Bolt from the Blue or Avoidable Failure? Revisiting September 11 and the Origins of Strategic Surprise


  • Authors' note: We are grateful for very useful feedback from two anonymous referees, the editors of FPA, Betty Glad, Johan Eriksson, Alexander George, Paul ‘t Hart, Daniel Nohrstedt, Ann Tauns, Eric Paglia, Olav Knudsen, Walter Carlsnaes, and Bengt Sundelius. This article was made possible by the generous financial and institutional support of the Swedish Emergency Management Agency, the Swedish Institute for International Affairs, SCANCOR (Stanford University), the Swedish National Defense College, and Uppsala University. The analysis and conclusions are solely those of the authors.


Drawing on the strategic surprise, warning-response, and foreign policy literature, this article argues that the September 11 terror attacks should be regarded as a strategic surprise and examines a number of key factors that contributed to vulnerability and inhibited vigilance. Three broad explanatory “cuts” derived from the literature—psychological, bureau-organizational, and agenda-political—are deployed to sift through the rapidly expanding empirical record in an effort to shed light on the processes and contextual factors that left the United States vulnerable to the attacks. The article aims to improve our understanding of generic processes and practices that enhance or detract from vulnerability and vigilance.