20 years later: How 9/11 changed the Arab world

Salah Nasrawi , Saturday 11 Sep 2021

Twenty years after the 11 September attacks, the tragedy is still having wide-ranging geopolitical and humanitarian impacts on the Arab world

How 9/11 changed the Arab world

Two decades ago at the beginning of the 21st century, the Arab world looked to be at a crossroads and facing huge challenges and perspectives.

The region was moving forward cautiously a decade after the Gulf War to remove Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait and the signing of the historic Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement.

The new modus operandi had provided a degree of stability that many hoped would allow the Middle East to enter a new era of peace, stability and cooperation that would ensure a flourishing future for its people.

Yet, suddenly the Arab region dramatically altered when on 11 September 2001 the world watched smoke billowing from the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington as a result of terrorist attacks that took almost 3,000 lives in an instant and changed the world as we knew it.

The Bush administration then thrust American power into the light of the day and unleashed its global war on terrorism, invading Afghanistan and Iraq and in so doing deeply unsettling much of the world and particularly the Arab world, the geopolitical centre of the Middle East region.

While US leaders blamed the fateful 9/11 attacks on the Al-Qaeda terror group and its leader Osama Bin Laden and not Muslims in general, the rhetoric, reactions and some political trends that came in their wake stoked Islamophobia and anti-Arabism.

Nowhere was that more evident than in the Arab world where American power manifested in US counter-terrorism strategies was mismanaged in the aftermath of 11 September, creating new security, political and social problems whose impact can be felt today.

When faced with decisions to respond to a scourge that American commentators were quick to compare to a new Pearl Harbour, then US president George W Bush vowed that the US “will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them” in the war he declared on terrorism.

As it became clear that 19 of the hijackers of the commercial airlines that carried out the attacks on New York and Washington came from Arab countries and had acted under orders from Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda group, it became evident that the US relationship with the Arab and Muslim world seemed fated to change radically and permanently.

Driven by anti-Muslim hysteria, the fight against terrorism became a defining issue first for the US administration and then for all Western governments. Anger and fury triggered by the 11 September attacks soon became the norms in how the US and Europe engaged the Arab world.

With the intense scrutiny and distrust that was unleashed after the attacks along with visa restrictions, headscarf bans, the abuse of “ostensible” religious Muslim symbols and even physical assaults on Muslims, a toxic environment has prevailed since 2001 for Arabs in the United States and in the West in general. 

This discriminatory backlash shaped by the events of 9/11 and their aftermath created a multilayered unease in America’s political and cultural relationships with the Arabs that deepened the mutual misunderstanding wrought by the traditionally misguided and hostile US foreign policy choices in the Middle East.

Though the war on Al-Qaeda, now a top priority for the US, was meant to eradicate threats of Islamist jihad in a way that stopping Communism was also once the Western grand strategy, this crusade utterly failed, as a more powerful terrorist organisation, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) group, soon emerged and garnered worldwide appeal.   

Despite 20 years of military actions by the US and its international partners aimed at stamping out terrorism that have exacted major tolls on both Al-Qaeda and IS, the two groups have been able to adapt and expand in many of the world’s hot spots and put their violent extremism into action.

Perhaps the worst manifestations of the war on terror were the two wars that the Bush administration waged in Afghanistan and Iraq, with these resulting in dramatic geopolitical and humanitarian impacts that have continued to have ripple effects across the region.

Less than a month after the 11 September attacks, US troops invaded Afghanistan in an attempt to dismantle Al-Qaeda, the terrorist group that claimed responsibility for the attacks, and remove the radical Taliban government harbouring it.

The Afghan war, which came to an end last month, was America’s longest war and one of the worst US foreign policy gambles. The death toll in the Afghan military and police amounted to 66,000 people, in addition to 47,245 Afghan civilians and 51,191 Taliban and other opposition fighters.

Millions of Afghans were either forced abroad as refugees or internally displaced. 

The financial cost of the war in Afghanistan was over $2 trillion, or nearly $300 million a day, according to some modest estimates, while the violence continued to destroy lives and induced the breakdown of security, public health and infrastructure in the country. 

America’s stunning retreat from Afghanistan last month is widely seen as strategic miscalculation that has sweeping implications. The hasty withdrawal did not only affect Afghanistan, but also constituted a major defeat that dismayed key US allies and allowed main US global adversaries like China and Russia to seek to reap advantages.

Closer to the Arab world, the invasion of Iraq and overthrow of the Saddam’s regime in 2003 was even more catastrophic, when the occupation of an Arab powerhouse ended in a series of failures and epidemics of violence affecting much of the region and more than Iraq and unleashing a perfect storm of political and sectarian conflicts.

The US and a coalition of allies invaded Iraq in 2003, vowing to destroy Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and cut Al-Qaeda’s links with the Saddam regime that the Bush administration alleged dated back to the early 1990s and were based on a common interest in confronting the US. 

It claimed that the overthrow of Saddam would bring peace, prosperity and democracy to Iraq, but the declared objectives soon proved illusory and violence, civil war and economic pitfalls have since wracked the country.

Hundreds of thousands of innocent people have died or been wounded and millions of others have been displaced against the background of the enormous squandering of resources.

As a violent insurgency arose, Iraq was laid waste by terrorism that later hatched IS, a monster of Islamic extremism which managed to seize large swathes of Iraqi territory and expand into a network of supporters in several countries with affiliates increasingly carrying out attacks across the region and in Europe.

The group has now re-established its clandestine intelligence network in parts of Iraq after it was kicked out of major cities and towns in 2017 and resumed its lethal attacks against government forces, village chieftains and targets like oil pipelines and electricity grids.

The invasion of Iraq also set off the chain of turbulent events in the region that led to the empowerment of anti-regime activists who triggered the Arab Spring nearly ten years later. It had indirect connections to Iran’s growing influence in the region and allowed the Islamic Republic to expand its power and achieve its strategic objectives.

Fast-forward two decades, and the picture in many parts of the region does not look very different today. Terrorist groups are either active or lurking, and extremism has not abated since 9/11 and is still posing ideological and security threats to the region.

The chaotic and humiliating US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the dramatic comeback of the Taliban is a likely boost to Islamist radicalism in the Arab world and could increase the dangers of terrorist groups proliferating in ways unimagined in 2001.

The 11 September attacks gave the US an opening for a crusade conducted through sheer power, arrogance and vengeance. The Arab region, apart from the rest of the world, will continue to experience the blowback from the US-led international war on terrorism well into the future.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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