Fault lines 20 years later

Hussein Haridy
Sunday 19 Sep 2021

Twenty years after the 11 September attacks, the fault lines that predated them are still with us

I am writing this article on the very day, 20 years ago, when the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington came under terrorist attack by Al-Qaeda terrorists using three civilian airliners.

A fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, was also flying towards Washington, but brave passengers overpowered the terrorists flying the plane, which then crash landed in Pennsylvania. There was speculation that the target of the fourth plane was either the White House or Capitol Hill. On that fateful day, 3,000 innocent Americans and people from 90 other nationalities perished.

The mastermind of these attacks was a Saudi radical by the name of Osama Bin Laden. The United States had not come under attack on its own soil since the British set fire to the White House in 1812.

The world changed after the 11 September attacks. Under the administration of former president Georges W Bush, the US entered two wars, the first on 7 October 2001 when US forces launched the longest war in American history against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The war then lasted 20 years, and the last soldier left the Afghan capital Kabul on 31 August this year.

Two years later, in March 2003, the US, falsely believing that the regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and had direct links to Al-Qaeda, attacked Iraq and overthrew the Iraqi president and his regime. The two wars cost the US treasury some $7 trillion. More than 4,000 US soldiers died, in addition to hundreds of thousands of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A few weeks after the invasion of Iraq, Bush visited a US aircraft carrier and addressed the navy personnel. In the background hung a banner with two words written on it – “mission accomplished.” 

The world is commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 11 September attacks with many questions unanswered as to what went wrong in the exercise of military force by a great power against not only a terrorist group but also against a certain vision and a set of ideas that has persisted across the Arab and Muslim world. The recent return of the Taliban to rule in Kabul and the group’s now complete control of Afghanistan have come to haunt not only Americans and allies of the US but also the Arab and Muslim countries.

While Osama Bin Laden died in a US raid in May 2011, his ideas still resonate in Arab and Muslim countries. It is true that his terrorist organisation has been weakened and has not been able to mount further attacks against the US, but it still has followers, and there are other terror organisations operating in various parts of Africa and the Arab world.

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein destabilised Iraq and the Levant, including Lebanon, by indirectly enhancing the influence of Iran inside Iraq and throughout the Middle East, the Gulf and the Arab Peninsula. One of the most serious consequences of the US invasion of Iraq has been the creation of strategic regional imbalance that favours Iran.

Another indirect result of the American wars has been the marginalisation of governments and states seen as allies and strategic partners of the US. This trend was compounded by the advocacy of democracy by the Bush administration in 2005. One of the questions that many Americans posed in the wake of the 11 September attacks was “why do they hate us?” “They” referred to Arab and Muslim people.

Another assumption of the Bush administration that proved counterproductive and highly destabilising for pro-US regimes in the Middle East, like Egypt, for instance, was that the lack of democracy in the Arab world had been the main driver radicalising Arab youth. The assumption completely ignored the various ideological, economic and social reasons that explain why some Arabs believe in the teachings and propaganda of the various groups of what is known as Political Islam.

These trends have been reinforced by economic and social circumstances rather than any lack of democracy. Ironically, the US assumption and the perception prevalent within the ranks of the advocates of Political Islam themselves emboldened them. This led to the failure of the popular uprisings of 2011 in Egypt and elsewhere across the Arab world to prepare the ground for a smooth democratic transformation.

You cannot sell the democratic idea to groups that reject diversity in all its forms and democracy itself as alien to their interpretation of Islamic teaching. Even so, there has been one common denominator between the West and these groups, and that has been the ballot box. However, for the latter the ballot box is the first and last step in their vision of democracy. Their pernicious vision rejects the very notion of the peaceful transfer of power. How on earth can you convince people who falsely claim to rule in the name of God that they have lost an election?

The 11 September attacks were not only an attack on the US, but they were also an attack against a model of government and a way of life in the Arab world. Previously, the widespread belief within Al-Qaeda had been to attack the “near enemy,” meaning Arab governments like the Egyptian and Saudi governments. The 11 September attacks were the first to target the “far enemy,” meaning the United States and the West.

The resistance to the US military presence in Iraq led to the splintering of Al-Qaeda and the emergence of more radical groups like the Islamic State (IS) group or Daesh, that outperformed the original in cruelty and brutality. For two years, IS succeeded in what Bin Laden and his organisation had never managed to achieve, namely to rule vast tracts of land in parts of Syria and Iraq and to set up a “caliphate” in them from 2013 until 2017.

It took an international coalition under US military command to defeat and degrade IS. However, it did not eliminate it altogether, and it is still operating in parts of Iraq and Syria on a much smaller but still lethal scale.

The 11 September attacks were the bloody and unforgivable embodiment of the “clash of civilisations” theory put forward by US political scientist Samuel Huntington in 1993 with the publication of an article under the same title in the US journal Foreign Affairs. One year later, Huntington published his book The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order.

Twenty years later, the clash is still present, and the original fault lines that predated the 11 September attacks still have not gone away. May all those innocent people who perished on that fateful day 20 years ago rest in peace. 

*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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