As we approach the eight-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, one question lingers in my mind: how could we have not known to the extent to which Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda and Afghanistan were soon to become some of the most daunting foreign policy challenges?

The threat posed by Islamist radicals was not considered to be negligible even at the time preceding the attacks. Many foresaw the genesis of a struggle against and within the Islamic world. Samuel Huntington famously envisaged conflict on the “bloody borders of Islam” in his essay A Clash of Civilizations. Benjamin Barber wrote about the explosive encounter between modernity and tradition, about the reigniting of ethnic and religious passions in an increasingly globalized world, especially in the Muslim world. On a more practical level, it was an open secret that the Taliban in Afghanistan were supporting a network of international terrorists. Jeffery Goldberg, Peter Bergen and many other journalists had travelled to the region and they returned with strong messages and warnings from Al Qaeda. Goldberg saw the maddresah infrastructure that was training thousands of holy warriors. Thus, we had both an understanding of the historical dynamics at play and relevant and immediate information about Al Qaeda’s threats.

I believe that American anti-terrorism and National Security experts knew that Al Qaeda had the motivations and the manpower to become a serious threat. But they did not believe that it had the capability to attack the United States itself–they were brushed aside as too incompetent or too under-resourced to do so. That Ahmed Ressam, the terrorist caught at the Port Angeles border crossing on his way to Los Angeles, was so easily apprehended mislead officials to believe that they had control over these groups.

We have to acknowledge that the 9/11 attacks and the events that have unfolded since were never improbable nor unpredictable. Keen observers saw the big picture of a coming clash with the Muslim world (no, I do not mean a war with the Muslim world in the sense that Islamists would have you believe, but a long conflict with Muslim societies that pose a threat to American security). That leads me to ask: what will be the next foreign policy challenge?

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