2001 witnessed the event now known simply as ‘9/11’, when hijacked commercial flights were flown by al-Qaeda suicide terrorists into the World Trade Center in New York and The Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, killing some 3,000 people. Osama bin Laden, leader and figurehead of al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility on behalf of the group. In 2011 the USA finally tracked down and killed bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, prompting wild celebrations in America and threats of revenge from his supporters. The first decade of the twenty-first century will probably be remembered, quite rightly, as the decade of global terrorism.
Terrorist attacks on the only remaining world superpower were not only literally shocking, but they also led to George W. Bush’s oft-repeated policy of a ‘war on terror’. Not just al-Qaeda, with its distorted interpretation of Islam, but all terrorist groups with global ambitions and states that sponsor or harbour terrorists were in the USA’s sights (Bush’s statement on the war on terror can be read here.)
The Taliban regime in Afghanistan, home to al-Qaeda training camps, was overthrown by the end of 2001 and Taliban fighters fled to the mountains to regroup, though the conflict in Afghanistan continues today. The invasion of Sadaam Hussein’s Iraq by a US-led coalition of forces followed in 2003, on the premise that the regime had developed ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (though none were ever found). The regime quickly collapsed, though an insurgency (including groups associated with al-Qaeda) against coalition forces and the interim government continued for some time afterwards. In addition to these major military interventions, there has been anti-terrorism legislation in many countries, a strengthening of intelligence services and a climate of heightened insecurity and surveillance right around the world. Global terrorist acts and government responses have dominated international politics for 10 years.
Of course, whether the ‘war on terror’ has been successful overall is open to debate. (See UK former Foreign Minister, David Miliband’s criticism here.) Many critics see it as ineffective and perhaps even self-defeating, as the language of ‘war’ and ‘crusades’ has been used by terrorist groups to recruit new members and supporters, especially young Muslims who can be persuaded that the USA really is the enemy of all Muslims. Terror attacks continue to be planned and discovered even today and there seems no end in sight to so-called ‘Islamic terrorism’. There are also the less discussed casualties of this broad offensive: the many civilians caught up in the bombing raids, fighting and insurgent attacks (at least 110,000 killed in the Iraq invasion and its aftermath, and thousands more in the Afghanistan conflict). The hardline policy of a ‘war on terror’ has claimed more innocent victims than terrorists.
Yet for others, the ‘war’ has to be assessed in a long timeframe. Sadaam and his Ba’athist regime are gone and Iraq has held free elections. The Taliban have been routed and their repression of the civilian Afghan population, particularly women, has ended. Osama bin Laden is dead and al-Qaeda is a much weaker network of activists today than it was in 2001. Of course there are still other groups, cells and individuals looking to commit acts of terrorism against America and other targets, but there has been nothing on the scale of 9/11 since the Madrid train bombings of 2004 and the London transport bombs of 2005. In the long run, this argument goes, taking a hard line actually undercuts rather than stimulates support for terrorism and makes it much more difficult for terror groups to organize.
There are two other developments which may be instructive. One is the lack of any large-scale protests at the killing of bin Laden. There have been some small, symbolic demonstrations and threats from what remains of the al-Qaeda network, but there seems little if any emotional trauma or commitment amongst mainstream populations. This suggests that any pool of residual support is likely to be quite small.
The second is the ‘Arab Spring’ that began in December 2010 and has not yet run its course. Demonstrations, protests and rebellions against unpopular regimes and heads of state across the Middle East and North Africa toppled the leaders in Egypt and Tunisia and led to others declaring their intention to step down or making political and economic concessions. In Libya, Bahrain, Syria and elsewhere, established regimes have used force to try to put down rebellions and the outcomes have yet to be decided. However, as far as can be ascertained, none of these protests are based on anything remotely close to the demands made by bin Laden. There is no clamour for worldwide jihad, restoration of a caliphate, creation of a global umma (Islamic community), the removal of American military bases from Muslim lands or violent attacks against Israel, all of which were called for by bin Laden (as can be seen in bin Laden’s 1998 World Islamic Front statement).What has spurred people to action is rising unemployment and low wages, high food prices, political corruption, the lack of democracy and civil rights, and a desire to see the end of autocratic rule.
The first decade of the twenty-first century was marked by global terrorism, but the second looks very different as movements for national renewal, focused on nation-states and political participation as well as economic issues, become more prominent. The unanswered question is whether that first decade really was exceptional and unrepeatable, or could it be early evidence, a taste of what the century has to offer?
Chapter 23 on Nations, War and Terrorism is the natural place to start, especially pp. 1055-62 on terrorism. Then there are pp. 709-15 on religious fundamentalisms and pp. 1011-21 on types of social movement.
Philip W. Sutton