The world changed forever Sept. 11, 2001, and with that came a simple realization:
“No one living today will ever know a world where terrorism is not an everyday threat,” terrorism expert and retired US Air Force Col. John L. Cirafici said earlier this week.
With the anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Cirafici thinks Americans and the world in general have forgotten about the roots of the antipathy toward the United States that led to the attack and to subsequent violence in other developed countries.
Cirafici, 72, retired from the Air Force in 2005, capping a 42-year career serving in conflicts from Vietnam to Iraq to Bosnia and Kosovo. During those four decades, he worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a senior anti-terrorism specialist, advising police and military forces all over the world on how to stop attacks. He also has developed a college-level course in anti-terrorism that he’s shopping to local universities.
But Cirafici didn’t leave his worries about safety and security behind once he traded his uniform for civilian clothing.
“I talk about terrorism only because I’m concerned people today are looking for simple answers to complicated problems,” he said. “Terrorism is branded in my brain. I probably think about it a lot differently than a lot of people. I see it in real terms, the faces and the methods and I understand what [the terrorists] are doing.”
“There are seismic factors that are disrupting and upending societies on a global scale,” Cirafici said, affecting billions who have little or no control over those issues.
Those factors can range from economic disparity, political and religious differences and even population growth and climate change, he said.
Cirafici pointed to Pakistan, a U.S. ally in the war against terrorism, whose commitment to that struggle has been called into question by President Donald Trump.
Although it is a nuclear power, the economy is mostly agrarian and dependent on a river system supplied by snow and ice from the nearby Himalayas. A warming planet threatens those ice fields, which in turn means less water for crops and less food for the country’s people.
This is exacerbated by the fact the country’s resources are being strained because its population has increased almost 60 percent in less than 20 years.
“Their very survival will be challenged and that’s a very powerful motivation for people,” Cirafici said.
Dissatisfaction and a tendency to hold the West responsible some of their problems helps drive people toward radicalism and a tendency to act out that frustration with violence, he added.
Similar circumstances in Africa have led to recent migrations to Europe and the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in those nations, Cirafici added. These new immigrants, with ways that are foreign to many Europeans, tend to strain traditional social systems.
“The culmination will be a very stressful situation worldwide, and people under stress demand solutions,” he said. The same can been seen taking place in the United States with the increase in white supremacists and neo-Nazi activity.
“Whatever the causes, there are countless numbers of people looking for ready and simplistic explanations and solutions for their predicaments,” he said. They can fall prey to extremist elements more than ready to embrace violence as a solution, he added.
“In their two-dimensional logic, that often translates to the United States and Western Europe, thus we will only see an increase in violence and technologically based attacks on the structures that we in this country rely upon,” he said.
That includes power grids and energy generation, data flow, banks and personal information, all of which are targets. Large scale gatherings, major social events, and tourist attractions provide ‘soft target’ opportunities for exploitation.
Chink in the armor
And while Al Qaeda usually comes to mind when considering what groups reach their goals through terrorism, Cirafici considers them an umbrella group that provides an overall strategy and methods to others. Most groups operate independently, he said.
Key among them is the Islamic State, or ISIS, whose extreme violence has led to the takeover of large swaths of Iraq and Syria. ISIS has the allegiance of other groups, small cells and individuals.
These isolated individuals are particularly dangerous as they can be the source of brief but very violent attacks such as those recently carried out in Spain, France and the United Kingdom.
Hence, there is a need for day-to-day vigilance on everyone’s part when it comes to terrorism, Cirafici said.
“Antiterrorism initiatives will come from both the public and private sectors,” he said. While controls on explosives, radiological materials and access to potential targets are some of the basic elements of antiterrorism practices, the public has a role by reporting suspicious activities.
And while there was no terrorist activity on the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Cirafici urges people to be vigilant, not just now but always.
Al-Qaeda was conducting what is known as asymmetrical warfare on Sept. 11, 2001: a surprise attack by a small group on a nation known for its high-tech weaponry.
And the fact that it worked should give everyone pause, Cirafici said.
“They figured out where the chinks in our armor were, and that was taking over an aircraft full of fuel,” he said. “They figured that out and that maximized their ability to take on a country that otherwise was incredibly powerful.”