Thom Shanker's morning commute ended the moment American Airlines Flight 77 smashed into the Pentagon.
Shanker, a New York Times reporter, had begun working out of the Pentagon earlier in 2001. Now, as a citywide traffic jam immobilized Washington, he hopped off his bus. He made his way across the capital city in trains and on foot, eventually finding a place to hole up with a phone and start trying to figure out what was happening.
Ten years later, he knows.
Shanker, originally of Oklahoma City, is the co-author with fellow Times reporter Eric Schmitt of “Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda.” The nonfiction book was released in August.
“On one hand, you can say this book took 10 years to write, since Eric and I have been covering 9/11 and the war on terror for all that time,” Shanker said in a recent phone interview. “But basically we came up with the book idea three years ago and have written it ever since.”
The book examines how the American military and intelligence community has transformed in the years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Sections of the book focus on America's cyber war against militant groups, technological advances such as drone aircraft and supercomputers, and details of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
“In the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. responded with an understandable but very clumsy effort to kill every bad guy,” Shanker said. “There's no way you can win by having the highest death count. You have to be smarter.”
The 9/11 attacks had shocked everyone, including the masterminds of the plot, he said.
“Al-Qaida surprised itself on 9/11,” he said. “I think they had no idea they could actually bring down the two towers and hit the Pentagon. They were surprised at what they did. They were also surprised by the ferocity of the American response. I don't think they thought that the U.S. would invade Afghanistan, bring down the Taliban, et cetera.”
At the same time, the U.S. was on unfamiliar footing.
Overwhelming force wasn't enough to “win” the war on terror; bringing down bin Laden, for example, would require a more nuanced approach based on greater understanding of the enemy's tactics and hierarchies.