At 8:46 a.m. ET on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center—the first of four plane crashes that morning—and nothing was ever the same again. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and in this episode of Big World, SIS professor Josh Rovner joins us to discuss the national security legacy of 9/11.
Professor Rovner shares where he was when the first plane hit the north tower (2:03), explains what then-president George W. Bush called the “War on Terror” in response to the attacks (3:00), and discusses some of the immediate impacts of 9/11 on national security (5:58). He also describes the long-term changes to national security measures after 9/11 that continue to impact Americans today (8:41) and how the legacy of 9/11 and the War on Terror impacted the overall US defense apparatus (11:10).
What was achieved during the 20-year mission in Afghanistan, which was America's longest running war (17:56)? How does the US approach counterterrorism now that troops have been withdrawn from Afghanistan and the Taliban is in control (21:48)? Professor Rovner answers these questions and explains how the priorities of the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security have been affected by 9/11 (25:07); he also shares an unforeseen legacy of the attacks that might surprise people (27:57).
During our “Take Five” segment, Professor Rovner details the advice he would give to the current secretary of state, secretary of defense, and director of national intelligence as the Biden administration implements its approach to counterterrorism (13:38).
0:07 Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. At 8:46 a.m. on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. It was the first of four plane crashes that morning. United Flight 175 crashed into the south tower at 9:03 a.m. American Flight 77 crashed into the west wall of the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. And United Flight 93 crashed into a field in Stony Creek Township, Pennsylvania, at 10:03 a.m. after its passengers successfully diverted the four hijackers on board from their intended target. And nothing was ever the same again.
0:55 KS: This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and today, we're talking about the national security legacy of 9/11. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Josh Rovner. Josh is a professor at the School of International Service. He's a political scientist who specializes in intelligence, strategy, and US foreign policy. Josh served as a scholar in residence at the National Security Agency and US Cyber Command in 2018 and 2019. Josh Rovner, thank you for joining Big World.
1:24 Josh Rovner: Thanks for having me.
1:25 KS: Josh, I want to acknowledge upfront that you and I are going to try to have a fairly dispassionate conversation about the national security response to and the enduring impacts of 9/11, but I can't leave it unsaid that September 11, 2001 was a wretched day in the life of every American who can remember it. It was an unbelievably tragic day for those who lost loved ones or who saw their loved ones harmed. I think it's one of those days that no matter how old you get, you always remember where you were and what you were doing. I am wanting to start out with just a personal note. Josh, where were you when the first plane hit the north tower?
2:03 JR: Well, I was at home in Boston at the time, and like a lot of people, I was getting ready for my day and getting ready to go to work. Somebody said, "Turn on the TV. There's something going on." Like everybody else, I watched it. Your point is absolutely right, that with the benefit of a couple of decades, we can speak about these things in a little bit of a more dispassionate way, but it really was an atrocious day and something that was hard to deal with in real time. I would just hope that with the benefit of distance, we can have more thorough conversations, even though they're still a little bit difficult.
2:48 KS: Absolutely. Josh, then US president George W. Bush called for a "War on Terror" in the wake of the attacks of 9/11. What was this global military campaign, really?
3:00 JR: Well, it's a great question because there's the issue of what it was at first and what it later became. Initially, the so-called war on terrorism was a local response to the perpetrators of 9/11. The US was going to go after Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden's version of Al-Qaeda, which had grown during the 1990s in Afghanistan. It started locally in Afghanistan, but it then quickly expanded geographically. It wasn't just against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, but as the president said at the time, "We're going to go after anybody who's affiliated with Al-Qaeda, no matter where they reside, that borders won't protect them, that regimes won't protect them."
3:52 JR: It expanded in other ways, too. It started against this non-state group of Al-Qaeda, but it quickly expanded to include state sponsors of terrorism, obviously the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but then others. It started in very narrow security terms, that is we are going to destroy the group that did this to us, but it quickly expanded into a much broader war of ideas, where it wasn't simply a matter of going after groups that were able to conduct violent attacks, but we wanted to win the war of ideas. We wanted to destroy any illusions that people have that what Al-Qaeda was preaching was a good thing, that we were actually the good guys in this story.
