National Security

Ten Years After 9/11, How Secure is our Homeland?

September 9, 2011  • Clark Ervin

This week the nation pauses to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11. As we commemorate that sad occasion, we can take some comfort in the fact that we succeeded in finding, and eliminating, the perpetrator of those attacks before this iconic anniversary. 

But, how much comfort, exactly? The key question confronting homeland security policymakers today is whether the killing of bin Laden represents the beginning of the end of the “war on terrorism,” or merely the end of the beginning.

On the one hand, there are those like former CIA Director and now Defense Secretary Leon Panetta who maintain that, with bin Laden’s death and the aggressive drone strike campaign in Pakistan that has successfully targeted other key leaders, the “strategic defeat” of Al Qaeda is within sight. On the other hand, there are those like former National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter who maintain that claims of near-victory are dangerously premature. 

After all, if “core Al Qaeda” is on the ropes, certain of its foreign affiliates – especially, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in Yemen, and, to a lesser degree, Al-Shabaab, in Somalia – are on the march and pose an increasingly menacing threat to America. And, as the treasure trove of intelligence uncovered in bin Laden’s hideout proves, Al Qaeda itself remains determined to strike the homeland again. If anything, the new leader of Al Qaeda, bin Laden’s longtime deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, doubtless feels considerable pressure to carry out another attack so as to disprove those who claim that the organization is now a spent force. Finally, over the course of the last year and a half or so, we have seen the rise of “homegrown” terrorists here in the United States, a phenomenon hitherto thought only to exist in Europe.

In any event, then, the homeland security threat picture is, at least, complicated and, arguably, more dangerous than ever. As time goes by, it may be that homeland security professionals will pine for the relative simplicity of the bin Laden era, just as foreign policy strategists now long for the relative simplicity of the Cold War.

Meanwhile, our vulnerability to terrorism, while considerably reduced since 9/11, remains considerable. As we all know well, airport security is much tighter today than it was ten years ago, but, as investigation after investigation shows, guns, knives, and bombs can still get through the screening process. Our land borders are much more heavily guarded today than they were ten years ago, but, as the continued stream of illegal aliens underscores, terrorists could slip through the net. And, little has been done in the last decade to secure our mass transit sector, our seaports, or critical infrastructure that is vulnerable to both a physical attack and a cyber-attack.

For all these reasons, the Aspen Institute’s Homeland Security Program is busier than ever. Inaugurated two years ago, the annual Aspen Security Forum convenes top-level present and former government officials; industry leaders; leading thinkers; noted print and broadcast journalists; and concerned citizens each summer at our signature campus in Aspen to discuss and debate the major issues of the day in the field of homeland security and counterterrorism. The proverbial waterfront of issues is explored, including aviation security; maritime security; border security; mass transit security; critical infrastructure protection; soft targets; intelligence; and counterterrorism strategy. Having finished its second year this summer, the Aspen Security Forum will continue to serve as a venue for the Institute to dive deeper into these important issues. The anniversary of 9/11 serves as a stark reminder of the importance of these discussions on homeland security.

In addition, and borrowing a page from the longstanding foreign policy-focused Aspen Strategy Group, the program has formed a small, bipartisan, invitation-only group of former government officials and policy experts in the field of homeland security/counterterrorism to advise Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano and other relevant leaders and to serve as a sounding board and testing ground for policymakers’ ideas. The group is co-chaired by former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and former Congresswoman Jane Harman. A list of members, and further information, can be found here. The Aspen Homeland Security Group will be officially launched next week at the Institute’s Washington office in a discussion featuring Secretary Napolitano, the co-chairs, and various members that will be moderated by The Washington Post’s David Ignatius. Video will be available following the event at