Memo|National Security   13 Minute Read

Writing a 9/11 Speech: Focusing on America’s Success against al Qaeda

Published August 25, 2011

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The attacks of September 11, 2001 were an indelible American tragedy. As we approach the 10th anniversary of that horrible day, our leaders will be called upon to commemorate the events. This memo is intended as a guide to elected officials and speechwriters.

Of course, it will be essential to first and foremost emphasize the impact of the day on the victims and first responders, their families, and the nation. This is a very personal remembrance for the American public—everyone was affected—so elected officials may wish to reflect on what that day meant to them as individuals and citizens. We would not presume to offer guidance on such themes, though they can and should be a significant portion of any remarks.

Beyond the elegiac and the personal, our leaders should use the 9/11 decennial to talk about America’s successes in disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda. We strongly urge leaders to avoid partisanship and discussing contentious issues, such as the decision to invade Iraq, the treatment of captured detainees, the use of warrantless electronic surveillance, among others. These are all important questions, but we do not advise highlighting such controversial issues as part of a 9/11 remembrance.

This memo contains what we believe are seven essential building blocks for a speech that specifically focuses on our efforts to defeat al Qaeda, and are intended to be used and reordered as necessary to draft remarks.

A final word on tone: we encourage leaders to invoke certain values that highlight the American response to these monumental attacks. Audiences should be reminded of American resilience—how the country and the globe came together in the wake of the attacks to forge a safe nation and world. It is also valuable to restate American vigilance and our commitment as citizens and a nation to prevent future terrorist attacks. Third, speakers may wish to assert American resolve not to live in fear from terrorism, but to continue to address global challenges with American leadership.

1) Foiling al Qaeda

Al Qaeda continues to make grandiose claims that it could once again damage America in its murderous quest to establish a pan-Islamic caliphate. Osama bin Laden threatened in countless videos and audiotapes that al Qaeda would wreak further havoc on the United States. And in 2003, the new leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, threatened that, “What you saw with your eyes so far are only the first tactics we are using. The real battle didn't start yet."1

Perhaps most importantly, al Qaeda has been repeatedly thwarted in its quest to replicate a 9/11-style attack on the U.S. homeland in the decade that followed. For example:

  • In 2009, the FBI (with help from the CIA and the NYPD) stopped an al Qaeda plot to bomb the NYC subway. The CIA flagged Najibullah Zazi after he travelled to Pakistan to train at a terrorist camp, and the FBI then tracked him from Colorado to New York and back to Colorado before arresting him.2
  • In 2006, the U.S., British, and Pakistani governments broke up a significant plot to explode several passenger planes midflight to the U.S. from London. (Its discovery led to the ban on liquids and gels in carry-on luggage.) Had this plot been successful, it would have killed thousands of people, cost billions of dollars, bankrupted a number of airlines, and severely damaged the global aviation system.
  • In 2010, the Saudi government informed senior U.S. officials of an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) plot to place explosive-filled packages on U.S. bound cargo planes, to be detonated over American cities. The planes were intercepted and grounded before they ever reached the United States.

While there have been isolated tragedies that were the result of “lone wolf“ al Qaeda sympathizers (like the 2009 mass shootings at Ft. Hood in Texas), no organized plot by al Qaeda or an affiliate group has succeeded inside the United States since 9/11. Given the group’s focus on hitting us again, this is an achievement of historic significance.

Not only has al Qaeda failed in their attempts to attack the U.S. The U.S. and allied partners have actively hunted al Qaeda personnel in multiple countries, both unilaterally and in conjunction with our allies. For example:

  • Over the past decade, U.S. forces have directly eliminated al Qaeda members in Somalia,3 Yemen4, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and have worked with multiple foreign intelligence services to eliminate many other al Qaeda leaders.
  • One CIA official who has worked with his Pakistani counterparts claimed in late 2009 that the country’s spy agency had captured or killed over 600 U.S. targets.5
  • We have been able to kill or capture many high-level al Qaeda leaders, including (among others): 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad (March 2003), al Qaeda operational commander Abu Faraj al Libi (May 2005) and transatlantic planes plot leader Rashid Rauf (November 2008).6

2) The Death of Osama bin Laden

One of our greatest successes against al Qaeda was the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The May 1, 2011 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan was the result of painstaking analysis, careful intelligence work in unfriendly territory, partnerships with foreign countries, advanced (and lethal) special forces capabilities, and superior technical means—but most importantly, it required a strong, resolute Commander-in-Chief willing to take a bold risk to finally bring the al Qaeda leader to justice.

