Thoughts on 9/11: Are we safer? What is the legacy?

As we approach the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, are we any safer now? I was at university when the 9/11 attacks happened in 2001. I remember the day vividly. I had just seen some friends after a trip abroad and on the way home I saw a large crowd of people gathered outside a shop watching the news coverage through the window. As I stumbled through, to get a glimpse of what people were watching, I will never forget those horrific scenes. I imagine few of us will forget the pictures of the twin towers collapsing amid the debris, dust and carnage. I felt a cold shiver run down my spine. The events of September 11 not only caused great distress and shock, but the reverberations across the world caused panic and pandemonium.

 

The US, like Britain, began a process of using national security as a smokescreen for unpopular interventions – from dodgy dossiers and non-existent weapons of mass destruction to an array of counter-terrorism laws and two wars which were thrust upon us without any credible intelligence. So began the global “war on terror”, which could have easily been renamed a decade later the global ‘war on Islam’. Since then we have seen a rise in Islamophobia and a sense of fear, over-policing and racial profiling. From the Burkini ban in France to British Muslims being marched off an Easyjet flight after their WhatsApp messages were mistaken for ‘Isis material’. So are we really winning the battle for hearts and minds?

At the time the prime minister, Tony Blair, told us: “This is a battle with only one outcome: our victory, not theirs.”

But have we actually won? And who are we at war with? I was one of the million people who marched in London against the illegal war in Iraq in 2003. As the chants of “Not in our name” grew louder, and I began to lose my voice, Blair clearly was not listening. A decade later and Iraq has now become a sectarian hotbed for extremism.

Moreover, I would argue that since 9/11, counter-terrorism legislation has actually increased terrorist activity. Tactics of over-policing and hardline legislation disproportionately targeted at Muslims have contributed to the “othering” of Muslim communities. At the same time they have led to antipathy over the actions of far-right groups.

The ancient writ of habeas corpus, due process, and the rule of law are also all being lost in this wave of anti-terror legislation that includes detaining people without charge, detaining people under curfews and restrictions on what people can say.

Some people may argue that because Osama bin Laden is now dead, the “war on terror” has achieved its ultimate goal. I disagree. If we look at what we have achieved since the war on terror, then what we see is a bleak picture of rising Islamophobia, extremist groups like Isis have emerged, hundreds of innocent people arrested, thousands of people murdered and terrorist plots continuing to take place. So the question we should be asking; “Is Britain a safer place now and have we really won?”

‘Never forget’ is the oft repeated refrain used when talking about the attacks of September 11th 2001. Yet, it often seems an empty phrase brought out yearly for memorial services and invoked by politicians seeking to justify the latest round of new counter terrorism efforts. Despite the phrase perhaps being overused, the attacks themselves should never be forgotten as they marked a key turning point in modern history and would, arguably, lead to the birth of a much more dangerous enemy in the form of Daesh.

Not since Pearl Harbour had the world’s only superpower been attacked within its domestic borders and what was so surprising was that the attack was not carried not by another state but by a then little known terrorist group – Al Qaeda. The attack itself was carried out by just 19 men, from Al Qaeda, who hijacked four planes and successfully flew two into the World Trade Center in New York, one into the Pentagon and the fourth only missed another target due to the heroic actions of the passengers, who caused it to crash into a field. The actions of these few would turn 9/11 into a day that changed history by leading to two American led invasions as part of the Global War on Terrorism; Afghanistan and then Iraq. Whilst the Afghan campaign was initially successful and had the backing of the international community the Iraq campaign would lead to a long running insurgency and widespread sectarian violence between the two dominant strands of Islam present in the country.

With the removal of Saddam Hussein and the de-Ba’athification of Iraqi police and military units, the Americans and British forces both created a power vacuum and deposited hundreds of highly trained soldiers on to Iraqi streets. Many of these now jobless individuals joined the growing insurgency which was fighting against the Western occupation. Whilst many different groups existed one group in particular stood out - Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn aka Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Originally founded in 1999 this group would go through a series of name and leadership changes as coalition attacks degraded its command and control structures.

Despite these losses, the continued presence of American and British troops in Iraq led many to join AQI and it rose in prominence and infamy as it carried out attacks against coalition troops and atrocities against Shi’a Muslims. This prominence allowed it to form the Mujahedeen Shura Council in 2004 as an umbrella organisation encompassing all of the Sunni insurgent groups present in Iraq. Under the guidance of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi the group became more and more sectarian often focusing on local Shi’a militias rather than the occupying coalition forces. This eventually led to a split from the main body of Al Qaeda and led to the renaming of the group as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2006.

The group effectively controlled most of Iraq and likely had a loose membership of 300,000 to 500,000 fighters and allied tribesmen who saw the group as a means of protecting themselves from an ineffective Iraqi government and the growing power of Iranian backed Shi’a militias. Tit for tat sectarian violence continued and the group survived US/ UK attempts to dismantle it and then the Arab Spring arrived and the Syrian civil war started. This provided an ideal opportunity for the group to expand across the border into Syria and enlarge its geographic footprint. Between 2011 and 2013 this is exactly what the group did before declaring a worldwide caliphate in June 2014 and changing its name to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, aka Daesh).

Daesh has since gone on to inspire nearly half a dozen attacks, beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria, in both Europe and the Middle East. It is arguable that had 9/11 never happened then the specific circumstances which led to the formation of AQI would never have occurred and Daesh would now not exist. Thus, we should never forget 9/11 partly to remember and honour the victims but also as a reminder that responding to terrorism with force can have far reaching effects which are hard to predict. Fortunately, we are unlikely to see a spectacular attack like 9/11 carried out again as Daesh appears to be focused on retaining the land it controls in Iraq and Syria. However, Daesh is more dangerous because of its ability to inspire those with little or no history of extremist violence to carry out low level attacks, such as Charlie Hebdo, Bataclan and Nice. The legacy of 9/11 is not just memorials to those who died but is an on-going struggle to detect, disrupt and neutralise plots inspired by Daesh.

Issued by Birmingham City University, Press Office.

 

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