Thirteen years ago, the United States changed forever.
It was on Sept. 11, 2001 that militants associated with the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda hijacked four airliners, three of which would later crash into some of the nation's most prominent buildings — the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The death toll: More than 3,000.
The event would mark the first large-scale attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor in the 1940s.
About a week ago, a video of a hooded man associated with the extremist group ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, beheading former UCF student Steven Sotloff was released. Before that, fellow American journalist James Foley met the same fate. The death toll: Two.
More than a decade after the day America will never forget, it seems terrorism still poses a dangerous threat to the country — and most recently, hit closer to home than most UCF students and faculty probably ever thought possible.
With most American boots off foreign grounds and terrorist attacks leaking through our very own computer screens, 13 years later, terrorism is alive and well.
"[After 9/11], there were periodic reports of 'Oh, we're succeeding; we're having success," but what we see is these threats haven't gone away," said UCF political science professor Joseph Vasquez. "Osama Bin Laden is dead. Zercowi in Iraq is dead. But the threat hasn't gone away — it's kind of morphed."
The current threat
Due to recent events, the most-talked about terrorist group would most likely be ISIS. But in what Vasquez describes as a global game of Whack-a-Mole, there are others: al-Shabaab, Hamas and al-Qaeda.
Al-Shabaab, allegiant to al-Qaeda, most recently made headlines after the United States killed its top leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, through an airstrike. However, not even a week later, the Somalia-based Islamist group has named a successor to its slain leader — Ahmed Omar Abu Ubaidah. After a series of kidnappings and attacks along the Kenyan border, this is the group's third leader.
Hamas, or the Islamic Resistance Movement, is a Palestinian militant movement at the forefront of armed resistance to Israel. The United States labeled Hamas — which has utilized kidnappings, killings and suicide bombings to weaken the state of Israel — as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997.
Al-Qaeda, although not the same threat that attacked America many years ago, still threatens nations across the Muslim world. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are currently present in the Sinai Peninsula, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger. Although this does not pose a direct threat to the United States, it spells trouble for American allies.
"What we continue to face are elements that are either sympathetic to al-Qaeda or associate themselves with the ideology of al-Qaeda in other remote areas of the world that do pose a threat to the United States and our interests and our allies," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said this summer.
Juan Zarate, a terrorism adviser to President George W. Bush, says this cripples the country's ability to secure itself and engage in commerce with the rest of the world.
Under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda successfully carried out perhaps the most significant terrorist attack in American history. But it succeeded in something else as well — changing the way Americans live.
"[Terrorists have] effectively disrupted our way of life by providing the stimuli needed for our government to bring in obtrusive security precautions into our everyday lives," said Andrew Schroeder, a UCF student and former Marine who served on tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I think that if one is to sit down and compare what life was like pre-9/11 and what life is like post-9/11, you'll see my point."
For example, Schroeder, a sophomore mechanical engineering major, pointed out the difference in airport security pre- and post-9/11.
"Almost anyone can kill someone. In reality, it's not that hard," he said. "But what terrorists have mastered is the art of instilling fear in a society."
But do Americans know what they're supposed to be afraid of? Despite the fact that hundreds of UCF students gathered around the Reflecting Pond last week to remember Steven Sotloff, do any of them fear ISIS?
An ISIS attack on American soil cannot be discarded as an impossibility, Schroeder said. If ISIS extremists were able to unite the Middle East under its caliphate — an Islamic state led by a supreme religious and political leader known as a caliph, or successor, to the Prophet Muhammad — it could push attacks into Eurasia and possibly through the southern border onto mainland U.S. soil, he said.
Many of these groups, in fact, want to impose the caliphate on the world, UCF professor of Terrorism and Communication Jonathan Matusitz said, but they occupy different parts of the world.
ISIS, which branched out of al-Qaeda, currently has about 20,000 fighters. It believes in Salafism and strives to return to a "golden age" of Islam — like that of the 7th century — and impose Sharia law, he said.
In fact, the choice to behead Steven Sotloff and James Foley echoes the centuries-old belief system.
However, there is one thing that sets ISIS apart: Money.
ISIS has access to vast oil fields in Iraq and Syria, unlike al-Qaeda, which wasn't well-funded.
Course of actions
After 9/11, with the country emotionally rattled and a presidential election looming, former President George W. Bush addressed the nation, announcing the beginning of war.
"Now that conflict has come, the only way to limit its duration is to apply decisive force," he said. "And I assure you, this will not be a campaign of half measures and we will accept no outcome but victory."
In response to the beheading of Sotloff and Foley, President Barack Obama also addressed the nation.
"We will degrade and destroy [ISIS] so that it is no longer a threat to Iraq, the region and United States," he said, although a course of action outside of continued airstrikes has not been established.
Schroeder and Matusitz, however, cited the only way to handle ISIS extremists: Wipe them out.
"We are not fighting against people; we are fighting an ideology," Matusitz said. "Coexistence with Salafist movement is impossible. Making peace with them is impossible."