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.
“Terrorism and counterterrorism is really the new Darwinism,” Shanker said. “The U.S. has evolved and gotten better, but the terrorists have evolved and gotten better, too.”
Shanker and Schmitt are members of the Times' national security team. Since 9/11, Shanker has logged time in Afghanistan, Iraq and Djibouti. He accompanied some of the first troops to occupy Kandahar.
Being with the troops, he said, is challenging and rewarding.
“It's very inspiring to see the young men and women out at the pointy end of the spear doing what needs to be done, and it's not about politics or all of the rhetoric back home,” he said.
Shanker's journey — from John Marshall High graduate to counterterrorism expert — has been a long one.
After high school, he attended Colorado College in Colorado Springs before joining The Oklahoman staff in 1978-80. He covered the night police reporting beat.
“I learned everything I needed to know about how to cover stories during those three years,” he said.
When he left The Oklahoman, Shanker signed on with the Chicago Tribune. He spent 10 years overseas in Moscow, Berlin and Sarajevo.
“In Moscow,” he said, “I used to joke that my tax dollars were paying for nuclear missiles aimed at my apartment.”
At the Times, Shanker, who is married with two sons, was assigned to work from the Pentagon. His office was far from the area damaged by the plane crash.
After all these years, Shanker is sure of one thing:
“Sooner or later another attack is going to come, because the U.S. has to be lucky and good every day, and the bad guys only have to be lucky once,” he said. “The U.S. has to learn resilience. It's not about rebuilding buildings. It's about staying the course.”