Reflecting on the 20th anniversary of 9/11

Douglas London

Something wicked this way comes

Yes, the lights were blinking red, as the 9/11 Commission would later report, and like the witch’s ominous warning in Macbeth, another attack was coming, but where? Despite the East Africa embassy bombings, the strike against the USS Cole, and alarming intelligence reflections, we still found ourselves in shock. From many time zones away, I sat frozen, glued to images of the Towers vaporizing, not knowing then a childhood friend and first responder was among the thousands who had perished.

My CIA Station, like others around the globe, snapped into action. Being small with unique authorities and operating in the shadows allows for a rapid response to crises. We worked with foreign partners to lock down those with known or suspected terrorist ties to preempt the next attack and cultivate new sources, while preparing to bring the fight to those responsible. A CIA team would be on the ground in Afghanistan within two weeks.

Handling one of the CIA’s al-Qaeda penetrations at the time, I called for an emergency meeting, greeting my agent pistol at the ready, not knowing for sure just where his loyalties stood. Although contrite for what his colleagues had done, he could not conceal pride for their extraordinary accomplishment. And while he knew nothing of the attack, and would be invaluable in foiling future plots, perhaps his most enduring contribution to me was explaining his sentiments, and theirs.

In the ensuing 20 years, many would perish among the innocent and guilty alike, but for those of us who remember that day, the true story of 9/11 is how life changed. Like my agent, those among both friends and foes in distant lands long brutalized by the ravages of war, repression, and poverty would suggest that change was the goal.

Today’s disquieting normal of suspicion and hate among neighbors of different color, religion, and politics is the backdrop for an America now accessorized by barriers, metal detectors, bomb sniffing dogs, and police on our streets in combat attire, bearing assault rifles. Further away, death, devastation, and refugee camps paint the canvas among too many countries to name, several in which the U.S. has fought.

If Americans are to be spared the horrors suffered by other nations with diverse ethnic communities and politics who in the past coexisted peacefully but are now locked in bloody civil war, the lesson is that the cure should not be worse than the disease. War might at times be thrust upon us and inevitable. But with more forethought to the consequences, we can control the scale and the tools with which it’s fought.


Douglas London retired from the CIA in 2019 after 34 years as a Senior Operations Officer. He teaches at Georgetown University, is a Non-resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute, and is the author of the book “The Recruiter,” concerning the CIA’s post 9/11 transformation. Follow him @DouglasLondon5.


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