On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, it was Joe Biden’s wife Jill who told him on the phone that a second plane had crashed into New York’s Twin Towers.
Biden was on board an Amtrak commuter train from Wilmington and Washington, and when he walked out of the station on Capitol Hill, he saw brown smoke in the sky from the impact of another plane that rammed into the Pentagon across the Potomac River in Virginia. There were concerns that a fourth plane, which passengers would later force down in a field in Shanksville, PA, was headed for the Capitol Building, which was being evacuated. Biden, then a Senator from Delaware, wanted to give a speech from the Senate chamber to show Americans the government was still functioning. Capitol Police refused to let Biden inside, he wrote in his 2007 memoir “Promises to Keep.” Instead, he spoke to an ABC News crew a few blocks away. “Terrorism wins when, in fact, they alter our civil liberties or shut down our institutions,” Biden said.
Over the next two decades, Biden watched, first as a Senator, then as Vice President, as leaders reshaped American institutions to make fighting terrorism more central to the function of government, launched two doomed wars, approved torture in interrogations, and pushed the limits of civil liberties protections at home to hunt potential terrorists.
Now it’s Biden’s turn as President. And as he presides over solemn commemorations of the September 11 terror attacks on their 20th anniversary, he’s also pushing his Administration to depart from the national security policies that defined the post 9/11 era.
He halted most lethal drone strikes when he came to office, telling operators to loop in the White House on decisions to strike, and initiating a broad review of when such lethal force should be used. He told aides to review the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other detainees are indefinitely imprisoned, with a goal to close it before he leaves office. He called for a new counterterrorism strategy that aims to put more manpower and so-called “over-the-horizon” long-distance military firepower on terror affiliates operating in multiple countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. He also broadened U.S. counterterrorism investigations to include more focus on domestic violent extremists, which, after the Jan. 6 attempted insurrection at the Capitol, the FBI rates as the single biggest threat to the homeland. And he decided to pull all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan, a decision that precipitated a rapid takeover of the country by the Taliban in mid-August, likely returning Afghanistan to a similar state—run by fundamentalist religious militants and providing safe harbor for terror groups—as it was before the U.S. invasion twenty years ago.
In the end, Biden’s most significant way of marking the 20th anniversary of the attacks may be to try to put the fears and rash decisions that followed 9/11 behind us. “The best way to honor the sacrifices of that day is to make sure we’re updating our approach to policies that reflect the reality of today rather than the reality of twenty years ago,” says a senior Biden Administration official.
After a two-decade, three-Administration long focus on terrorism in the Middle East and Central Asia, Biden wants to put more attention on other threats, including the pandemic, climate change, cyber attacks and China’s projection of power, said a White House official, as well as domestic terrorism. The Biden Administration is pressuring social media companies to rethink how videos and information encouraging violent extremism are distributed online, and is looking at ways to respond to the Christchurch Call, which challenges governments to pull down online content that encourages violence. (The initiative was spearheaded by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and other world leaders after March 2019 terror attacks against two mosques in New Zealand took 51 lives.) One of the biggest shifts in Biden’s strategy, according to the White House official, will be how the U.S. military redirects its resources from prosecuting a land war in Afghanistan to countering China and Russia.
But Biden’s desire to swiftly move on from the war in Afghanistan has already turned deadly, and revealed the old threats still exist. The Aug. 26 attack at the Kabul airport by Islamic State-Khorasan Province that killed 13 U.S. service members has raised the specter that terror groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda may once again be able to gain footholds in Afghanistan. “The situation in Afghanistan has reinforced how important and urgent it is to refocus on the threat from terrorism and extremist groups,” says Brett Bruen, a former director of global engagement in the Barack Obama White House. “Despite Biden’s preference to prioritize China and Asia, he’s going to have to balance the challenge of terrorism, and instability across South Asia.”
The head of the Haqqani network, a militant organization that targeted American troops for years in Afghanistan, is now a senior leader of the Taliban. American Mark Frerichs has been held hostage by the Taliban since February 2020. In Afghanistan, twenty years after the U.S. invasion, “we’re actually worse off” now, argues Dalia Fahmy, an associate professor of political science at Long Island University. The U.S. stood by—and maintained negotiating contacts with Taliban leaders—as the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, and now “terrorist organizations, which we had promised would never have geographic space again, will very quickly have geographic space” to operate and plan attacks, she says.
All of which means Biden’s plan to usher in new post-9/11 priorities comes with its own risks. Biden draws on his own personal history with tragedy—his wife and daughter died in a car crash in 1972 and his son Beau died from a brain tumor in 2015—when speaking to Americans during moments of loss. He will honor the pain felt on Sept. 11, 2001 as he visits the sites of each attack on Saturday, even as the country tallies staggering new losses each day from the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 took more lives on Sept. 9, 2021 than the 2,977 killed by Al Qaeda skyjackers on Sept. 11, 2001, and has killed more than 650,000 Americans in 18 months. In a country already overwhelmed with death, Biden is determined to ensure that his changing national security policies won’t bring any more. “As we turn the page on the foreign policy that has guided our nation the last two decades,” he said on Aug. 31, the day the last U.S. troops flew out of Afghanistan, “We’ve got to learn from our mistakes.”