Are we safer from terrorist attacks since 9/11?


[Illustration by Tommaso Bisagni]


On 11 September 2001, nineteen al-Qaeda members hijacked four American commercial planes: two crashed against the Twin Towers in New York City; a third in the Pentagon area (Washington D.C) and the fourth in Pennsylvania. In this day, often known as 9/11, nearly three thousand people were killed and six thousand were injured. The 9/11 Commission Report, the “official government edition” of the events, argues that it “was a day of unprecedented shock and suffering in the history of the United States”(U.S). Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the attacks (according to the U.S), detained at Guantánamo Bay prison since 2006, has changed how the world perceives terrorism and security.

Indeed, the attack had a global impact: although several challenge this idea, security analysts tend to consider 9/11 to be a major game-changer to international security, especially in the field of counterterrorism, or on how states decide to respond to terrorism. After 9/11, national states and multilateral organisations – from the United Nations to the European Union – gathered to adopt new legislative measures to respond to what security services perceived as a “new threat”. It was the beginning of a “new world”, the “war on terror” doctrine, leading to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and a greater emphasis on military instruments to combat terrorism.

In 2021, twenty years after what Richard English described as “the most lethal act of non-state terrorism act”, are we safer from terrorist attacks? There are multiple ways to address this vast question: this text briefly debates some hypothesis, taking into account the phenomenon of transnational terrorism, while looking at the European Union context. As argued elsewhere, here we define terrorism as violence perpetrated by non-state actors against a state, in order to achieve political aims. We begin with a brief analysis of the evolution of the terrorist threat.

The terrorist threat

Accessing the evolution of the terrorist threat since 9/11 surpasses the scope of this text. It suffices to highlight some trends at the global and regional (European Union) levels. The analysis is conducted through three dimensions:

Root causes: There is no consensus about the root causes. Terrorism is correlated to a range of factors, from psychological to social. Nonetheless, according to the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) (2020), “conflict has been globally the primary driver of terrorism since 2002”, a conclusion also recently reinforced by the UN (2020). In the European Union – or in Western / high-income societies / OECD countries – the main root causes are broadly associated with the lack of socio-economic opportunities, corruption, the feelings of social alienation and state involvement in foreign conflicts.

Type of terrorism / deaths: According to the Global Peace Index (GPI), most terrorist attacks and deaths around the world are perpetrated by ethno-nationalist/separatist groups. Looking at Europol’s data, the European Union follows the same pattern, although jihadist terrorism is responsible for the majority of deaths within this region. International reports also highlight the rise of right-wing groups as a major trend, which can further enhance violent extremism and terrorist activities, based on xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Geography of the attacks: Globally, “after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, most terrorist activity was concentrated in Iraq and Afghanistan for nearly a decade” (GTI, 2020). The region of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is still the most affected (graph below). In the EU, particularly, the countries most affected by terrorist attacks – completed, failed and frustrated (CFF) -, between 2006 and 2019, are France, Spain, United Kingdom, Italy and Greece. According to our own personal research, these five countries account for 97% of the attacks (CFF) in the EU within this time frame.


Figure retrieved from: Global Terrorism Index 2020.


Are we safer?

Yes, we are safer. Proponents argue that, regardless of the geographical area, we are generally safer from terrorist attacks because of the legislation adopted since 9/11, at the national, regional and international level. This, therefore, includes the measures taken by the national states and major international organisations such as the United Nations, European Union, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), North Atlantic Organization (NATO) or the Council of Europe. From the International Relations standpoint, this would be the typical reasoning of Liberals: in order to be secure, states emphasise that multilateral responses, collective security and international cooperation are the fundamental keys to address any kind of transnational threats. From this point of view, fighting against terrorism should focus in criminal measures, while ensuring respect for human rights.

No, we are not safer. Critics might point out two arguments. First, despite legislation reinforcements along the years, safety is not a question of implementing more legislation but of its efficacy. Assessing the efficacy of counterterrorism measures is still a very difficult process. Terrorism, they argue, is one of the major threats to peace and security (regardless of the context), along with other transnational threats like climate change or cyberattacks. Second, most experts and analysts recognise that no society is immune to the terrorist threat (regardless of its ideology) and it will survive as long as terrorists consider it to be a valid strategic option to achieve their political aims. Therefore, taking into account a broad Realist standpoint, safety/security is always uncertain, but if you want to be safe you should seek power and choose a military approach.

Safer? It Depends. In reality, the answer is much more complex than the yes-no binary argument. In my view, legislation did make the world safer, yet the risk is still very distinct between and within geographical contexts. For instance, the situation in Europe is radically different from the Middle East, and so forth. In fact, being “safer” is about “politics” as much it is about “security”. It is political because it depends on how terrorists perceive violence to achieve their goals, and on how states perceive the threat. It is about security because it deals with direct victims and potential great disruption in multiple areas that need effective protection. This means implementing policies and programmes aimed at countering different aspects of the threat, such as the root causes; radicalisation of individuals; financing of terrorism groups; networks (etc.), and preventing critical infrastructures and citizens.


Ultimately, as disappointing this might sound, we are safer as much we are not. According to Jonathan Evans, former Director General of MI5 (2007-2013), “risk can be managed and reduced but it cannot be realistically be abolished”. So, in fact, as Professor Richard English says, “the main problem is not terrorism but how we respond” – and this is the key variable that determines whether we are / will be safer or not. The best responses, in my view, are a hybrid set of criminal and military measures, while stressing the need to ensure human rights and tackle violent extremism as fundamental priorities.

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