Three lessons from 9/11 — for now and into the future

Three lessons from 9/11 — for now and into the future
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It has been 19 years since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. We are now confronting another crisis of great magnitude with the pandemic, which certainly will change the world in profound ways just as the terrorist attacks did. While there are a number of lessons to be learned from how the U.S. and international community responded to 9/11, there are three key takeaways that can help frame the approach to the pandemic and other international crises now and into the future.

The first is the importance of making sure all resources are used effectively. The 9/11 Commission and Capitol Hill investigations emphasized the need for better cooperation among government agencies, as well with foreign governments and international organizations. The creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are two examples of efforts to respond more effectively to attacks.  

While neither government agency is without problems, they have been part of the successful effort to eliminate “stove piping,” or the lack of sharing information on counterterrorism strategy. The ultimate success of having better coordination is the absence of the kind of attacks the U.S. endured 19 years ago in New York and Washington. In addition, there has been a willingness in the U.S. to put sufficient resources into the intelligence community so it can do its essential work in keeping Americans and their friends and allies safe. Without intelligence — the important work done by the CIA and other members of the intelligence community — there would not be the success the U.S. has had in combating the terrorism threat.


The U.S. government in general, and the intelligence community in particular, should be prepared to respond to crises. Resources are especially tight at the moment, but investing in key government agencies and programs that can address ongoing issues and predict unforeseen problems continues to be wise.

A second valuable lesson is to ensure that in the pursuit of dealing with one crisis, as the U.S. did during 9/11, other national security concerns are not ignored. During the initial years after 9/11, the sometimes singular focus on fighting al Qaeda meant putting less resources toward efforts that didn’t connect directly to counterterrorism. For example, expertise in Russian and Chinese relations did not get the kind of attention that would be helpful in responding to the current emphasis on great power politics.

While it is understandable that there is now an emphasis by policymakers on front-burner issues such as great power politics, we must continue to pay attention to combating terrorism and other national security concerns. For example, in a report released this year, the United Nations points out that the threat of terrorism is alive and well, particularly in the developing world. The U.S. and its allies must be able to deal with a range of existing issues, as well as anticipate problems that are just over the horizon.

The third lesson is to make certain that resources being used internationally are strategically focused. How assistance is allocated to nations in crisis is as important as amounts. The World Bank (WB) has taken the lead on making sure that its approach to development is strategic, sustained and resilient. The first WB strategy on fragility, conflict and violence (FCV) approaches development with the understanding that these three elements — fragility, conflict and violence — must be the focus of development policy. Specifically, “The objective of the FCV Strategy is to enhance the World Bank Group’s effectiveness to support countries in addressing the drivers and impacts of FCV and strengthening their resilience, especially for the most vulnerable and marginalized populations.” 

This is a model for dealing with ongoing crises such as the coronavirus pandemic. Policymakers must be smart and targeted in their use of resources, as well as driven by a strategy such as that of the WB’s FCV approach. The terrorism threat is not the result of poverty and poor governance or corruption, but these are among the elements that give rise to successful efforts by terrorist groups to recruit. Development strategies such as the WB’s FCV will not eliminate crises such as the pandemic or climate change any more than they could end the threat of terrorism, but they can mitigate their negative impact if used effectively. 

Learning the lessons from how the U.S. and other nations reacted to 9/11 would be the best acknowledgement of the resiliency of the U.S. and its allies in dealing with crises. It can provide hope at a time when it is in short supply. Making sure there is good coordination and effective use of resources; not having a singular focus on problems at the expense of ignoring other present and potential crises; and developing targeted strategies that respond effectively to problems, present and future, are lessons worth learning and remembering.

William C. Danvers most recently was a World Bank Group Special Representative for International Relations. He previously worked on national security issues for nearly four decades in the executive branch, on Capitol Hill, for international organizations and the private sector.