The World Has Changed Since 9/11, And So Has America’s Fight Against Terrorism


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An American flag at Ground Zero on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001 after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.

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President George W Bush gives an address in front of the damaged Pentagon following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack there, as Counselor to the President Karen Hughes and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stand by.

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The Bush administration also launched its ill-fated war in Iraq, which unleashed two decades of bloodletting, shook the Middle East and spawned another generation of terrorists.

On the home front, FBI Director Robert Mueller shifted some 2,000 agents to counterterrorism work as he tried to transform the FBI from a crime-fighting first organization into a more intelligence-driven one that prioritized combatting terrorism and preventing the next attack.

Part of that involved the centralizing the bureau’s international terrorism investigations at headquarters and making counterterrorism the FBI’s top priority.

Chuck Rosenberg, who served as a top aide to Mueller in those early years, said the changes Mueller imposed amounted to a paradigm shift for the bureau.

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Robert S. Mueller, then-director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, talks to reporters on Aug. 17, 2006, in Seattle.

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Robert Mueller (left) and Aaron Zebley testify on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 24, 2019, before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on his report on Russian election interference.

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Like al-Qaida more than a decade before, ISIS used its stronghold to plan operations abroad, such as the coordinated attacks in 2015 that killed 130 people in Paris. But it also used social media platforms like Twitter and Telegram to pump out slickly produced propaganda videos.

«They deployed technology in a much more sophisticated way that we had seen with most other foreign terrorist organizations,» McCord said.

ISIS produced materials featuring idyllic scenes of life in the caliphate to entice people to move there. At the same time, the group pushed out torrent of videos showing horrendous violence that sought to instill fear in ISIS’s enemies and to inspire the militants’ sympathizers in Europe and the U.S. to conduct attacks where they were.

«The threat was much more horizontal. It was harder to corral,» said Chuck Rosenberg, who served as FBI Director James Comey’s chief of staff.

People inspired by ISIS could go from watching the group’s videos to action relatively quickly without setting off alarms.

«It was clear too that there were going to be attacks we just couldn’t stop. Things that went from left of boom to right of boom very quickly. People were more discreet, the thing we used to refer to as lone wolves,» Rosenberg said. «A lot of bad things could happen, maybe on a smaller scale, but a lot of bad things could happen more quickly.»

Bad things did happen

Europe was hit by a series of deadly one-off attacks. In the U.S., a gunman killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016. A year later, a man used a truck to plow through a group of cyclists and pedestrians in Manhattan, killing eight people. Both men had been watching ISIS propaganda.

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A makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the in Pittsburgh in 2018.

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Rioters climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

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Rioters climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

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The FBI has since launched a massive investigation into the assault, and Wray has bluntly described the Capitol riot as «domestic terrorism.»

McCord, who is now the executive director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at the Georgetown University Law Center, says domestic extremist groups are using many of the same tools that foreign groups have for years.

«You see that in the use of social media for the same kind of things: to recruit, to propagandize, to plot, and to fundraise,» she said.

The Capitol riot has put a spotlight on far-right extremism in a way the issue has never received in the past two decades, including in the media and the highest levels of the U.S. government.

President Biden, for one, has called political extremism and domestic terrorism a looming threat to the country that must be defeated, and has made combatting the threat a priority for his administration.

  • terrorist attacks
  • FBI Director Robert Mueller
  • Terrorism
  • President George W. Bush
  • Sept. 11 attacks

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