4:48 JR: These expansions, you look at them retroactively, and you can understand why they happened. That we started locally against non-state actors in narrow security terms, but in all three ways we expanded the war. You can understand the reasoning behind all of those decisions, but they created new problems and they made the military aspects of the war much, much more difficult in trying to operate over vast distances against states and non-state actors, all the while trying to fight this ideological battle. It became really, really messy, really fast.
5:27 KS: You mentioned that there was the idea that we were going to have this war on ideas and prove that we were the good guys, but there was also a tremendous amount of both anger and fear among the American population. Since the national security apparatus is a subset of the American population, I have to imagine there was some of that driving them as well. Right away, what were the immediate impacts of 9/11 on national security following the attack?
5:58 JR: Well, there were several. There was huge organizational churn in the national security establishment that the previous decade, the 1990s, had seen reductions in funding for the Department of Defense, for the intelligence community. This was after the Cold War. This was the peace dividend. And that all changed almost immediately after 9/11. You had a huge expansion of the intelligence community, efforts to recruit many, many more analysts and officers, expansions to law enforcement, growth of the military, and critically, efforts to try to bind these things together.
6:47 JR: For instance, there was an effort to try to overcome the differences between the intelligence community and the law enforcement communities. This gap between these two services was said to be part of the reason why Al-Qaeda was able to conduct the attack in the first place. There were all kinds of attempts to try to merge these functions and to create more integration among different parts of the national security bureaucracy. We did this in a number of ways. Congress legislated the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. These were big organizational structures that were meant to bring different parts of the national security establishment together, so they could work more efficiently and hopefully prevent further attacks.
7:40 KS: There was a lot of talk about turf wars I remember at the time. That the lack of coordination had something to do with turf wars and the different agencies not wanting to cooperate. That was not something that I think the average American knew of or would have had reason to be concerned about until then. We all take some measures that happened, I think, for granted now. I think we take things like air travel security for granted, but like I said at the beginning, nothing was ever the same again. I think it's important to remember that, for example, for air travel, the current screening measures that we undergo as passengers, including full body scans, taking off your shoes, these were all things that were direct outgrowths of 9/11. So looking at the day-to-day, what other long-term changes to national security measures were made after 9/11 that continue to impact day-to-day lives for just regular Americans today?
8:41 JR: Well, I think that this is an interesting story, because as you note, some things did change for sure. I mean, I try to tell my kids what it was like going on an airplane before 9/11 and they don't believe me. You could walk right up to the gate. And so there were those changes to life. But for most Americans though, on a day-to-day basis, our lives aren't really that different. And for most Americans, unless you're going on an airplane, the changes to your day to day really aren't substantial. There's no restrictions in your movement. You do basically the same thing that you did before. The thing that's important, and in some sense troubling, is that this is not the same for everybody. So for instance, if you're in the armed forces, your life has changed rather dramatically.
9:39 JR: And this is the consequence of coming on two decades of continuous military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, where you have repeated deployments. And especially in some communities, Special Forces communities, that goes back again and again and again. And not only does that put real strain on them and there's the risk of death or injury, but it's a family strain. It's a mental and psychological strain. And it's been a huge, huge burden for them to bear, this kind of open-ended war that we've been fighting since 9/11. So again, you're right that there have been changes domestically, but they haven't been distributed evenly among all Americans.
10:33 KS: And we talk about the War on Terror. It is something that over the years drew criticism as something that was ill-defined and thus impossible to win. How do you know you won something if you can never really say what it was? So talking about the impacts on the service members, on the other side of that, how have the legacy of 9/11 and the War on Terror impacted the overall defense apparatus, including the US's approach to conflict overseas and what we now call the Military Industrial Complex? I don't think I ever heard that before the days after 9/11.
