Last month marks the 17th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks: 17 years since the vile attack on American soil catapulted America and its allies into a war in the Middle East. This anniversary is important; American citizens born after the attack are now old enough to enlist. The central basis for the war on terror is now, literally, out of living memory for some US Armed Forces recruits. That leaves us with an important question: did Al Qaeda’s terrorism achieve its goal? I believe so, but not in the fashion Bin Laden probably anticipated. Let’s start with what that goal was.
The objective of 9/11 was part of a larger-scale operation to purge the Middle East of what Al-Qaeda saw as unjust American influence. The US at the time was propping up regimes which Al-Qaeda wanted to topple and replace with an Islamic state. The goal behind AlQaeda’s work was to try to ensure that America could no longer bear the cost of its influence, and therefore be unable to justify its overly friendly relationship with countries like Egypt. The cost to America was to be measured in American lives through subsequent attacks, in taxpayer dollars following the war, and in poor media coverage for the governments of the West: sound familiar?
Al-Qaeda’s plan backfired. The group’s cost post-9/11, for one thing, was even higher than that of the US. Bin Laden is dead, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is imprisoned, and Al Qaeda has sustained heavy losses in Iraq and Afghanistan. In his 9/11 anniversary speech, current leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri was downbeat about the successful efforts of the West, particularly in fragmenting the group into various Islamic terrorist organisations. Documents captured in the Bin Laden raid gave Western intelligence a glimpse at just how thin the organisation was spread. Al Qaeda is not as cohesive an organisation as it once was, but in a sense that doesn’t matter: the organisation has been incredibly successful in other avenues.
Take its new strategy for instance. Al Qaeda has been extremely successful at inserting itself into civil wars across the Middle East in Yemen and Somalia among others, creating relationships with local commanders. That’s not to say Al Qaeda’s manpower is flagging.;Some estimates place affiliated groups in Syria alone at 30 000 strong. Although Al-Zawahiri stressed unity in his anniversary speech, it is no longer a key priority for an organisation that now understands it shares a common goal with other insurgents.
Al Qaeda has also managed to achieve the impossible: to persuade America to doubt itself. Western boots on the ground no longer constitutes a popular foreign policy. Today, American citizens are more c o n c e r n e d with domestic issues, like funding the healthcare of emerg e n c y ser vices personnel w h o worked at g r o u n d zero. Deaths from cancer and respiratory diseases linked to 9/11 are expected to o u t n u m b e r deaths from the attack itself by 2022.
A second ideological problem is that America is now doubted by its allies too. The Pew Research Centre surveyed NATO allies, and showed a clear decrease in confidence that American leaders will ‘do the right thing regarding world affairs’ over the entirety of the Bush Presidency. That confidence recovered under Obama, but has hit historic lows following the 2016 election of President Trump. Not only do American citizens now disagree that American intervention is worthwhile and important, American allies are now questioning the benefits of continued support for governments in the Middle East: this problem is 9/11’s legacy.
Make no mistake, some efforts by the US in the War on Terror have been successful, but the evidence shows that Al Qaeda’s goal of destabilising the US has worked: not only that, the organisation is stronger and better-organised than before. If the US generals of tomorrow can learn one thing this 9/11 anniversary, it is to choose America’s wars more carefully. Perhaps the most significant outcome of the war on terror has been publicity for Al Qaeda.