Sixteen years, several wars, three US presidents, 6,928 US soldiers killed, one million injured, hundreds of American contractors killed, trillions of dollars spent and 41 inmates still held at Guantanamo Bay.
And those are just the costs associated with the US since September 11, 2001. More than 180,000 Iraqis have been killed in conflict since the US-led 2003 invasion, while an estimated 170,000 people have been killed in 73,000 terrorist attacks around the world since 2001.
When one tries to take stock of the violence that was unleashed on 9/11, the lasting effects of that date seem unbelievable.
That is also because hindsight tends to present a linear, deterministic view of history.
It was 9/11 that led to the US-led War on Terror, which led to the invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq. That resulted in the imposition of democracy in those countries, which also led to the Palestinians electing Hamas in 2006 and influenced the Arab Spring. The 2011 revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt led to chaos in Libya. That fed conflict in the Sahel region in Africa, while a weak Iraqi state and rise of Iranian hegemony led to the rise of ISIS, which exploited the Syrian conflict.
There is also a tendency toward seeing the effects of 9/11 through an American or Western lens, as if the processes unleashed by terrorism in New York and Washington did not exist before, as if everything that happens in places such as Iraq or Afghanistan is only a reaction to US policy.
We know that 9/11 had much deeper roots stretching back to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. It was also influenced by the growth in Islamist extremism that had set hold in Pakistan and elsewhere. Al-Qaida was not only an anti-American Islamist terrorist organization; two days before 9/11, the Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Massoud was also assassinated by extremists linked to al-Qaida.
The killers were linked to Belgium, which, after 2014, would provide the highest number of ISIS recruits per capita of any European country. So the attacks on 9/11 did not come in a vacuum and they were not purely against America. They were part of a terrible worldwide phenomenon that combined the rise of political Islamist ideologies – associated with Salafism, Wahhabism, the Muslim Brotherhood and others – with terrorism.
They targeted minorities in their own states, including Muslim Shi’a and Ahmadis, Kurds, Copts, Hazzars and a plethora of others, as they targeted the West. The roots of 9/11 can be found in the Algerian, Chechen and Bosnian wars and in Egypt, where Ayman al-Zawahiri was born in 1951.
Zawahiri had roots in al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Together with Osama Bin Laden from Saudi Arabia and men like Khalid Sheikh Muhammad from Pakistan, they saw themselves as part of a worldwide Islamist movement, of which 9/11 was a crowning deadly outcome.
The generation of men like Bin Laden, who was born in 1957, and the men who sought to catch him – such as FBI Special Agent John P. O’Neill who was killed on 9/11 – could not imagine the war we are involved in today. Those born on the date are 16 years old today, almost old enough to sign up to fight in Afghanistan, where President Donald Trump has chosen to keep American troops. They are old enough to be fighting the new generation of what former president Barack Obama’s administration termed “violent extremists.”
Who are the new extremists? The Global Terrorism Index says 74% of all deaths from terrorism in 2015 were due to ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban and al-Qaida. Unsurprisingly, most of those deaths took place in Afghanistan Nigeria, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria.
Terrorism has increased massively since 9/11, increasing five-fold by 2014, according to The Guardian. Prior to 9/11, most terrorist attacks were in Colombia, Peru, Northern Ireland, Spain and India. After, they were in Iraq, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Thailand, the Philippines and Israel.
To combat the terrorist threat, the US has vastly increased the number of Special Forces it employs, from around 43,000 in 2001 to more than 70,000 today. In testimony to the House Armed Services Committee in May of this year, Gen. Raymond Thomas III, commander of US Special Operations Command, said the US had 8,000 men deployed in more than 80 countries.
The US and its allies have become proficient at killing terrorists, far more proficient than in the 1990s, when operations to defeat al-Qaida were often handled by law enforcement without orders to eviscerate their targets.
In Europe, where hundreds have been killed in jihadist attacks in recent years, security forces have also learned quickly to kill perpetrators. European states have given birth to numerous extremists, 5,000 of whom joined ISIS.
In retrospect, 9/11 was a particularly macabre event because it came only a decade after the end of the Cold War.
The 1990s looks like a naïve time of hope now: Apartheid ended; the Oslo Accords took place in Israel; Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History; there was supposed to be a “peace dividend”; and democracy was supposed to conquer the world.
That didn’t happen. Instead, the symptoms in Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World became full-blown. President George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished” and Obama’s “we got him” were also spoken too soon.
The mission is not accomplished and Bin Laden has become a thousand- headed enemy, replete with lone-wolves and murderers from the Philippines to Canada. Looking back 16 years, burdened by wars and plagued by religious extremism that has only gotten worse since then, 9/11 seems increasingly a harbinger of one of the major struggles of the 21st century.