11:10 JR: The military and the industry that supports it has kind of been whipsawed over the last 20 years. Because after 9/11, there was a move to think of US conflicts abroad as radically and forever changed. We were no longer going to fight World War II-style battles against uniformed enemies. We were instead looking at a future of indefinite fighting against people out of uniform that weren't part of enemy military forces, we were going to fight terrorists and insurgents. And the idea was that you weren't going to defeat these kinds of enemies using tanks and aircraft and big organized military formations. So we had to shift in some way. We had to shift our operational approach towards non-state actors. And we had to stop thinking about what's sometimes called legacy wars or conventional wars. Everything was different.
12:17 JR: Well, now in the last three or four years, we're sort of shifting back to looking at great power adversaries as our chief focus of DOD operations. As a matter of policy, this has been the case since 2018. The DOD has kind of formerly shifted back to what it calls great power competition, by which it really means dealing with China and Russia. And so what does that look like for the military? Does that mean that we have to now sort of go back to building boats and tanks and airplanes and thinking about conventional force? Do we learn anything from the last 20 years that we might use effectively against traditional nation states?
12:59 JR: Are there technologies that were created for counter-terrorist operations that might be useful for conventional military operations, like autonomous vehicles, like the use of artificial intelligence for targeting purposes? Or are those technologies just different, and we have to go back to the drawing board? I think that this is probably what DOD is thinking a lot about these days, is what does it really mean to shift back to sort of a traditional great power focus? What does that mean for industry? What does that mean for armaments? And what does that mean for our operational approach to battle?
13:38 KS: Josh Rovner, it's time to Take Five. I'm asking you to tell us how you'd change the world, if you could, by single-handedly instituting some policies or practices that would change the world for the better. As we record this, the Biden administration is still in the early stages of implementing its approach to counterterrorism. So what advice would you give to the current secretary of state, secretary of defense, and the director of national intelligence?
14:12 JR: I would tell the secretary of state to listen more and speak less. That sounds trite, but I think it's important. All counterterrorism ultimately is local. If the United States is operating abroad for counterterrorism purposes, we need to work with allies and partners, and they have their own local political and social concerns. So I think that for the new secretary of state, go in on a listening tour rather than on a talking tour, and start asking questions of partners. Foundational questions. Especially this one, what does success look like for you?
14:52 JR: And I think by starting that way, we can make real progress with allies and partners and achieve something that we can continue going forward. For the secretary of defense, I would urge the secretary not to think of counterterrorism in terms of classical strategy. The war on terrorism doesn't fit with traditional strategic concepts of coercive victory or brute force. And what we have instead is a kind of police action. So the question that I would pose to the secretary of defense is how important is that mission, and how many military resources can you commit to that while also trying to shift towards bigger problems like the rise of China? And then finally, for the director of national intelligence, I would ask what sounds like a prosaic question. Who do you hire as intelligence officers, and what do you ask them to do?
15:54 JR: After 9/11, there was a huge movement to shift intelligence activities to counterterrorism. And now there's pressure to shift back to traditional state adversaries. Meanwhile, there are broader questions about climate change, the pandemic, cybersecurity, and so forth. So I would start at the fundamental questions of personnel. Can you hire enough people to cover all this ground? If not, should you integrate more with private sector researchers or is there a way that we can start to think about the production of intelligence as a division of labor? These questions might seem sort of mundane and prosaic. They're certainly less dramatic than some of the questions we traditionally associate with spying and terrorism and so forth. But I really do think they've got big implications for intelligence going forward, and the answers have, I think, big implications for American foreign policy.
16:53 KS: Wonderful. Thank you.
16:55 KS: Former president Barack Obama announced in 2013 that the War on Terror was over, saying in a speech that, "Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless global War on Terror, but rather as a series of persistent targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America." President Biden, of course, announced in July of this year that his administration would pull all troops out of Afghanistan by August 31 of this year, 2021. As that deadline approached, the situation on the ground in Afghanistan changed dramatically and rapidly with the Taliban quickly retaking control within the country, and the US and its allies focusing on evacuating our citizens and the Afghan people who had assisted our efforts over the years. We're going to address the current situation in a moment. But first, Josh, what was achieved during the 20-year mission in Afghanistan, which was America's longest running war?