In the first days in office, President Obama directed the CIA to renew its focus on finding Osama bin Laden. Analysts spent thousands of hours eliminating false leads before identifying the courier who ultimately lead them to bin Laden.

President Obama received much conflicting advice whether to strike the compound identified as bin Laden’s hideout. Some advisors were convinced that an attack would come at too great a cost, or the political blowback would be intolerable. Others suggested a missile strike would accomplish the end goal, and pose little risk to US personnel. In the end, the President decided to send ground troops to assault the compound in order to gain proof that the al Qaeda leaders was indeed finished one way or another.

The raid itself was meticulously planned, as it was an extremely risky incursion into a country without informing its leaders. Two dozen elite members of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU)—more commonly known as the Navy SEALs—tapped for the mission drilled in mock buildings in California and North Carolina especially built for the takedown.7 Plans were made for every contingency.

One of the Blackhawks’ tail clipped the 12-foot walls, cracking the helicopter in two and forcing the pilot to ditch, nose-first, into the compound.8 But careful planning called for two standby Chinook helicopters to wait nearby. After some 40 minutes, fighting their way in and disposing of the crippled helicopter, the team dragged bin Laden’s body to one of the Chinooks and took off.

Beyond striking a powerful blow to al Qaeda’s leadership by killing bin Laden, U.S. forces were also able to secure a treasure trove of sensitive information from his compound in the form of hard drives, cell phones and other electronic documentation. This intelligence will provide the necessary data for U.S. forces to exploit to continue crushing al Qaeda and its allies worldwide. While bin Laden’s death showed that America could be grimly dedicated and relentless in the pursuit of its goals and the destruction of its enemies, it also shows how this country can also be tough and smart in fulfilling the mission.

3) Americans’ Personal Fight Against Terrorism

Ten years ago, the conventional wisdom in an airplane hijacking was to cooperate in order to survive. Al Qaeda changed that in an instant. Every American takes the responsibility to fight terrorism personally, and are now on guard against terrorist attacks, even if government precautions fail. This personal fight against al Qaeda began on 9/11, aboard the doomed United Airlines Flight 93, where individual passengers, knowing the consequences for failure, fought back against their al Qaeda hijackers. In addition:

  • In December 2001, flight personnel and passengers subdued “shoe bomber” Richard Reid when he tried to detonate an explosive aboard American Airlines Flight 63.
  • Quick thinking by passengers and crew helped avert disaster on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate a bomb in his underwear.
  • A T-shirt vendor helped thwart the mid-2010 attempted bombing of New York City’s Times Square by alerting police of a suspicious SUV—law enforcement officials later determined that the vehicle carried a powerful explosive device.9

Today, Americans remain vigilant about terrorism, even a decade after 9/11. In May, 69% of Americans said they worry either a great deal or a fair amount about a future terrorist attack in the U.S.10 And 42% of Americans are at least somewhat worried that someone in their family will become a victim of terrorism.11 Given this concern, it is not surprising that 71% of air travelers believe that the loss of personal privacy from full body scans or pat-downs is worth the tradeoff to prevent acts of terrorism.12

To be sure, terrorism has moved down the list of issues that Americans view as highest priority. In a poll a month after 9/11, 46% put terrorism as the nation’s most important issue. That has declined in the decade since,13 and by August 2011 only three percent of Americans still ranked terrorism as the most important issue facing the U.S.14 Some suggest that this decline shows a dangerous complacency toward terrorism, but that is not the case. Rather, it is clear that while the public recognizes the gains made in battling al Qaeda and have shifted their primary concern to the economy and other matters, they remain vigilant about the threat of terrorism.

