WASHINGTON — Two years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Muslim extremists who turned four commercial aircraft into deadly missiles haven't managed to strike again on American soil.
Government officials and terrorism experts say this is due to stepped-up security measures and greater vigilance by federal and local law enforcement agencies.
But in the same breath, they admit that al-Qaida sympathizers are living in America and the absence of more attacks here is a measure of luck.
"I think we've been blessed. I think we've been lucky that an attack hasn't happened here, but we have to make our own luck," said Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, in an interview. "We have daunting odds against us, but we have to be successful."
To bolster defenses against attacks, the government reorganized itself with the creation of the Homeland Security Department, combining nearly 2 dozen agencies and 170,000 employees. The FBI, criticized for being more concerned about solving crimes than preventing them, has sharply increased counterterrorism efforts. An interagency Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force has been created, and intelligence agencies say they're doing a better job sharing information.
Passenger screening at airports is more thorough, cockpit doors have been hardened and passengers are more vigilant — all of which makes it less likely that the Sept. 11 plot could be repeated today.
But terrorists can strike in many other ways.
The next attack could target chemical or nuclear plants. Or municipal water systems. Anthrax or sarin could contaminate large office buildings or subways. Waves of suicide bombers could target crowds in major cities. And any number of these attacks could occur simultaneously, overwhelming police, paramedics and hospitals.
"Two smart people in a room for two hours can come up with 100 really scary things," said Daniel Byman, a terrorism analyst at the Brookings Institution and a former staff member on the joint House-Senate inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks.
If the war on terrorism stretched across a baseball season, then the FBI, CIA and the rest of the nation's intelligence-gathering agencies would have to pitch a no-hitter every game to win, Thompson said.
"All a terrorist has to do to be successful is to get a single in one game," Thompson said.
One bomb. One attack. One incident where more innocent lives are shed on American streets is all it would take and "the game is over," Thompson said.
"There is no doubt that there are al-Qaida supporters from a financial standpoint, al-Qaida facilitators and even operatives still in the United States," Thompson said. "We can't afford to let up."
By all accounts, U.S. law enforcement, military and intelligence operatives have made impressive progress in their worldwide hunt for Osama bin Laden and members of his al-Qaida terrorist network.
They have captured a number of the organization's top tier, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al-Qaida's chief of operations and the alleged mastermind of the devastating attacks on New York and Washington two years ago.
In addition, they have netted Ramzi bin al-Shibh, another plotter of the Sept. 11 attacks; Abu Zubayda, who the government says was behind the failed attempts to blow up buildings in Jordan and Los Angeles during the millennium celebrations; and most recently, Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, who ran al-Qaida's Southeast Asian operations and is believed to have planned the strike on the USS Cole three years ago in Yemen.
The military pressure applied to al-Qaida in Afghanistan has also, terrorism experts say, scattered the organization, forcing many members back into Asia, Africa, the Middle East and European countries where they lived before taking up with bin Laden.
But al-Qaida's retreat has only brought about a string of attacks against civilians and government targets in many of those countries, including Pakistan, India, Morocco, Yemen, Kenya and Indonesia.
Eleven people died and 150 more were injured last month when a car bomb ripped through the J.W. Marriott hotel in Jakarta. Nearly a year ago, 202 people died when two bombs set off by Muslim extremists led by Hambali detonated outside Bali nightspots.
And now, experts say, it appears that al-Qaida intends to use Iraq as its theater for staging future violence against anyone showing support for the U.S. troops stationed there.
What we have learned
A special investigation by the House and Senate Intelligence committees into the intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks found that there was a series of warnings that al-Qaida intended to attack the United States dating back to 1998 that the federal government missed.
In addition, the investigation revealed that from at least 1994, terrorists had planned to use aircraft as an explosive-laden weapon to fly into buildings, yet the intelligence community did not take the threat as seriously as it should have.
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The investigation, led by Eleanor Hill, a Washington-based lawyer with the Atlanta firm King & Spalding, uncovered missed opportunities to detect al-Qaida and a virtual communication breakdown between the FBI and CIA that prevented detection of the impending attacks.
"It was certainly a failure on the part of the intelligence community that led to 9/11," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., a member of the House panel and now a member of the Senate panel. "There were gaps in the system. What it goes back to is the lack of intelligence sharing."
Today, the intelligence community is doing a better job gathering information, injecting spies into organizations suspected of terrorism and getting the information into the hands of policy makers in government, he said.
"But we are still a long way away from living in a perfect world," Chambliss said. "We are still very vulnerable."
While law enforcement and intelligence officials say that much has changed since the attacks, the reviews are more mixed outside government.
"I think the intelligence community has done a much better job, but the key agencies are still not sharing data," said Michael Swetnam, founder of the Potomac Institute of Public Policy, a nonpartisan think tank based in Virginia and an adviser to the Senate Intelligence Committee. "There is a lot of work to be done."
Swetnam, like nearly every other terrorism expert interviewed, expects that the United States will be struck again, mainly because the nation's borders are porous, its seaports are vulnerable and the public is becoming complacent.
"As time goes on, people think of it less and less," Swetnam said.
Adding to the difficulty of hunting down bin Laden and other al-Qaida operatives is the change within the organization.
The terrorist network used to openly advertise spots in its terror camps. It ran store-front recruiting centers. Over the past two years, it has turned into a clandestine organization.
"It used to be in the full view of the world," Swetnam said. "Now it's very secretive, very private. The more underground an organization, the more dangerous. It is a profound change."
Ian Lessor, vice president and director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles, has followed al-Qaida since its inception in the early 1990s. He believes the government is in a much better position today to hunt down al-Qaida than it was two years ago.
"We have hunted al-Qaida very effectively over the last two years, including shutting down zones of chaos. But we shouldn't be complacent," Lessor said. "There are many groups with the capability to strike us, strike our allies. It is a comprehensive and long-term problem, and two years after 9/11 we are only part way down that path. This could go on for a long time."
Contributing: Associated Press