We're Safer Than We Think

Article excerpt

Byline: Fareed Zakaria

But no one wants to admit it.

Are we safer now than we were on 9/11? It sounds like a simple question, amenable to an answer or at least a serious conversation. But we are so polarized in America these days that it almost seems more difficult now than it was in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Let me try and answer the question as fairly as I know how.

Of course we are safer. During the 1990s, Al Qaeda ran training camps through which as many as 20,000 fighters may have passed. It was able to operate successfully during that decade and into the next because most governments treated the group as an annoyance rather than a major national-security challenge. After the attacks, the world's attitude changed dramatically, and the series of security measures instituted since then have proved effective. Take one example: sealing cockpit doors has made it highly un-likely that an airplane could be used ever again as a missile.

In addition, U.S. forces went on the offensive in Afghanistan, toppling the regime that supported Al Qaeda, destroying its camps, and chasing its recruits around the mountains of the region. Washington, in partnership with other governments, has tracked the communications, travel, and--most important--money that fuels terror operations, blocking these at every turn. As I wrote at the time and subsequently, and as I continue to believe, the Bush administration deserves credit for these measures. Whatever one may think of its subsequent decisions, its policies to secure the homeland and go after Al Qaeda in 2001 and 2002 were mostly smart and successful. President Obama's decision to amp up the campaign against Al Qaeda in Pakistan has further fractured the group.

As a result, Al Qaeda "central"--Osama bin Laden and his gang--has been whittled down to about 400 fighters. It has been unable to execute large-scale attacks of the kind that were at the core of its strategy--to hit high-value American targets that held military or political symbolism. Instead, the terrorist attacks after 9/11 have been launched by smaller local groups, self-identified as affiliates of Al Qaeda, against much easier sites--the nightclub in Bali; cafes in Casablanca and Istanbul; hotels in Amman, Jordan; train stations in Madrid and London. The fatal problem with these kinds of attacks is that they kill ordinary civilians--not U. …