RD Interview: Sergey Markedonov of the Russian State University for the Humanities analyzes the historical significance of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and discusses the lessons learned by the West over the past 15 years.

A firefighter moves through debris at the site of New York's World Trade Center, Sept. 11, 2001. Photo: AP

Fifteen years after the terror attacks in the United States on 9/11, the specter of international terrorism is now one of the most pressing challenges faced by the U.S., Europe and Russia. From Paris to Brussels to Nice to Istanbul, reminders of this threat are now a regular and tragic occurrence.

What started more than two decades ago with attacks carried out by al-Qaeda against Western interests in the Third World has mutated and metastasized over time. If anything, military interventions in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria to combat this threat have only made the problem worse, to the point where terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) have taken advantage of a political power vacuum in the Middle East to create a new global brand of terror.

To make sense of these developments in the post-9/11 era, Russia Direct recently sat down with Sergey Markedonov of the Russian State University for the Humanities to discuss the evolution of international terrorism over the past 15 years and the historical ramifications of the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil by a non-state actor.

Also read: "Terror in Nice: Could it lead to more international cooperation?"

Russia Direct: What lessons should Russia, the U.S. and Europe have learned from the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington?

Sergey Markedonov: The main lesson for these nations is that they need to understand adequately the essence of the terrorism threat and properly respond to it both tactically and strategically. The problem is that 15 years ago, we came up with very debatable and artificial ideological messages. We teetered around without achieving any results.

The statement that we started living in a new century of terror after 9/11 or any attempts to identify terrorism as a new security threat don’t hold up to criticism. After all, terrorist attacks took place even in the United States long before Sept. 11. The assassinations of Presidents John F. Kennedy (November 22, 1963), James Garfield (September 19, 1881) or William McKinley (September 14, 1901) can also been seen as terrorist attacks, can’t they?       

That’s why the Sept. 11 terrorist attack was not a new challenge, in fact. Regarding cooperation of different terrorist groups on the international level, it also did exist before Sept. 11. Likewise, there were numerous examples when governments backed terrorist groups, organizations and networks, which tried to cooperate with each other.  

The next lesson we should learn is a clear understanding of what the term “international terrorism” means. Today it is seen as the major target of the global anti-terrorism campaign; however, it is not correct. Indeed, what does “international terrorism” mean?

Is it a sort of centralized organization, a decentralized network with numerous networks or a certain country’s affiliation? Terrorism is always specific in its goals - it is a tool of political violence, used in different ways, in different situations and for different goals. Terrorism is not the final goal itself. It is a tool and we should clearly understand why it is used and for what reasons.

The third lesson is the lack of agreement on the list of the organizations, which should be considered terrorist groups. This makes fighting terrorism very difficult, as indicated by the Syrian conflict. With Moscow and Washington standing against terrorism, the U.S. supports alleged moderate Islamists that use terrorist methods while Moscow is in lock-step with Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist militant group and political party based in Lebanon, and which also use terrorist instruments.

So, this complicates the problem. This is where national interests of some countries enter the picture. And these national interests drive the nation to forget about the very essence of terrorism as a tool of political violence and relegate it to a secondary place on the agenda.

RD: You said that terrorist attacks took place in the U.S. and elsewhere before Sept. 11 and the problem is not a new one. However, the Sept. 11 attacks were large-scale and made the agenda of terrorism even more relevant and important. After all, it was an attack on a global superpower.

S.M.: Well, the Lockerbie bombing was also large-scale and took place before Sept. 11 [On Dec. 21, 1988 a Pan-Am transatlantic flight from Frankfurt to Detroit via London and New York was destroyed by a bomb, killing 243 passengers and 16 crew members, with large debris of the plane crashing into residential areas of Lockerbie in the UK and claiming the lives of 11 more people on the ground – Editor’s note]. This tragedy was also symbolic.

Also read RD's report "Terrorism: Inside Russia's Syria campaign and the global fight against extremism"

The reason why Sept. 11 is seen as a watershed moment is that the attack targeted the most powerful superpower, the United States, which identifies itself as the winner in the Cold War and has been dominating and maintaining its leadership since 1991. It has been the center of military, political, economic and ideological influence. Nobody could compete with the U.S. But suddenly non-state actors and network terrorist groups attacked America on its own territory.

The targets were the World Trade Center buildings, the symbols of American dominance in the world, as well as the Pentagon.  So, symbolically, it was psychologically powerful. But claiming that it presented terrorism as a new threat is wrong. After all, the most wanted terrorist Osama Bin Laden had already long been notorious. The Taliban had emerged long before. 

The fact that Americans looked at terrorism from a new perspective doesn’t mean that terrorism didn’t exist before they started understanding it as a threat.  Again, terrorism is a tool of political violence, which is used throughout the world.

ISIS is using terrorism. The Syrian and Turkish Kurds are using terrorism. The groups supported by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad are using terrorism. Turkey’s authorities deterring the terrorist threat achieve their political goals due to brutal measures.

By the same token, any revolutionary movements (be them in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries) can use terrorist means. Despite their seemingly noble goals, they should be seen as terrorists if they use terrorism as a tool of political violence.

So, this question is very complicated. So, there is no reason to use such artificial terms as “international terrorism.”  It is necessary to be always specific and clarify the target.

RD: With the lack of agreement on what organizations should be seen as terrorist groups and increasing political differences between Russia and the West, there seems no reason to talk about a new international anti-terrorism campaign.

S.M.: Yes, it is very difficult to come up with compromise and team up against terrorism. Syria and the ISIS threat are good examples. They [Russia and the West] look at these problems very differently.

While Russia believes that the reason for the emergence of ISIS was attempts to overthrow the legitimate and secular political regimes in Middle Eastern countries, the U.S. thinks otherwise. They argue that authoritative regimes create a favorable environment for the rise of ISIS and such organizations. There are no points of agreement here, no reasons to believe that the countries will team up.

The problem is that today the term of terrorism is extremely politicized even within the expert community. It became a sort of political verdict against opponents, but in reality, it is the description of their political methods.

After all, many famous legitimate politicians started with terrorist means to seize power; for example, there is Yasser Arafat, a Palestinian leader and the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

RD: The terrorism threat seems to be evolving, with the so-called lone wolves, who commit terror attacks like the ones in Nice or Munich this year, posing a greater threat than organized terrorism. Indoctrinated with radical Islamic ideological messages, they are much more difficult to detect.

S.M.: Yes, with the development of the Internet and modern communication technologies, radical ideas are becoming even more pervasive and they can reach radically minded lone wolves easily and quickly. It is the side effect of globalization. These lone wolves are much more dangerous. Today one is a student — tomorrow one will go to the streets and start shooting and bombing.

Recommended: "The Rise and Fall of US-Russian Counter-Terrorism Cooperation"

So, the main lesson we should also learn in this regard is that the last 15 years after Sept. 11 have proved the validity of the statement that the century of violence didn’t end with the end of the Cold War. Today there are many more stakeholders with their own interests, from network terrorist organizations to lone wolves. And it makes these threats asymmetric and more dangerous. And, most importantly, terrorist attacks take place not only in the West; on the contrary, they are much more common for Third World countries.

Terrorist attacks in Nigeria, Pakistan and elsewhere claim no fewer lives than the attacks in Paris, Brussels or Nice.  Why doesn’t the world pay much attention to them? Unfortunately, it stems from the Europocentric model of the world, with the problems in less developed countries relegated to a secondary role on the global agenda.