SOME events, due to their sheer magnitude, change the course of history. The terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001, targeting several sites in the US certainly fit this description, as the reverberations of that epochal event are still being felt across the globe, two decades since.

By all means it was an atrocity of immense proportions. Whatever grievances the Al Qaeda leadership may have had with the West, the targeting of innocent people can never be justified. Nearly 3,000 souls perished as the transnational terrorist group’s operatives struck jets into New York’s World Trade Centre and the Pentagon outside Washington, while a fourth aircraft fell in a field in Pennsylvania. Events thereafter would affect locales far from American shores, as it appeared that the so-called clash of civilisations was becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Indeed, the US had every right to punish those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, as part of the doctrine of self-defence. However, the two-decade occupation of Afghanistan that has just ended in a Taliban victory and the never-ending ‘war on terror’ hardly did much to neutralise radical Islamist militancy. If anything, America’s imperial overreach helped create even more bloodthirsty outfits, such as the self-styled Islamic State group, along with destabilising functioning Muslim states and increasing sectarian and ethnic fissures within these societies.

Read: The decade after 9/11

Al Qaeda could have been targeted through other, more intelligent and less intrusive methods. But the neocon clique that surrounded George W Bush at the time cynically sought to use the 9/11 tragedy to further its agenda of the ‘new American century’. In the guise of fighting terrorism and spreading democracy, the American military machine embarked on imperial civilising missions across continents. Afghanistan was just the beginning; Iraq, Syria and Libya would also follow. The genuine pain and anguish of 9/11 gave way to the vulgar projection of American power across the globe.

Two decades since, the world is just as dangerous a place — if not more — than it was before the 9/11 events. The ‘war on terror’ gave us gulags and black sites such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib run by self-professed democracies where fundamental rights were held in abeyance, while shadowy, well-connected contractors were hired to do the dirty work that Western capitals could easily deny. Recruiters for militant movements have used all these uncomfortable facts to influence young minds within the Muslim world, and strengthen their violent narratives.

In the aftermath of the recent fall of Kabul, President Joe Biden has pledged to reverse course on America’s nation-building activities. This will go a long way in stabilising the Middle East, if he sticks to his promise. Moreover, many of the ‘root causes’ that fuel terrorism — authoritarianism within Muslim states; poverty; lack of opportunities; the targeting of Muslim states militarily by the West; Palestine, Kashmir etc — remain unaddressed even 20 years after 9/11.

Published in Dawn, September 11th, 2021

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