Twenty years after the horrific terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, the world is certainly a far more dangerous and chaotic place. It is a major historical irony that while marking this extremely sad anniversary, the US and the world are not just back to square one, but even worse on several levels and fronts.
The absurdity is not just that the Taliban, the extremist group which the US ousted after occupying Afghanistan in 2001, is back in control of that war-torn country, but also that the key threat, terrorism, has metastasised and become much bigger than it was 20 years ago.
The initial declared goal of the so-called “war on terror” that the US launched in reaction to the 2001 terrorist attacks in which nearly 3,000 Americans died was to prevent another attack on the US homeland. While no further 11-September-style attacks have taken place in the US, the country’s intelligence agencies remain on high alert to prevent smaller terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda’s extremely vicious upgrade, the Islamic State (IS) group, or Daesh, which also has a transnational presence.
Americans, like all other peoples of the world, are not immune to so-called “lone-wolf” terrorist attacks or suicide car bombs in major cities.
With the technological advances that have taken place, terrorist groups might have given up on obtaining chemical or biological weapons, as was once feared after the 11 September attacks. Instead, they have been working to develop programmes aimed at launching cyber-attacks that could bring havoc to electricity and water networks, as well as military and government agencies, banks, financial institutions and even media companies.
Moreover, while nearly 100 Americans have been killed in domestic terrorist attacks in recent years, especially after the rise of IS, over 7,000 Americans have died in failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Over $2 trillion was spent in the attempt to rebuild these two countries that the US invaded and then occupied. These vast funds were largely wasted on corrupt governments and warlords, and they even created more divisions and bloodshed in the two countries.
With regard to improving stability in the Middle East and reducing worldwide levels of terrorism, the so-called “war on terror” has largely failed. Terrorism has continued in the broader Middle East, North Africa and South Asia regions. Today, the number of attacks and victims worldwide is three to five times higher annually than it was in 2001.
Political conditions across the Middle East and North Africa region also remain violent and unstable. The so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011 yielded more repression and terrorism than democracy and stability. In Europe, as well as in the US, the reaction to the flood of refugees from unstable Middle East countries such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan has been the rise of populism and right-wing governments, something that has been eagerly watched by IS as confirming its false propaganda that the real war is between the Christian-Jewish West and Islam.
Even Democratic Party US President Joe Biden, who came to office declaring that “America is back,” has found himself in practise carrying out the “America First” policies crafted by his predecessor Donald Trump. The messy US pullout from Afghanistan, without any coordination with close NATO allies such as Britain, France, Germany and other countries who had a military presence there, has renewed serious doubts about the strength of the Atlantic alliance.
In real terms, terrorist groups such as IS and Al-Qaeda are now celebrating after achieving their strategic purpose of driving the US out of the broader Middle East region such that extremists will have a greater chance of controlling more failed states including Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Yemen.
Despite the official Taliban rhetoric, Afghanistan will soon turn into a magnet for extremist and terrorist groups, and while these might not necessarily immediately plan attacks against the US, they are likely to threaten the country’s neighbours, including India and China. Moreover, the very nature of terrorism has changed, and terrorists can now plan for an attack in a hideout in Kandahar or in Yemen just as effectively as they can in an apartment building in New York, London or Paris.
Over the past 20 years, the US and its Western allies have ignored dealing with the key reasons that have largely led to the rise of terrorism in the region, topped by the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestine. Israel’s right-wing government has managed to sell to the world the idea that its occupation of Palestine is not the central issue in the region, but that this is rather the “war on terror.” Meanwhile, terrorist groups have continued to use US indifference and blind bias towards Israel as major recruitment tools to deceive many angry young people into joining their ranks.
Had the enormous funds that the US spent on useless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq been used to finance development plans, education and creating jobs for the many unstable countries in the Middle East region, this would have been a much more successful strategy in fighting the threat of terrorism in the region.
But this is likely to remain wishful thinking, and the US will most likely now enter a long period of isolationism, leaving other world and regional powers to set the agenda for this troubled region for many years to come.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly