Twenty years after 9/11: the never-ended Global War on Terror

Twenty years after 9/11, US-led foreign military forces pulled out of Afghanistan, but they will continue to maintain a presence in the Middle East and Africa for the foreseeable future, due to persisting threats from new militant groups.

By Ramya Dilipkumar

The 9/11 attack in the United States (US) in 2001, to this date, remains the deadliest terrorist attack of the 21st century with approximately 3,000 people killed. In response, an overhaul of intelligence services and security policies within the US was undertaken, while in the rest of the world, surveillance techniques and security protocols at major transportation hubs and other sensitive infrastructure were greatly enhanced. The attacks also led to the launch of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) military campaign in the weeks after 9/11 by the US and its NATO allies in Afghanistan to combat state-sponsored terrorism, which has since spanned across 80 countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

The war in Afghanistan, involving military assistance from around 136 countries, resulted in the eventual killing of 9/11 mastermind and al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011. The raid that ended bin Laden’s life, though, did not take place in Afghanistan, but in neighbouring Pakistan. At the same time the US relied on Pakistan for transit rights to Afghanistan, the raid was kept secret from the Pakistani government for fear that al-Qaeda might be tipped off. The awkwardness of this situation illustrates the continuing contradictions at the heart of the GWOT.

Ten years after bin Laden’s death, all US and other NATO forces pulled out of Afghanistan by 31 August 2021, citing the steep costs of the war. The GWOT is far from being over for the countries involved. The Taliban in Afghanistan, who were ousted from governance in October 2001 due to their support for al-Qaeda, returned to power in August 2021. US and allied forces will remain in the Middle East and Africa for the foreseeable future, while national security measures put in place in many countries after 9/11 will also persist indefinitely, due to ongoing threats from more evolved offshoots of al-Qaeda and other militant groups.

The core al-Qaeda was weakened by its eviction from Afghanistan and loss of leaders in the years after 9/11, but offshoots such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and other Islamist militant groups, including the Islamic State (IS), have emerged since. These groups have carried out numerous, sophisticated attacks in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa in recent years; including Bali (2002), Casablanca (2003), Madrid (2004), Sinai (2004), London (2005), Amman (2005), Algiers (2007), Mumbai (2008), Moscow (2010), Nairobi (2013), Paris (2015), Kuwait (2015), Tunisia (2015), Ankara (2015), California (2015), Brussels (2016), Nice (2016), Berlin (2016), Dhaka (2016), Istanbul (2017), St Petersburg (2017), Manchester (2017), New York (2017), Barcelona (2017), Iran (2018), Strasbourg (2018), Colombo (2019) and Vienna (2020). Some of their operational hubs aside from Afghanistan include Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Nigeria, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Somalia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Pakistan where local and foreign forces continue to clash with militants.

To date in the GWOT from 2001 to 2020, around 929,000 people, including 364,000 civilians, were killed and 38 million people were displaced. The GWOT is estimated to have cost the US nearly US$8 trillion with around US$2 trillion in Afghanistan alone for the same period. The cost of these wars, coupled with periodic reports of war crimes and human rights violations overseas, saw US public support for the GWOT wane, falling from 77 percent in September 2001 to 39 percent in 2011 following bin Laden’s death. As of mid-2021, polls show more Americans are concerned about domestic extremism than foreign attacks, and support for intervention abroad has plummeted on all sides of the political spectrum.

Similar trends were observed in other Western democracies, even as Islamist insurgencies continue to grow steadily in West Africa and South Asia. Across the Middle East, fighting continues between US-backed security forces and the remnants of the Islamic State (IS) group, which only emerged in the wake of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and 2011 Syrian Civil War. The GWOT and other conflicts waged since 9/11 have seen the formation of many new militant groups since that occupation, an unintended consequence that was discounted when the conflict began.

The exit of foreign troops from Afghanistan paved the way for the Taliban to wrest back control of the country from NATO-backed President Ashraf Ghani’s government in August 2021, concluding a process underway for years in which more and more ground was ceded to the Taliban who promised an end to foreign occupation. As the NATO-backed government was itself responsible for numerous war crimes and entirely dependent on foreign assistance, it collapsed in on itself as its soldiers cut deals to survive the departure of foreign forces.

NATO forces will continue to maintain a physical presence in areas surrounding Afghanistan, including in Qatar and Kuwait, and periodically stage drone strikes in the region, as they fear that the Taliban’s resurgence may prompt al-Qaeda to again consolidate its power in Afghanistan. NATO powers have little faith in Taliban promises and capabilities to prevent other militant groups such as the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) from using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks in other countries, especially after the IS-K carried out deadly twin suicide bombings during the evacuation of foreign nationals at Kabul Airport on 26 August.

The 9/11 attacks will continue to influence counter-terrorism policies around the world for many years to come. However, countries like the US, following the exit from Afghanistan, will spend much less money on overseas campaigns, and much of these funds will instead be diverted to internal security budgets. In the 2020s, the role of safe havens for militants is much more broadly defined since the 2000s, as many devastating attacks in recent years have been organised online and planned in the countries they took place. Enhanced surveillance and interrogation techniques, including the arbitrary detention of suspects at infamous prison camps like the US-run Guantanamo Bay, will continue in countries facing persisting threats from home-grown terrorism and extremism.

Countries like the US, Canada, France, UK, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand continue to track former militia fighters who returned home from conflict corridors in the Middle East, radicalised extremists recruited by the IS via social media, as well as far-right extremists who are capable of staging their own high-casualty, lone-wolf attacks, such as Norway (2011), the US (2018) and New Zealand (2019). Privacy laws have markedly eroded in these countries, with communications of ordinary citizens regularly scrutinised by security agencies. Amid the prevailing threat of domestic terrorism, these countries have also tightened immigration policies, which have resulted in the detention and deportation of tens of thousands of migrants who fled from conflicts, annually. This trend will continue for a foreseeable future, especially amid an influx of a large number of people fleeing from Taliban rule in Afghanistan.

Ramya Dilipkumar is an Australia-based political and security risk analyst.

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