Nine years later, the conventional wisdom is that America has not been the victim of another terrorist attack, particularly when compared to the scope of the orchestrated attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon that claimed nearly 3,000 lives. Osama bin Laden may or may not be alive and on the run in Waziristan, al-Qaeda may have more pull from name recognition than anything else, and the fervor for a global War on Terror has ebbed from its post-9/11 high in response.
But terrorists have been steadfastly pressing forward on their mission, attacking "America" just as fervently as ever on a them vs. West battlefield.
The immediate follow-up attacks are well remembered. Shoe bomber Richard Reid, a British extremist and al-Qaida operative, was foiled by passengers when he tried to blow up American Airlines Flight 63 on Dec. 22, 2001, over the Atlantic. The next month, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was beheaded in Pakistan; al-Qaida propaganda chief Khalid Sheikh Mohammed reportedly confessed in U.S. custody, "I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan. For those who would like to confirm, there are pictures of me on the Internet holding his head."
And take the bombings in Bali on Oct. 12, 2002, which targeted two nightclubs and killed 202. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world, yet Western tourists flock to the island for fun in the sun. Jemaah Islamiyah, a Sunni Islamist group linked to al-Qaida, was found responsible, and bin Laden claimed in an audio message afterward that the attacks were retaliation against the U.S. for the War on Terror launched in the aftermath of 9/11. Mohammed was also indirectly implicated in supplying funding for the attacks.
The bombings killed Americans, Australians, British and victims from many more countries -- and were no less than an attack on the West. And thus in the globalization that has defined the War on Terror, America was attacked again. A dozen suicide bombings in Casablanca on May 16, 2003, that killed 45 were another reminder that al-Qaida affiliates continued to target Western interests and citizens abroad, including in attacks on Western workers in Saudi Arabia.
Fast forward to Madrid, Spain, on March 11, 2004. This is a country that is no stranger to domestic terrorism in the form of Basque ETA separatists who are usually the first suspects whenever something explodes. The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade claimed responsibility for the 10 train bombs that killed 191 people on behalf of al-Qaeda. But the 3/11 train bombings were a terrorist attack and arm-twisting in one: the attackers wanted to scare Spain out of helping the U.S. in the Iraq war, and after the ruling party was defeated in elections four days after the bombings Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero set about pulling all Spanish forces out of Iraq.
Madrid was not only a direct attack on the West, but on the U.S. military mission as well.
But other attacks, all sharing a link with a man reportedly on a U.S. "kill list" since this spring (and the first U.S. citizen to land there), put a new face on the extremism inspired by Osama.
The 7/7 London attacks -- coordinated attacks on three trains and a bus on July 7, 2005 -- showed the budding dangers of homegrown terrorism, as three of the attackers were born in Britain and one in Jamaica. It was a chilling example of how terror leaders could "direct" young extremists they'd never met through simple inspiration. And Anwar al-Awlaki reportedly provided plenty of inspiration.
Cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, becoming an al-Qaeda regional commander and a whiz at using the web to spread his messages. Three of the 9/11 hijackers attended his sermons in the U.S., and he has been linked to the Nov. 5, 2009, Fort Hood shooting in which Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan killed 13; the "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to detonate plastic explosives in his crotch on Christmas Day 2009 while a passenger on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 descending into Detroit, Mich.; and the Times Square bombing attempt on May 1, 2010, in which Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani American citizen, attempted to detonate an SUV with explosives in the popular tourist destination.
Al-Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri and bin Laden have maintained their presence by releasing several dozen video and audio messages since 9/11, showing the reach of the organization has evolved beyond directly training and funding jihadists to multimedia guidance. Al-Qaeda jumped on the wave of new media in 2001 with its network As-Sahab and its new star Azzam al-Amriki, or U.S. al-Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn, which releases videos on its websites as well as for iPods and cell phones.
So while conventional wisdom has Osama hiding in a cave and al-Qaida backed into a corner, the nine years since 9/11 haven't shown that the War on Terror -- mind you, some have declared war on this phrase in the years since -- is anywhere near over. America has been attacked worldwide in terms of interests, allies and broader ideology, and extremism has a broader foothold ranging from the debate over Islam's spread in Europe and Sharia law to the impressionable accessing inspiration through terror organizations' use of new media.
Bin Laden may be alive or dead, captured one day or forever a fugitive, but his "mission" continues be it through new offshoots of al-Qaeda, fresh extremist figureheads, or inspired lackeys who carry crudely constructed deadly devices and are hellbent to follow in the footsteps of the team that carried out the most devastating attacks ever on American soil.