Today marks 15 years since Al-Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, murdering 2, 977 people. Since that day, in 2001, at least another 1,000 people have died from illnesses caused by exposure to debris from the failing towers.
This short clip shows the World Trade Center after it was hit:
A US-led NATO taskforce invaded Afghanistan shortly afterwards to remove the Taliban, and to find and capture Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden is now dead, but Afghanistan is still at war. Al-Qaeda’s successor organization, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL), has established a state of sorts across swathes of Syria and Iraq. Al-Qaeda itself is an active participant in Syria’s increasingly complicated civil war.
Since the attack, efforts to defeat terrorism have eluded success. Here are three things to bear in mind:
With the collapse of the USSR, Islamism is the only ideological alternative to Western hegemony
Islamism is a comprehensive political system that offers a total ideological alternative to the mainstream Western consensus of democracies enforcing liberal values, backed by American hard power. Since international communism collapsed, those opposed to this system have been left without an ideological home.
This fact puts into perspective the close relationship between sections of the hard left, such as the UK’s Jeremy Corbyn or Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin, with totalitarian Islamists such as Hamas or insurgents fighting American forces in Iraq. Both Corbyn and Benjamin transitioned seamlessly from traditional left-wing and socialist/communist alignment to apologism for terrorist groups who were deemed to be oppressed, as part of a broader strategy of defiance against American and Western power.
In 2009, Corbyn called Hamas a force for “social good” and his “friends,” while in 2004, Benjamin collected $600,000 in medical supplies and cash to deliver to the families of terrorist insurgents fighting the U.S. in Iraq.
Opposed to what they term “neo-liberalism” in principle, activists like these will seek out any allies opposed to it which, in the current era, means Islamist extremists, who have pretty much the only viable (albeit horrific) alternative ideology to Western neo-liberalism.
Al-Qaeda Wanted to Provoke an Overreaction
As early as 2005, a book entitled This is How We See and Want Jihad was circulating showing Al-Qaeda’s 20-year long game plan to defeat the West and establish an Islamic Caliphate. This was further illuminated by the groundbreaking work of Jordanian journalist Fouad Hussain. The plan has seven phases. The first phase, between 2000 and 2003, aimed to draw America into a war against Muslims and thus “crown al-Qaeda as the leader of the nation.”
Later phases aimed to make the war intractable and thus gain support for Al-Qaeda while demoralizing the West, and toppling Arab regimes allied to America and Israel. The plan includes creating a jihadi army in Syria and Iraq, and drawing in funding and recruits from outside.
Once U.S. power began to wane, after a decade of an expensive war of attrition, a caliphate was to be declared at some point from 2013 to 2016. After 2016, the phase of “total war” would begin, waging attacks against Western targets around the world; the “beginning of the confrontation between faith and disbelief, which would begin in earnest after the establishment of the Islamic caliphate.”
Al-Qaeda and its successor the Islamic State seem remarkably on track with this plan, especially considering the turmoil engulfing the region. It is also very important to note that they see terrorism as a means of destabilizing the West to further the establishment of a caliphate, rather than as an end in itself.
Ideology is the Key to Victory
Bearing in mind the first two points, we see that Al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups see terrorism as a means to an end. To prevent another 9/11 from taking place, therefore, we have to tackle their end goal and show the world precisely how and why an Islamist caliphate is a bad idea.
When we can do that, young jihadis will not be motivated to sacrifice their lives in an attempt to establish this caliphate, and idealistic activists will not make excuses for people fighting for these goals.
Such clarity is needed now more than ever because, 15 years after the tragic September 11th attacks, there is still no end in sight for the “War on Terror.”
Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.