The enduring damage of 9/11: How the War on Terror gave rise to a bigger threat in the form of ISIS

The U.S.'s hawkish response to 9/11 demonstrates the long-term pitfalls of responding to terrorism with force

Published September 11, 2016 10:00AM (EDT)

An Islamic State flag hangs in Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, near Sidon,  (Reuters/Ali Hashisho)
An Islamic State flag hangs in Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, near Sidon, (Reuters/Ali Hashisho)

"Never forget" is the oft-repeated refrain used when talking about the 9/11 attacks. Yet, it often seems an empty phrase brought out yearly for memorial services and invoked by politicians seeking to justify the latest round of new counter-terrorism efforts. Despite the phrase perhaps being overused, the attacks themselves should never be forgotten as they marked a key turning point in modern history and would, arguably, lead to the birth of a much more dangerous enemy in the form of ISIS.

Not since Pearl Harbor had the world’s only superpower been attacked within its domestic borders and what was so surprising was that the attack was not carried out by another state but by a then little-known terrorist group — Al Qaeda. The attack itself was carried out by just 19 men from Al Qaeda, who hijacked four planes and successfully flew two into the World Trade Center in New York, one into the Pentagon. The fourth only missed another target due to the heroic actions of the passengers, who caused it to crash into a field. The actions of these few would turn 9/11 into a day that changed history by leading to two American-led invasions as part of the Global War on Terrorism: Afghanistan and then Iraq. Whilst the Afghan campaign was initially successful and had the backing of the international community, the Iraq campaign would lead to a long-running insurgency and widespread sectarian violence between the two dominant strands of Islam present in the country.

With the removal of Saddam Hussein and the de-Ba’athification of Iraqi police and military units, the Americans and British forces both created a power vacuum and deposited hundreds of highly trained soldiers on to Iraqi streets. Many of these now jobless individuals joined the growing insurgency which was fighting against the Western occupation. Whilst many different groups existed, one group, in particular, stood out — Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, a.k.a. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Originally founded in 1999, this group would go through a series of name and leadership changes as coalition attacks degraded its command and control structures.

Despite these losses, the continued presence of American and British troops in Iraq led many to join AQI, and it rose in prominence and infamy as it carried out attacks against coalition troops and atrocities against Shi’a Muslims. This prominence allowed it to form the Mujahedeen Shura Council in 2004 as an umbrella organisation encompassing all of the Sunni insurgent groups present in Iraq. Under the guidance of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the group became more and more sectarian, often focusing on local Shi’a militias rather than the occupying coalition forces. This eventually led to a split from the main body of Al Qaeda and led to the renaming of the group as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2006.

The group effectively controlled most of Iraq and likely had a loose membership of 300,000 to 500,000 fighters and allied tribesmen who saw the group as a means of protecting themselves from an ineffective Iraqi government and the growing power of Iranian-backed Shi’a militias. Tit-for- tat sectarian violence continued, and the group survived U.S./U.K. attempts to dismantle it, and then the Arab Spring arrived, and the Syrian civil war started. This provided an ideal opportunity for the group to expand across the border into Syria and enlarge its geographic footprint. Between 2011 and 2013, this is exactly what the group did before declaring a worldwide caliphate in June 2014 and changing its name to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

ISIS has since gone on to inspire nearly half a dozen attacks, beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria, in both Europe and the Middle East. It is arguable that had 9/11 never happened, then the specific circumstances which led to the formation of AQI would never have occurred, and ISIS would now not exist. Thus, we should never forget 9/11, partly to remember and honour the victims but also as a reminder that responding to terrorism with force can have far-reaching effects which are hard to predict. Fortunately, we are unlikely to see a spectacular attack like 9/11 carried out again, as ISIS appears to be focused on retaining the land it controls in Iraq and Syria. However, ISIS is more dangerous because of its ability to inspire those with little or no history of extremist violence to carry out low-level attacks, such as Charlie Hebdo, Bataclan and Nice. The legacy of 9/11 is not just memorials to those who died but is an on-going struggle to detect, disrupt and neutralise plots inspired by ISIS.

 Dr. John Bahadur Lamb, Lecturer in Criminology and Security Studies at Birmingham City University

By John Bahadur Lamb

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