4) A Bleak Future for al Qaeda

It now seems clear that the U.S. and our allies will eventually crush the so-called ‘al Qaeda Central,’ the leadership of the main body of the group. In fact, our military and intelligence operations may already be, according to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, “within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda.” 15

We cannot be overly optimistic—al Qaeda has shown a remarkable resiliency to bounce back in the face of major setbacks. However, despite the difficulties and mistakes that America has made in the shadowy conflict with these violent extremists, we believe we are travelling in the right direction. We are, as President Obama puts it, effectively disrupting, dismantling and ultimately destroying the group and its murderous, nihilistic ideology.

The al Qaeda of the future will have far less global impact than before. It possesses a bankrupt ideology, with little mainstream influence in the Muslim world. Indeed, the Arab Spring movements have been a disaster for al Qaeda and its affiliates. These are revolutions against the very regimes that are the focus of al Qaeda’s jihad, and yet the movements have been a rejection of everything the group has stood for. They have brought down or battled autocratic governments in the Middle East with cries not for an Islamic caliphate but rather ones for democratic rule. And in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Jordan (and before the government fired on their own people, in Libya and Syria), they have waged their campaigns not with the barbarity and murder preached by Osama bin Laden but with generally peaceful resistance means.

5) Creating a Homeland Defense

On 9/11, we lost a sense of security inside our own borders fostered by two centuries of near total invulnerability to outside attack. But in the decade since, we have created a Homeland Defense to protect the nation. U.S. intelligence and law enforcement became much more aggressive in pursuing the terrorist threat at home and abroad. For example:

  • Congress established the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003 in an attempt to integrate Federal departments and agencies in order to better defend the homeland from future attack. While some major deficiencies in DHS operations remain, the Department has improved coordination among agencies responsible for protecting America.
  • The U.S. has developed a complex tracking system that keeps potential terrorists from entering the U.S. While it is far from perfect, this system makes it much more difficult for terrorists to board a U.S.-bound plane or legally cross a border into this country.
  • After 9/11, the FBI partnered with other federal and local agencies in established dozens of new Joint Terrorism Task Forces—law enforcement organizations dedicated to investigating, prosecuting, and dismantling terrorist groups within the country.16

As a result, we have a nation that is far better equipped today than we were a decade ago to protect against attack.

6) America Rejects a Broad Religious War

Al Qaeda wanted to create a broader religious war between Muslims and the rest of the world. In April 2006, bin Laden said the West was engaged in an ongoing "Zionist-crusaders war on Islam."17 And Anwar al-Awlaqi, the radical Yemeni-American cleric currently in hiding in Yemen, exhorted his followers to attack America since, as he put it, “the U.S. is leading the war against terrorism, which in reality is a war against Islam.”18

But in large measure, the U.S. has rejected the concept of a religious war. From the beginning of this conflict, American leaders made clear that the fight with al Qaeda was a not a religious war. And indeed, to have classified our struggle as religious would have confirmed al Qaeda’s “clash of civilizations” thesis.

In the days after September 11, President Bush proclaimed that, “the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.”19 More recently, President Obama has stated unequivocally that, “America is not—and never will be—at war with Islam.”20

This idea has deep roots in America’s commitment to religious freedom. In 1796, President John Adams wrote that the U.S. “has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of [Muslims.]”21 Carrying on that tradition not only reaffirms our deepest values but also reinforces our security. Today, our leaders should highlight the security benefits of religious freedom, because the Muslim-American community has been the one of the most important resources in America’s quest to thwart international terrorism.

The Muslim community in America has firmly and nearly universally rejected the call of the violent extremists. From 2001 to 2009, there have been 125 individuals linked to “homegrown” jihadist terrorism, from a population of over 3 million Muslim-Americans.22 That amounts to less than one hundredths of 1% of the Muslim-American population—a miniscule number of deviancy by any standards.