17:56 JR: Well, I think the most important thing was that the 1990s version of Al-Qaeda was smashed, right? Osama Bin Laden's organization was utterly dismantled, and its leadership was killed or captured almost entirely. And as much as I've been a critic of American foreign policy and strategy in Afghanistan, that's not nothing, right? That version of Al-Qaeda was really scary, and they were scary because they were unusual among terrorist groups. They were well-financed. They had charismatic leadership, and they were really well-organized, right. Unusually-
18:42 KS: And they were successful.
18:43 JR: Yeah, very successful. And this is what made that organization different and particularly threatening. And that's why you had near universal support after 9/11 for going after it, right? As much as the foreign policy debate has been fractured ever since with people arguing about how to think about counterterrorism, where to fight, whether to fight, at the time, there was an overwhelming support for going after that organization. And we did quite well against it. I think we did better against Al-Qaeda than we assumed we would when the war began. So this is an accomplishment, and it is an important thing to accomplish. Now it gets more contentious and controversial as you move past that, that initial success.
19:35 KS: Josh, I said earlier that I would ask you to address the current situation in Afghanistan. As people consider the last 20 years, we might think about the quick, early success that the US had in pushing the Taliban out of power in the weeks after 9/11. We might think about Seal Team Six and the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011. And maybe some people somewhere remember that the helicopters for that mission took off from Afghanistan. Other than that, unless a person served in Afghanistan, they likely don't know much. And I think that having watched the chaos in Kabul and the images of people trying to get on planes that would take them away, the question I have is: Did the US's last 20 years in Afghanistan accomplish anything that will last?
20:23 JR: Well, sadly, it doesn't look like anything good will come out of this. The Taliban is a fundamentalist group. It is a decidedly illiberal group. I don't know how much it's changed since the 1990s, but I'm not terribly confident that it's a lot different than it was before. And all of the goals that we had of creating a more liberal society, a more inclusive society, and a freer society seem to be going away very, very quickly. So that's a very sad legacy of our time in Afghanistan.
21:02 KS: And as we're speaking today, the world is reeling from a bombing yesterday at the airport in Kabul, which killed as many as 170 Afghans and 13 US service members. And those are the numbers we have right now. Credit for the bombing was claimed by an Afghan affiliate of ISIS called ISIS-K, that considers both the US and the Taliban to be its enemies. And I know that the old proverb is that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." I do not believe that anyone would suggest that the US and the Taliban are friends, but clearly we are in strange times. So looking ahead, how does the US approach counterterrorism now that we've withdrawn from Afghanistan and the Taliban is in control?
21:48 JR: Well, I think that there's two issues that we have to face directly. One is the issue of civil war and the other one is counterterrorism. In terms of the relationship between the US, ISIS, and the Taliban, Afghanistan remains in a state of civil war, and it's been in a state of civil war for decades. And I think that what we're seeing now is just the latest version of that horrendous long-running civil war, where the Taliban and ISIS-K, who are enemies of each other, are going to fight for power in the new Afghanistan, without the US, without coalition partners in the country. And this gets back to the big problem that we've had the last 20 years. The United States has tried to create a functioning state and a functioning military. A lot of very well-intentioned people have tried very, very hard to engineer a better society that could sustain itself on its own.
22:56 JR: The problem is civil war is not an engineering problem. It's a political problem. It's groups fighting for power. The bombing yesterday is an absolute horrendous event. But for people in Afghanistan, they've been living through these kinds of bombings for years and years and years, right? And so in terms of the US relationship with the Taliban and ISIS, my view is that this is their civil war that they are fighting. The United States is trying to get out because it's been unable to squelch it up to now. On the second issue, which is what do we do about counterterrorism going forward? For a long time, the US has used bases in Afghanistan in order to conduct counterterrorism operations.
23:49 JR: I think what's happening now is that the Biden administration has determined that it can continue to prosecute counterterrorism operations from off offshore, that it can do it using offshore assets, it can do it using technology, using sophisticated intelligence collection, and it doesn't require boots on the ground in a war zone in order to do that. This is consistent with President Biden's views going back many, many years. So I think that what's happening is that he's trying very hard to move US forces offshore where they can conduct counterterrorism without becoming mired in these kinds of conflicts.
