On this, the latest anniversary of 9/11, there is an understandable tendency to compare the Al Qaeda attack on American soil with the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. While the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon was actually deadlier than the attack on Pearl Harbor, there is a significant difference between the two events: the latter was the work of a nation state, the former the work of a non-governmental organization. Al Qaeda is not, of course, entirely independent of nation states—it needs shelter somewhere, meaning in some nation state, especially for training and higher-level command and control structures, and it benefits from alliances with certain states, such as Taliban-era Afghanistan or Iran or, possibly, Pakistan. But it is not state-directed and even overthrowing the state that gave its leadership shelter—the Taliban-run Afghanistan—has not put an end to the organization. It has simply migrated to Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, and other spots where there is not a strong government willing and able to keep the terrorists out.
This may be to belabor the obvious, but the difference between Imperial Japan and Al Qaeda is worth contemplating on this anniversary because it helps to explain why there has not been a neat and final resolution to the conflict once known as the Global War on Terror. Quite simply, it is difficult to imagine the leaders of Al Qaeda ever signing instruments of surrender as the leaders of Japan did on the deck of the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945. And even if, by some remote chance, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor, did sign a peace treaty, it would be disregarded by many fanatics who claim to fight in Al Qaeda’s name. Al Qaeda is not a rigidly organized, tightly hierarchical structure that can impose discipline on its followers. It is, rather, a loose-knit network over which its leaders exercise only limited control.