Second, engaging with this overwhelming majority of peaceful, law-abiding citizens can help prevent even this very small minority of extremists from carrying out attacks. Indeed, this strategy of engagement and communication with the Muslim community continues to bear fruit:

  • In 2010, the FBI thwarted an attempted bombing in Oregon after the alleged bomber’s friend and father contacted them.23
  • Also last year, the FBI arrested a man plotting to bomb the Washington, D.C. Metro after a member of the local Muslim community contacted them.24

America’s responsible leaders—Republicans and Democrats alike—understand that the Muslim-American community is a vital part of our struggle against terrorism and that religious tolerance separates us from the terrorists. And they reject religious bigotry and misguided ideas (like the needless and insulting proposals to ban Islamic law) that can alienate a population so inclined to love and support their country.

7) The Future of American Leadership in the World

Now that we have spent a decade disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda, America must also address other security threats and foreign policy challenges that face the nation. We cannot be myopic in our view of terrorist threats. Our country remains a leader in the global community, and it bears a special responsibility to encourage democracy, preserve peace, and improve the lives of people everywhere.

The American people are deeply worried about our nation’s ability to stay on top in a global economy and multipolar world. By a twenty-point margin, respondents in Third Way’s 2010 polling agreed with the statement: “America is losing its global leadership as China and other developing countries grow their economies and hold more of our debt,” rejecting an alternative statement about how America remains the world’s strongest and most influential country.

Leaders who are addressing the question of America’s place in the world must acknowledge this anxiety. But they need not conclude that it leads to despair. Rather, they should remind audiences that the United States remains “the indispensible nation”; that our economy is the biggest and most vibrant in the world; that our economic system one of the most transparent and fair; that our universities the most prestigious; that our people the most industrious and diverse. As President Clinton once said, “there is nothing that is wrong with America that can’t be fixed with what is right about America.”25

Still, the road ahead will not be easy, nor will the path forward always be clear. For American security policy, the past decade was defined, at least by the Bush administration, as the age of the ‘War on Terror’. Whether or not that term was ever appropriate, we now clearly are living through a different moment for the United States—call it the “Age of Complexity.” In addition to two ongoing conflicts (Afghanistan and Libya) and the closing of a third (Iraq), we are facing, among many other challenges:

  • A new major power that could threaten our economic stability and geopolitical dominance (China).
  • Two unstable, hostile states developing or possessing nuclear weapons (Iran and North Korea).
  • One hot war and one cold war in one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods (Afghanistan-Pakistan-India).
  • An untrustworthy, unstable and often unfriendly nuclear-armed ally (Pakistan).
  • The chaotic, democratic uprisings against the ruling governments in the Arab world (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain).
  • Ongoing troubles in the Middle East (Israel and the Palestinians).
  • The metastasization of the terrorist threat and other non-state actors (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula).
  • Emergent economic powers (India and Brazil).
  • The return of Soviet-style strongmen (Russia, Ukraine, etc.).
  • Threats to the global commons (Pirates in the Indian Ocean and South China Seas).
  • Volatility in global financial markets (European Union)

In retrospect, the days after 9/11, for all of their sadness and horror, at least brought clarity and a unity of purpose to our security policy that has sometimes been lacking since. But when it comes to the use of force in this new Age of Complexity, President Obama has articulated a new vision of American security:

“Some would have America retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security, and embrace an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face. Others would have America over-extended, confronting every evil that can be found abroad.

We must chart a more centered course. Like generations before, we must embrace America’s singular role in the course of human events. But we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute. When threatened, we must respond with force—but when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas. When innocents are being slaughtered and global security endangered, we don’t have to choose between standing idly by or acting on our own. Instead, we must rally international action....

In all that we do, we must remember that what sets America apart is not solely our power—it is the principles upon which our union was founded. We’re a nation that brings our enemies to justice while adhering to the rule of law, and respecting the rights of all our citizens. We protect our own freedom and prosperity by extending it to others. We stand not for empire, but for self-determination.”26

Now, after ten years of war and vigilance, it is this balanced approach that should guide America forward.

