Since the attacks of September 11, the world has become a more dangerous place, and there is little the U.S. and its allies can do to counter the appeal of radical Islam.
A firefighter walks among flags at the FDNY Memorial Wall on Sunday, Sept. 11, on the 15th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Photo: AP
Sept. 11, 2016 marks the 15th anniversary of one of the most tragic events in our recent history. In a matter of minutes, the world changed. Humanity had never before encountered such a heinous act of terrorism, and, paradoxically, it occurred in the heart of the United States, the country that consistently positioned itself as the guarantor of global stability.
The response to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. by the American government and global community resulted in major geopolitical shifts. And yet the world has failed to become safer in the years since 9/11.
Only several hours after the attacks, the FBI announced the names of all 19 terrorists responsible for hijacking the four planes. Almost immediately, al-Qaeda was labeled as the organization that perpetrated these acts of terror.
On Sept. 20, the U.S. authorities issued an ultimatum to the Taliban, which at that time controlled 90 percent of Afghanistan and received diplomatic recognition from three countries.
In the ultimatum, the administration of President George W. Bush demanded that al-Qaeda leadership be turned over to the U.S, that the organization’s operations on the territory of Afghanistan be stopped — including the immediate shutdown of training camps and that American inspectors be admitted to Afghanistan.
When the Taliban refused to comply, the White House launched operation Enduring Freedom, which looked like an easy military victory for the U.S.
On Oct. 7, the American and British air forces conducted their first strikes on Taliban bases and communication lines, and on Nov. 13, the U.S. and its NATO allies captured Kabul, the Afghan capital. A little over a month after the end of the Battle of Tora Bora, the first stage of the operation was complete. A secular transitional government was installed in Afghanistan, and the remaining Taliban fighters switched to guerrilla tactics.
At that time, it seemed that the main stronghold of Islamist extremists had been destroyed. Following their defeat in Afghanistan, the Taliban and their supporters lost major sources of income, access to transit routes and training grounds for fighters and suicide bombers. Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders were forced to flee to Pakistan or hide in remote mountainous areas of Afghanistan.
Also read: "15 years after 9/11, what have we learned?"
The American public witnessed an effective, quick and virtually loss-free military operation organized by their government in retaliation against terror attacks.
And yet, 15 years later, Islamist extremists control large parts of Syria, Iraq and Pakistan and have recaptured some Afghani regions. A new extremist force, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), has claimed the place once held by al-Qaeda and the Taliban. How did this come to pass?
On March 20, 2003, American and British troops invaded Iraq, and on April 9, they captured Baghdad. Officially, the intervention was based on information that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had been manufacturing chemical weapons. In reality, the White House sought to support its Arab allies in the region, gain control over several large oilfields and use the military success to boost the ratings of then-President Bush.
Even though the first stages of the operation went well, its consequences should have been foreseen. Iraq, which had been held together by the iron rule of Saddam Hussein, collapsed into chaos. In the north, the Kurds de facto created an independent state, while the south saw clashes between the Sunnis and Shi’ites.
By the end of 2000s, the new transitional government in Iraq lost control over several major cities. Low living standards, the destruction of the education system and a lack of prospects for young Iraqis contributed to the appeal of the simple and accessible ideology of radical Islamists.
While there is no denying that Saddam Hussein was a cruel dictator, his rule also provided a certain level of stability: hospitals worked, the streets were safe and the government was secular. Following his deposition, his successors failed to create a strong state reliant on democratic principles.
In exchange for two military victories, by the end of 2003, the U.S. obtained two centers of tension that required the presence of NATO forces and resulted in constant combat losses.
The shift to “democratic chaos” in Iraq and Afghanistan also had a strong negative effect on the entire Middle East.
The Al-Qaeda branch in Iraq, founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (born Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal al-Khalayleh) seized control of a part of the country immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein and proclaimed the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006. The same year, the Taliban captured a part of the northeastern Pakistani region of Waziristan, announced the creation of the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan and soon made Islamabad acknowledge the supremacy of Sharia Law on the territory they controlled.
By the early 2010s, the unstable areas in the Middle East had increased even further. Instead of the anticipated democratic reforms, the Arab Spring, which began in 2010, rather quickly turned into an Arab Winter characterized by dewesternization, local conflicts and religious extremism.
The next year, 2011, saw the fall of four political regimes: in January, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali gave up his position with virtually no bloodshed; a month later, Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for 30 years, resigned and was later arrested; in October, a gory civil war resulted in the death of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi; and a month later, the head of Yemen also stepped down. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad proved more resilient; he has managed to stay in power despite a bloody civil war with the secular opposition and religious extremist groups.
Also read RD's report "Terrorism: Inside Russia's Syria campaign and the global fight against extremism"
At the beginning of the Arab Spring, many American and European politicians hailed it as the harbinger of freedom and democratic changes in the Arab world.
Libya, however, ceased to exist as a unified state almost immediately after the fall of Gaddafi. The country was engulfed in chaos, and the transitional government was often unable to control even the country’s capital city.
Gaddafi, though a supporter of various terrorist groups, could be reasoned with or influenced through threats of direct military intervention, but his demise left no one to talk to. Islamic radical groups took the opportunity to seize control of entire regions, oilfields and transportation routes.
Another of the consequences of the chaos in the Middle East is the flow of refugees that has caused major humanitarian problems in Europe. At the same time, Islamic extremists began perpetrating a series of heinous terrorist attacks in Europe. These events taken together have played a major role in the rise of right-wing political groups in Europe that advocate a dramatic shift in modern international relations.
The world has changed dramatically since 9/11, and not for the better. A shaky Middle Eastern balance maintained by dictatorships in Libya, Iraq and Syria gave way to chaos. Terrorism has become a real threat all over the world.
Borders are being closed again, police control is tightening, and special forces are boosting their numbers. Russian, European and American soldiers are dying in the Middle East. The terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center are effectively winning. Their ideas are becoming more and more attractive in the impoverished Middle East and North Africa, where there is limited access to good education and a lack of prospects for the younger generation. In the past 15 years, Islamic extremism also has acquired a certain revolutionary romantic appeal for many educated European Muslims.
In the meantime, the latest technologies, such as social networking sites, blogs and communications systems, are being used to promote extremist and terrorist ideologies that treat the murder of civilians as an act of heroism and portrays Americans and their allies as the main antagonist.
Sadly, Western values — gender equality, secularism and democracy — seem a lot less appealing. There is not a single group among those battling in the Middle East that embrace these ideals.
The only way to overcome the crisis is to help Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen regain their stability, ensure their economic prosperity, develop secular education systems and emphasize secular democratic values over the ideas of religious fanatics and extremists.
Unfortunately, that is a utopian concept. In the near future, terrorist pressure on the West will escalate, and the U.S., Russia and Europe have nothing to counter the rise of extremism. As Catherine the Great once said, “Cannons cannot combat ideas.”
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.