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15 years later, Americans feel more vulnerable to terrorism

15 years later, Americans feel more vulnerable to terrorism
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In the 15 years since planes crashed into the Twin Towers and Pentagon, the United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars to beef up its domestic security, chased terrorists across two different continents and undertaken the longest war in its history.

Yet for all of its efforts, Americans today feel that they are as or more vulnerable to terrorism than ever.

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According to a Pew survey released this week, fully 71 percent of the country says that terrorists’ ability to launch a major attack on the U.S. is as great or greater than it was 15 years ago. Forty percent of the public says the chances of a major attack are higher than they were around 9/11.

The numbers have actually increased since August 2002, less than a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Then, a Pew poll found that just 61 percent of the public thought the chances of a similar attack were the same or greater than on Sept. 11. Twenty-two percent thought the odds had increased.

Despite the public’s concern, Islamic extremists have failed to carry out a major coordinated attack on U.S. soil since 2001.

Yet isolated individuals have nonetheless been able to strike fear into the nation through a series of small, self-planned acts of violence. Those events, while comprising just a fraction of the casualty count of 9/11, have served as constant reminders of the threat of terrorism.

They’ve also been evidence of the ultimate impossibility of guarding against every kind of attack.

If so-called lone-wolf extremists can kill dozens and capture headlines with easily purchased guns — or, as evidenced by the July killing of 84 people in the French city of Nice, a truck — there is nothing the government can do to prevent it.

“There's an inevitability to the attacks,” Tom Ridge, the nation’s first secretary of Homeland Security, said at a conference sponsored by the Atlantic this week.

“But put it in the context of everything else that happens to impact our lives in a very negative way in this country,” he said, noting that the number of people killed in car accidents, for instance, vastly surpasses those killed by acts of terrorism.

“Let’s accept the reality: It is painful; it affects our psyche,” Ridge said. “But let's try to put it in perspective.”

Since 9/11, 94 people in the U.S. have been killed in jihadist attacks, according to data compiled by the New America Foundation.

What has changed in the last 15 years is the way that lone-wolf actors can be recruited or inspired online.

Even at its height, al Qaeda was never able to be the kind of global brand that made disenfranchised people with no connection to the group carry out violence in its name.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), meanwhile, has shown a remarkable ability to either directly recruit foreigners across the globe or inspire them through the screens of their computers.

Just within the last year, attackers in San Bernardino, Calif., and Orlando, Fla., killed dozens of people in ISIS’s name at a county office and a gay nightclub. But according to federal investigators, neither actually had contact with ISIS leaders in its Middle East headquarters.

“The difference is really the internet, the power of the internet,” Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said this week. “Today we have a new generation of terrorists who are very savvy on the internet and know how to exploit it, both to recruit, to train and to radicalize from within.”

Fifteen years ago, the U.S. needed to guard against extremists from the Middle East. Now, it needs to guard itself from within.

The experience of the U.S. is not shared by all Western nations. Western Europe — especially France and Belgium — have faced a series of coordinated attacks carried out by terrorists trained in the Middle East. None of them have been on the scale of 9/11, when nearly 3,000 people died in attacks that struck the core of the American financial system and military.

But it’s not for a lack of trying.

Just this week, three women reportedly guided by ISIS leaders in Syria were apprehended near Notre Dame before being able to carry out an attack on the busy Gare de Lyon train station in Paris.

In the U.S., too, major plots have been disrupted before they could be carried out.

Tightened security, bystanders’ attentiveness and, at times, terrorists’ ineptitude have halted plots targeting multiple planes, the Sears Tower in Chicago, New York’s Times Square and the New York City subway, among other targets.

The gains haven’t come cheap.

According to the National Priorities Project, a nonpartisan research organization, the U.S. has spent more than $700 billion on security of the U.S. homeland since 9/11.

It’s also undertaken military efforts targeting extremist groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Syria and, on at least two occasions, the Philippines.

In doing so, the U.S. has largely sidelined al Qaeda and limited the growth of its affiliate in Yemen, once considered the greater threat to the U.S.

But it’s been unable to prevent the rise of ISIS, whose extravagant brutality has included videotaped beheadings, the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot and other bleak propaganda that inspire fear across the globe. In addition to inspiring individual attacks in its name, the group has also created allegiances with established extremist groups from Nigeria to the Philippines.

The aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring — a wave of democratic revolts once hailed by the Obama administration as a welcome antidote to the extremism of al Qaeda — has left pockets of chaos across the Muslim world that have allowed ISIS and its ideological allies to take root.

“Unfortunately, despite all our progress against ISIL on the battlefield and in the financial realm, our efforts have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach,” CIA Director John Brennan testified on Capitol Hill this summer, offering a dire state of the group’s growth, using the administration's preferred acronym for the organization.

“The resources needed for terrorism are very modest, and the group would have to suffer even heavier losses of territory, manpower and money for its terrorist capacity to decline significantly.”