24:31 KS: And Josh, you talked about the focus that's turning back toward big powers, Russia and China specifically, which I think is part of the answer to this question I'm about to ask. What are the current priorities for US national security, and how do you think those priorities have been affected by the legacy of 9/11, and I'm thinking not only of Russia and China and that focus but also cybersecurity in general? How do you think the priorities of DOD and the Department of Homeland Security have been affected by the legacy of 9/11?
25:07 JR: Well, I mean, I think you're absolutely right that there is this moment of organizational flux that we're in right now. That after many years of trying to reorient the bureaucracy towards dealing with non state threats and issues like counterinsurgency and state building now we're suddenly sort of shifting back to dealing with great powers. I think clearly the national security priority today is China and what to do about a rising China, a more powerful China, and a more ambitious China. And the reason that that's such a priority is not just because of China's integration in the world economy and sort of centrality to world politics, but historically, moments like this are very fraught. How does a leading great power like the United States deal with a rising great power like China? Getting this wrong is really dangerous and the consequences of getting this wrong could be catastrophic if you end up in a real confrontation between these two gigantic countries, both of which have very large and lethal military forces and nuclear weapons, right?
26:33 JR: So it's not surprising that the US would focus back on China given the stakes, but this does create a lot of practical problems. Who do you employ in the intelligence community, what kinds of weapons do you buy, and so forth? What kind of war do you think you're going to fight if it comes to that? It's an expensive and weighty question. But beyond China, this is all happening in the context of bigger changes to world politics like climate change, which threatens human security probably more than anything else.
27:15 KS: Josh, last question. Looking back, there are inflection points in US history and the extent of these are sometimes only really understood in hindsight. World War II changed the world order, of course, but it also spawned the Baby Boom, which was the largest generation in US history, and every sector of US society has been affected, but the Baby Boom wasn't necessarily something that people expected to come out of a worldwide conflict. So I'm not sure there's a perfect analogy but I'm wondering, with 20 years of hindsight, do you think that there are any legacies of 9/11 that might surprise people, things that we just couldn't have foreseen?
27:57 JR: Yeah. You always tread carefully when you get into these questions of what might be surprising later. I'm sure if I listen to this podcast 20 years from now, I'll roll my eyes at what I'm about to say, but I think that, at least what it is kind of surprising to me is not what has happened since 9/11 but what hasn't.
28:24 JR: You mentioned at the start of this conversation that you were talking about what it felt like on 9/11 itself and how literally terrifying it was. And what we feared after 9/11 were two big things. We feared more spectacular attacks with thousands of civilians dead, and we feared an overzealous security response, that we would head in the direction of becoming a police state, that it would become a kind of dystopian society to live in. But those things haven't happened, and I think it's worth reflecting on that. We didn't suffer more 9/11-style attacks. We didn't live under the specter of catastrophic violence in the United States from foreign terrorist groups, and nor did the government crack down the way that some feared it would. I'm not saying that it did everything right, and very smart critics have pointed out ways in which maybe the intelligence community and law enforcement went too far, but even in those cases Congress has stepped in repeatedly to sort of re-legislate that and has been very attuned to issues of civil liberties and trying to strike the right balance between security and civil liberties.
29:54 JR: So maybe one thing that will surprise people the most is that Congress, which is much criticized, maybe has done a better job than people give it credit for, that there has been this system of routine oversight of intelligence and law enforcement. So again, when we look back 20 years from now and try to piece together all the things that happened, I would hope that we don't just focus on the events of what happened in American society, but take a look at what didn't happen, take a look at the non events and then ask why that didn't happen the way we feared.
30:35 KS: I think that's a very hopeful note to end on. Josh Rovner, thank you for joining Big World to discuss the national security legacy of the 9/11 attacks. It's been an honor to discuss it with you.
30:49 JR: Thanks for having me.
30:50 KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you'll leave us a good rating or review, it will be like that first day when it really truly feels like autumn. Our theme music is "It Was Just Cold" by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.