Special Alumni Hour focuses on 9/11 20th anniversary, U.S. fight against terrorism

Twenty years of planning and preparation, and fighting terrorism in the wake of 9/11, the U.S. is more ready to avert and combat terrorist threats than ever before. At the same time, our nation also faces an emboldened radical Islamic jihadist movement after the chaotic exit from Afghanistan, domestic extremist threats on a level not seen before, and new dangers associated with the use of advanced technological weapons such as unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, as well as a persistent lack of adequate communication within and among homeland defense and emergency management agencies.

That’s according to a panel of experts, each of them Center for Homeland Defense and Security alums or faculty, sharing their thoughts during a special CHDS Alumni Hour event entitled the “9/11 20th Anniversary Remembrance” held remotely on Wednesday, Sept. 1.

Hosted by CHDS Managing Director of Academic Programs and Director of Research Lauren Wollman, the event featured a panel that included FDNY Chief of Department Tom Richardson (Master’s Program 0901/0902), NYPD Deputy Chief of the Counterterrorism Bureau Joe Gallucci (ELP1501), and Center for Strategic and International Studies Senior Vice President Seth Jones, a CHDS instructor.

The online event drew more than 160 participants and is part of a series of commemorative events and resources marking the 20th anniversary of the deadliest attack on the U.S. homeland in history and featuring the responders who were present that day and in the challenging days that followed. The hope is that by providing first-hand accounts, original research, and curriculum, we at CHDS will do our part of “Never Forget.”

The 9/11 20th anniversary series includes the following:

The Sept. 1 special Alumni Hour started off with a question-and-answer session with Richardson and Gallucci focused on how the FDNY and NYPD have evolved and the lessons learned over the two decades since Al Qaeda terrorists flew commercial airliners into the Twin Towers in Manhattan, killing more than 3,000 people including hundreds of New York City firefighters and police, along with other first responders.

Richardson reflected on the devastating loss of 343 FDNY firefighters, including the Chief of Department and First Deputy Fire Commissioner and much of the top department leadership, as well as 90 special operations personnel, and the recovery efforts. He noted the creation of the FDNY Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness and the FDNY Incident Management Team in the years after 9/11, and the lesson that relationships needed to be built with other agencies including through a robust participation in CHDS’ Master’s, Executive Leaders, and Emergence Programs. And he cited the shift toward strategic thinking and operational discipline, and improved communication and collaboration between every level of the department from upper management to the frontline firefighter.

Gallucci spoke about the range of security threats the NYPD must prepare for including extremist groups, lone wolf attacks, attackers using the refugee process, and ongoing propaganda, and the heightened level of concern around the confluence of the 9/11 anniversary, the United Nations assembly and the U.S. Open tennis tournament this summer. He also noted the “strain” on the department under the “current political climate” including regular demonstrations and protests, and budget cuts and accelerated retirements, though he said some of the department’s funding is already being restored.

Gallucci pointed to the formation of the NYPD Counterterrorism Bureau and the access to increased funding and equipment in the wake of 9/11 as responses to the attacks, as well as improved intra-agency and inter-agency collaboration with the NYPD Intelligence Bureau and other agencies including regular training and tabletop exercises, as well as networking and relationship building. And he pointed to the foiling of 50 known terror plots involving New York City, though he said there was no way to know how many more may have been dissuaded by operational improvements.

The Alumni Hour continued with a Q&A session with Jones, who specializes in counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, unconventional warfare and covert action, focusing in particular on the impact of recent events in Afghanistan and the region after 20 years of conflict, including the U.S. withdrawal.

The former plans officer and adviser to the U.S. Special Operations Forces commanding general in Afghanistan said the U.S. exit is being viewed by radical Islamic extremists as a “major victory,” the biggest since the Soviets withdrew decades ago, and a global jihadi success including as a result of the killing of 13 U.S. military service members. He said that after spending part of every year in the country for years it was “hard to see an enemy (the Taliban) we’ve been fighting fly their flag in Kabul.” He said it was “hard to swallow” that Taliban leader Siraj Haqqani, the main conduit between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, is now vying for a top Afghan leadership position after years of being hunted by U.S. Forces as a known terrorist.

And he offered a sobering assessment for the region, noting that the U.S. intelligence community has assessed that Afghanistan could become a “hub of global Islamic jihad,” and he predicted the possibility of “escalating violence” in the country and a return of terrorist training camps in an effort to rebuild capability. He noted that the U.S. has no allies nor partners on the ground like it does in other terrorist hot spots such as Somalia, Syria and Iraq, nor any access to airbases in the area, and the nearest airbase from which to launch drone strikes is a 14-hour roundtrip flight away. He said he believed the talk among some U.S. politicians about “over-the-horizon” capability would be tougher than they are saying, even as Iran, Russia and China accelerate their activity in the region.

Jones said the situation is “going to be bumpy,” and Afghanistan is a “likely haven for terrorists.”

Meanwhile, he added, the U.S. exit from Afghanistan didn’t help the argument that people should work with us against terrorists and our “legitimacy has taken a hit,” and the Taliban is now engaged in a retribution campaign using targeted killings.

Nevertheless, Jones said he believes it was the right thing to do to send small special operations and CIA teams into Afghanistan two decades ago, while acknowledging mistakes were made including spending too much money and sending too many troops into the country during the surge to 100,000 troops during the Obama Administration.

Jones said he believes it is only a matter of time before Afghanis get tired of the Taliban’s brutish treatment and an economy in deep trouble.

While Jones said the U.S. is in a “better place” than before 9/11 with regard to threats from foreign terrorists against the U.S. homeland, he warned that the U.S. must watch some terrorist groups “very, very carefully” and he is concerned about an increased use by terrorists of drones and other advanced weapons systems, adding that Americans traveling or living abroad could be targeted. And he warned that the U.S. still needs to improve communication and information-sharing among agencies and correct the current practice of over-classification.

The event concluded with final thoughts from the panelists.

Richardson and Gallucci said it remains essential to identify and work with partners to leverage resources and personnel, and cooperate and communicate with those partners from the federal, state and local level.

“After 9/11, the world came together,” Richardson said. “As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I hope people will do that again.”

Meanwhile, Jones warned, the U.S. needs to remain stalwart in the battle against terrorist threats for the foreseeable future.

“We need to be prepared for (the fight against terrorism) to continue,” Jones said. “This is the long game. We’re going to be in this for a long time. Let’s be persistent here.”