There’s a lot being made of the fifteenth anniversary of the worst terrorist attack to ever strike the United States. So at the risk of piling on, this is my two cents.

Many have likened the attack to what the Japanese did on December 7th, 1941. Yes, there are similarities, but they are mostly superficial. Japan was a nation and the attack came without warning. That’s where the similarities end. Al Qaeda is a loose federation of shadowy organizations who struck without even the pretense of formally declaring war. That’s because the war started several years ago.

Like many, I lost an acquaintance on the airplane that hit the Pentagon. But the impact on me personally was much deeper. I felt violated, attacked and I wanted revenge. Unlike many, I knew why we were attacked.

Fundamentalist Muslims want to re-create the Caliphate and/or want to turn as much of the world as into an Islamic Republic based on Sharia law. The U.S., along with other countries is in the way. And, we’re a soft, easy target.

Other attacks have followed in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere. Are they coordinated, good question? Some are directed from shadowy organizations in the Middle East and elsewhere. Others are carried out by individuals who martyr themselves for a cause they believe in.

To me, before 9/11 it was not a question of if Al Qaeda was going to strike, but when. Nevertheless, I was dumfounded by the attack. It was bold, brilliant and effective. It provoked a reaction but one much stronger than Bin Laden expected. So I look at the events of 9/11 differently than most. It was an escalation of a war that was already underway. 9/11 brought the violence to our shores.

The war against Islamic terrorist is a war different from any other we’ve fought. There’s no country to attack. Other than ISIS, you need a long sheet of paper to list all the organizations who have claimed to have conducted terrorist attacks. Some attack and disappear or are wiped out by the response. Others like Abu Nidal, Abu Sayyaf, Al Qaeda, Ansar Al Islam, Hamas, and Hezbollah are relatively well known. The rest are just names on a list. And is a very long one. If you don’t believe me, look at this unclassified list on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_designated_terrorist_groups) that was last updated two years ago. Their members hide in the disaffected populations of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, the Sudan, the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and elsewhere.

It is going to take a long time, i.e. decades or generations to defeat these organizations. Some say we can “manage” them because they will always be around. However, we can attack them to reduce the threat by removing much of the underlying causes. People who have:

  • A job and hope for a better future;
  • Medicine for their kids when they are sick;
  • A roof over their heads that is safe and secure;
  • Food on the table so they are not hungry; and
  • Schools that educate their children for a better life

are a lot less inclined to strap a vest with two pounds of plastic explosive and a thousand ball bearings onto their chest and walk into a crowded marketplace and blow themselves up.

To win, we have to have a different, long term strategy. First, we have to help governments of countries that spawn terrorist be less corrupt. The stealing from the people as well as from those who donate foreign aid has to end. Second, the madrassas that teach nothing but religion and hatred do little to prepare their students for the world in which we live have to change their curriculums or be shut down. The countries where the schools reside know where they are and which ones teach hatred. The government’s need to send a message that such behavior is not tolerated.

And last, we must root out the terrorists wherever they are. While their acts may be considered criminal by some, they are also mini-battles in a larger war. And in war, a different set of rules apply. The terrorists are counting on the fact that we’ll absorb the blow, arrest, maybe kill a few, talk about tolerance and understanding and won’t fight back. They need to know and their benefactors whether they are governments or wealthy individuals must understand there is a price to pay for supporting these terrorists. The message is simply this – we will hunt your down and kill you and if needed, your wives, children and grandchildren. There will be no on this earth where you can be safe. It may take days, weeks, months or even years, but we will find you.

All of this won’t be pretty and many will squirm. It takes a political commitment and a national will. And it will cost money and lives from the countries who want to join the fight. The governments and the populations of the countries that harbor these bad actors need to join in the fight. If they do, ending the war will take less time. If they don’t we’re in for a very long battle that may take generations and I worry that the United States doesn’t have the stomach for it.

Marc Liebman

September 2016