  1. Ayman al-Zawahari, “Alleged al Qaeda tape threatens U.S., allies,” CNN, August 2, 2003. Accessed August 1, 2011. Available at:

  2. “CIA Learned of Zazi, Tipped Off FBI.” The New York Daily News, October 6, 2009. Accessed August 16, 2011. Available at:

  3. Maamoun Yousseff. “Somali al-Qaida group confirms death of leader,” The Army Times, September 16, 2009. Accessed August 2, 2011. Available at:

  4. Seymour M. Hersh, “Manhunt: The Bush Administration’s New Strategy in the War Against Terrorism,” The New Yorker, December 23, 2002, p.1. Accessed August 2, 2011. Available at:

  5. Greg Miller, “CIA pays for support in Pakistan,” The Los Angeles Times, November 15, 2009. Accessed August 2, 2011. Available at

  6. “Hunt for Rashid Rauf That Ended With Hellfire,” The Times of London, November 23, 2008. Accessed August 2, 2011. Available at:

  7. Marc Ambinder, “Then Came Geronimo,” The National Journal. May 12, 2011. Accessed August 21, 2011. Available at

  8. Kimberly Dozier, “Raiders Knew Mission A One-Shot Deal,” Associated Press, May 17, 2011. Accessed August 22, 2011. Available at:

  9. Michael S. Schmidt, “T-Shirt Vendor Takes On New Persona: Reluctant Hero of Times Square,” The New York Times, May 2, 2010. Accessed August 11, 2011. Available at:

  10. “Terrorism in the United States,” Gallup Poll, Mar 3-6, 2011. Accessed August 2, 2011. Available at:

  11. “Terrorism in the United States,” Gallup Poll, Jan 8-10, 2010. Available at:

  12. Lymari Morales, “Most U.S. Air Travelers OK Sacrificing Privacy for Security,” Gallup, November 23, 2010. Accessed August 3, 2011. Available at:

  13. Frank Newport, “Nine Years After 9/11, Few See Terrorism as Top U.S. Problem,” Gallup, September 10, 2010. Accessed August 2, 2011. Available at:

  14. “CNN/ORC International – August 5-7 2011 Poll: Question 6,” August 8, 2011, p. 15. Accessed August 21, 2011. Available at:

  15. Jim Garamone, “Panetta Believes U.S. Close to Defeating al Qaeda,” American Forces Press Service, Department of Defense. Accessed August 2, 2011. Available at:

  16. United States, Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, Evaluation and Inspections Division, “The Department of Justice’s Terrorism Task Forces,” Report I-2005-007, pp. 15-22, June 2005. Accessed August 2, 2011. Available at:

  17. Michael Slackman, “Bin Laden Says West is Waging War Against Islam,” The New York Times, April 24, 2006. Accessed August 2, 2011. Available at:

  18. “Evolution of a Radical Cleric: Quotes from Anwar al-Awlaki,” The New York Times, May 8, 2010. Accessed August 2, 2011. Available at:

  19. President George W. Bush, “President Bush Visits Islamic Center,” Speech, Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., September 17, 2001. Accessed August 2, 2011. Available at:

  20. President Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on a New Beginning,” Speech, Cairo University, Cairo, Egypt. June 4, 2009. Accessed July 22, 2011. Available at:

  21. United States, Department of State, “Treaty of Peace and Friendship, Signed at Tripoli November 4, 1796,” Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America, Volume 2, Documents 1-40: 1776-1818, Government Printing Office, 1931. Accessed August 1, 2011. Available at:

  22. Brian Michael Jenkins, “Would-Be Warriors: Incidents of Jihadist Terrorist Radicalization in the United States Since September 11, 2001,” Occasional Paper, RAND Corporation, 2010, p. vii, 8. Accessed August 1, 2011. Available at

  23. Caryn Brooks, “Portland’s Bomb Plot: Who Is Mohamed Mohamud?” TIME, November 28, 2010. Accessed August 1, 2011. Available at:,8599,2033372,00.html.

  24. Matt Apuzzo & Adam Goldman, “U.S. Muslims Tipped FBI to D.C. Subway Bomb Plot,” The Seattle Times, October 28, 2010. Accessed August 2, 2011. Available at:

  25. President William J. Clinton, “First Inaugural Address of William J. Clinton; January 20, 1993,” Speech, Washington D.C., January 20, 1993, Accessed August 16, 2011. Available at:

  26. United States, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, ”Remarks by the President on the Way Forward in Afghanistan,” June 22, 2001, East Room, Accessed August 24, 2011. Available at:


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