily because of al-Qaida’s history.

“The first attack on the trade center didn’t occur for two years after American troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia,” says Sen. Hart, who headed a panel that warned about America’s vulnerabilities before the attacks. “When they failed to bring it down, they came back a decade later to finish them off. We’re dealing with a patient organization.”

As CIA Director George Tenet put it earlier this year, “al-Qaida is living in the expectation of resuming the offensive.”

3) Al-Qaida is content, for now, with smaller attacks that provoke America and sow the seeds of anti-Americanism. This view has been described as “pragmatic” by some and written off as a rationalization by those who see al-Qaida as being on the run. Nonetheless, its adherents, who run the gamut politically from Republican insiders to left-wing intellectuals, point out that bin Laden’s ultimate goal always envisioned goading the United States into actions that would ruin its reputation for good in the wider world and divide the west into opposing camps.

The most powerful expression of this view came in the form of a Wall Street Journal op-ed last August by Brent Scowcroft, the national security advisor to the first President Bush, warning of the dangers of loosely equating Iraq with the war on terror.

“Our pre-eminent security priority — underscored repeatedly by the president — is the war on terrorism,” he wrote. “An attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counter-terrorist campaign we have undertaken.”

Lt. Gen. Patrick Hughes, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, says it is wrong to assume the absence of attacks on U.S. soil equals an impending victory over al-Qaida. “In my view they are hitting us, mostly low level, in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere,” he says.

Hughes feels Americans have to come to terms with the fact that terrorist groups, almost by definition, hold the initiative.

“Do I think, absent actual evidence, that they are planning to strike us again in a big way? Absolutely!” he says. “They may not strike this year, or even next. They own the clock.”