Ripples of Sept. 11: Afghanistan, counterterrorism, and concerns for corporate America

Ripples of Sept. 11: Afghanistan, counterterrorism, and concerns for corporate America
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As someone who was engaged in the hunt for and capture of Ramzi Yousef, the first World Trade Center bomber, the need to be proactive in addressing terror threats was always clear to me. However, terrorism simply was not a national priority throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

This status quo was shattered at 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, when al-Qaeda began their strikes on U.S. soil. America responded quickly, marching headlong into strategic decisions that have rippled through the moments to now — 20 years later.

These ripples have colored our culture in countless ways. While we have successfully prevented another attack on America by the likes of al-Qaeda, unforeseen developments have opened new fronts for violence to thrive that are contributing to an already unfortunate trend.

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From the impacts of post-Sept. 11 security changes to the war in and collapse of Afghanistan, security leaders need to remain vigilant in the understanding of the threat landscape to play their part in maintaining a safe and peaceful environment for the next 20 years and beyond.

Sept. 11 and the impacts on physical security

September 11 was a cruel reminder that the need for intelligence in national security didn’t evaporate along with the Soviet Union. Fortunately, the security posture of the United States was quickly elevated by establishing programs like the Department of Homeland Security, fusion centers, and the Transportation Security Administration. These enabled the government to assess and mitigate national security threats at local, state and national levels.

These programs, along with dozens of others, reoriented America’s approach to its security. In many ways, the terror threat was pushed onto the private sector as the U.S. government hardened its high-value targets, largely leaving companies to fend for themselves. Apart from catchy slogans like “If you see something, say something” — which does work — ordinary individuals and businesses have historically been challenged with understanding what to report and maintaining general situational awareness.

In these increasingly turbulent times fueled by political polarization, social justice issues, and socio-economic tensions, it’s not the danger you know that’s the problem; it’s the one that you never expect. 

In a survey commissioned by the Ontic Center for Protective Intelligence, 64 percent of physical security and IT leaders agree that their company is experiencing an increase in physical threat activity compared to the beginning of 2021. As demonstrated by recent violent events, threats can come in various shapes and sizes, and security leaders need the right tools to effectively protect their teams and assets.

Counterterrorism job prospects rise in the wake of Afghanistan’s collapse

As the Taliban rolled through the Afghan provinces following the U.S. drawdown of troops, the threat landscape began ballooning. The most obvious threat comes from the newfound territory, funding, and arms the Taliban and associated groups can use to plan and enact violence.

On one hand, the United States’ ability to protect critical buildings like embassies, military installations and other government infrastructure is much improved from before 2001. However, this focus on public infrastructure can make smaller targets all that much easier to hit, as the recent mass shooting at the King Soupers in Boulder, Colo., showed us. For the most part, soft targets fall outside the natural security considerations of government officials, meaning that it falls to corporate security leaders and local cops to identify and mitigate the threats.

The Jan. 6 events in the U.S. Capitol also demonstrated that these threats don’t always come from outside powers. For this reason, intelligence needs to operate on a proactive, not reactive, footing to ensure the security of people, education facilities, government institutions and corporations. This is particularly important in the age of social media, where amplification of extreme viewpoints can quickly devolve into violent outcomes for innocent people.

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Retreat and realpolitik

As the U.S. retreats from its last major front in the Middle East, the ripples of Sept. 11 will continue to affect the foreign policies of the U.S. and its adversaries. I lived through the blowback of our pull-back from Lebanon following the devastating attacks on our U.S. embassies in Beirut and Kuwait. Hostage-taking and hijackings became the norm as the balance of power was readjusted.

Security teams should be particularly wary of nation-states seeking to take advantage of a distracted United States. Recent years have shown that these nation-states have no fear of conducting corporate espionage through cyber and physical intrusion attempts to gain an advantage, and this risk is increased as the U.S. realigns its intelligence capabilities to future priorities.

Given the convergence of these cyber and physical threats, it is more important than ever for corporate security teams to have tough conversations, break down internal silos, and develop a ‘living’ threat assessment that takes all possibilities into account. Only then will security teams have the landscape awareness and resources they need to identify, investigate, assess, and mitigate bad outcomes.

Lessons for tomorrow

Our country has experienced, learned, and changed much since the fateful events of Sept. 11 — 20 years on, the unity that so defined the post-attack period has since waned into this period of social-economic, racial, and political polarization. Agreeing comes hard, and disagreeing — often to the point of violence — comes all too easy.

While our national security posture is more proactive than it once was, corporate security leaders must also take note of burgeoning threats, address internal shortcomings and provide the necessary technology resources to anticipate the events they would otherwise never expect. 

Fred Burton is executive director of Ontic Center for Protective Intelligence. He previously served as a counterterrorism special agent for the U.S. State Department, serving as deputy chief of the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service counterterrorism division. He is a New York Times best-selling author; his books include: “Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent,” “Chasing Shadows,” “Beirut Rules,” and “Under Fire.”