Sixteen years after 9/11, how does America see the world?
The “war on terrorism” may have been a misnomer, for how do you fight a noun that describes a methodology, but it has been moderately successful in real terms. That’s if you measure success for the United States domestically. It hasn’t suffered a successful attack by a foreign terrorist organisation since 9/11 on its territory.
Osama bin Laden, 9/11’s mastermind has been dead six years . Al Qaeda, the organisation he founded, is no longer the inspirational force it was in the years immediately after 9/11. ISIL, Al Qaeda’s even more ideologically repellent successor, has lost its Iraqi headquarters, Mosul, vast chunks of territory and is on the verge of defeat in Raqqa, its so-called capital in Syria.
But that doesn’t mean the world has become safer since 9/11. Even the US is not really more secure, according to the non-partisan think tank New America. Computing the attacks by self-proclaimed radicals legally present in the US (either as citizens or on legitimate visas), it says there have been six lethal strikes on American soil just in the past three years and that they killed 74 people. Domestic US radicals were inspired by ISIL propaganda online and had no direct contact with the extremist group.
In Europe, home-grown or legally present jihadi radicals have struck repeatedly and in disparate places. They have had varying success, but enough at least to make the world seem a more dangerous place. The majority have been lone-wolf attacks but this term, according to experts, may be as much a misnomer as the “war on terror”. Prof Gabriel Weimann of Haifa University, who has conducted a 15-year study on the impact of the internet on terrorist activity, says lone-wolf attacks are the fastest growing kind of terrorism.
“The metaphor of the lone wolf is misleading,” he writes, for in nature, “wolves never hunt alone, they hunt in packs.” Accordingly, the sense of security that comes with Al Qaeda’s apparent fading into the background and ISIL’s territorial losses is largely false.
The failure to limit the appeal of a perverted ideology — in the US, Europe, and further afield — may be one realistic measure of the “war on terror”.
The inability to address some of the causes of radicalisation is the second realistic measure. The plight of the Palestinians is probably even more hopeless now than in 2001. The US has been unwilling to acknowledge the breadth and depth of the human and political catastrophe created by its illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq . In fact, Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser to president George W Bush at the time, recently justified the Iraq war all over again.
To America’s lapses must be added the toxic effects of the Syrian and Libyan conflicts on the Middle East and North Africa region and on Europe. The subsequent arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees and economic migrants has had a pressure cooker effect on the politics of several European countries. As the German election campaign for the September 24 federal poll indicates, the far-right’s rhetoric is a reminder that the situation is only a little below boiling point.
Ultimately though, as the world’s sole superpower, it is post-9/11 America’s reflexes and more deliberative actions that matter. How is America seen in the world today and how does it see the world? Both present a darker picture than on 9/11. A majority of America’s 50 states have phased out international geography from middle and high school curriculums. This has left the US curiously isolated from sea to shining sea. Suzy Hansen, the Istanbul-based author of Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World , recently wrote of her countrymen: “Few learn about the complexities of our relationships with so many other nations, especially the diplomatic, military and economic entanglements of the Cold War.”
The notion of American exceptionalism — intrepid individualists who love liberty — has not been updated to reflect reality. This includes the CIA’s past record of engineering coups and the American foreign policy establishment’s peevishness about democratic elections that throw up unpalatable results, such as in Gaza. Add to that the Iraq war fallout and the US government’s noble words and inaction with respect to the Palestinians. Not too long ago, their plight was described by an American president as intolerable and yet they are still stateless. And finally, of course, there is last year’s election.
It doesn’t add up to a particularly attractive portrait of the country that suffered one of the most traumatic terrorist attacks in history.