15th anniversary of 9/11: How al-Qaeda’s attacks have changed the world

It is 15 years after 9/11 terrorist attacks and this is a kind of poll among various foreign policy, security and terrorism expert about how this horrible event changed the world, if we still feels echoes of this and what are lessons learned from 9/11. Read their views

Peter Feaver, Professor of Political Science, Director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies, Duke University

The attacks of 9/11 served as a pivot point in the post-Cold War era.  The attacks did not have the geopolitical impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union and resulting end of the Cold War, but in terms of geopolitics they were the single most consequential development after the end of the Cold War.  Their principal geostrategic impact was in changing the risk calculus of American leaders and thus the willingness of American leaders to leverage American power in pursuit of American interests.

During the decade prior, the United States was relatively self-deterred.  This fact may not have been obvious at the time, given all the complaints and critiques of American “hyperpower” and other manifestations of unipolarity.  But the way America wielded its power after 9/11 demonstrated just how little of that power had actually been wielded in the decade before.  The reason for the shift was obvious: American leaders in the 1990s were content to leave problems in the in-box, or, to pick a different metaphor, to kick cans down the road.  This was satisfactory, it was thought, because U.S. vital interests were not threatened in any short-term way.  The 9/11 attacks dramatized the costs of such an approach and in the 15 years since, American leaders have been willing to wield American power much more forcefully to defend American interests.  Even a president famously committed to restraint like President Obama has nonetheless overseen a combat pace that far outstrips what the United States did in the decade prior.

Andrei Kolesnikov, Senior Associate, Chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program, Carnegie Moscow Center

I think this event was a tipping point in the world history, shaped all the forthcoming development and became the beginning of the disruption of the traditional western liberal order.

t was the first episode of the new type of war. let’s say — the continuous third world war. Now supporters of the political radical movements do not need armies, any person can be at war with the whole world using planes, tommy-guns, self-made bombs, and even tracks. This is the main consequence of 9/11.

Edwin BakkerProfessor, Director Centre for Terrorism & Counter-Terrorism, Leiden University

It significantly influenced the security agenda of the West. It ended a post cold war period in which military conflicts between different ideological blocks or states seemed something of the past, to be replaced by a more unpredictable and difficult to fight new enemy: Al Qaeda and other jihadist terrorist organisations. Sadly, 9/11 made these small groups look a lot bigger and a lot more dangerous than they are (compared to armies or nuclear missiles that were the tools of ‘the enemy’ before 9/11.

if we still feels echoes of this

This perception of terrorism as a very big and serious threat is still alive. It is a problem in some countries: Syria and Iraq, Afghanistan (although you can argue this is not terrorism but good old civil war). In the West, despite terrible attacks such as the one in November in Paris, terrorism is not a serious physical threat let alone a strategic one. In other words, we are still overestimating the threat of terrorism to the West, or perhaps we have forgotten what security threats looked like in the past. We have also forgotten we do groups like AQ and IS a favour by portraying them as more dangerous to our societies than they are.

and what are lessons learned from 9/11.

I am afraid not that much. Yes, we know a lot more about terrorism and some countries have developed smart policies (often at the local level). But the West still has no idea how to deal with the Middle East that to a large extent remains the primary source of terrorism. We did learn that the answer is not a full fledged invasion to end IS, but I am not sure the current policy of limited military action against IS will work either.\\It should also be stressed that terrorism today (and IS) is a totally different phenomenon than the terrorism that struck the West on 9/11.

Wayne White, Scholar, Middle East InstitutePolicy Expert, Washington’s Middle East Policy Council

At the time it happened, many had hoped 9/11 would be a relatively isolated event (aside from the subsequent overthrow of the Taliban/al-Qaeda order in Afghanistan). Instead, we live more broadly in what could be call the post-9/11 era in which radical Islamic terrorism has struck repeatedly–sometimes grandly–well beyond the Middle East. It also has transformed struggles for power inside the Mideast dramatically.

A key tragic engine that sustained post-9/11 extremist violence was the wrongheaded, misguided 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was born, blooded & trained, eventually transitioning into the Islamic State, an even more malevolent, far more challenging offshoot of al-Qaeda. Also, the diversion of vast American and Coalition forces, funds and attention to Iraq especially during 2003-2008 allowed the Taliban in Afghanistan to regroup and revive. And the dominance of militant Islamic combatant groups within less than one year of the anti-Assad rebellion crippled the ability of the US, other major Western powers, and most regional governments from solidly backing the rebels causing a civil war to drag on destroying much of Syria and allowing the ruthless, authoritarian Assad regime to survive.

Josef Janning, Head of ECFR Berlin Office, Senior Policy Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

With the attacks on New York City and Washington, militant Islam had entered a new stage. For the first time, radicals were able to strike against the center of Western global policy instead of the periphery. 9/11 established a new contingency: the killing of civilians in Western cities, the more, the better, committed by suicide squads. Even if subsequent assaults have been less deadly or less sophisticated, they follow the pattern, and thus are able to scare European and American publics.

However, terror since 9/11 has lead to a massive investment into intelligence and surveillance in Western countries. Many governments are now far more aware and equipped to deal with both homegrown and imported terrorists. Thus, the net effect of terror has been limited, also, because Islamist terrorists could not hope to use enhanced security measure to denounce the state as repressive — as it was done by left wing terror in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s.

To carry the war against the West over to Western soil has also failed to end Western involvement in the Islamic world. The pullback we have seen from Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the reluctance to engage more strongly in Syria has at best been marginally affected by Islamist terror in the West. Rather, it reflects a growing disillusionment on the ability of Western engagement to establish and sustain a political, economic and social order in the MENA region and beyond, which is not owned and supported by the vast majority of the people and their political representatives.
Clearly, 9/11 has lead to increased effort to affect short term change, but both the framing as “war against terror” and the military campaigns against the Taliban regime and against Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship have put the Western response on the wrong track. Not much good could come out of it.

Finally, the new era of globalized terror also influenced the trajectories of political change in the Islamic world. The emergence of international militias with sufficient resources, network structures and a missionary ideology has massive impact on government and opposition in Islamic countries. Without it, the Arab Spring could have had a better chance to succeed, without it Egypt might not have experienced a coup, years of bloodshed could possibly have been avoided in Syria.

Sam MullinsProfessor of Counterterrorism, George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies

15 years on since the 9/11 attacks and we are absolutely still experiencing the after-effects of this event. As a form of “propaganda by the deed” these attacks are unparalleled. September 11, 2001 was a pivotal point in the so-called global Salafi jihad in that it inspired a new generation of recruits around the world and set in motion a chain of events that have exacerbated the problem exponentially – in particular the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. The latter especially has been an immense source of inspiration for violent jihadists worldwide and of course helped create the conditions which allowed ISIS to thrive. As a result, we are now facing what is arguably the greatest international jihadist terrorism threat that there has ever been. In terms of counter-terrorism, there is now a much greater understanding of the adversary and of the limitations of military approaches to dealing with organizations like AQ and ISIS.

On the other hand, these tools remain necessary and continue to stoke the grievances that violent jihadists use to draw in new recruits. At the same time, political, social and economic solutions are evasive, and efforts to counter terrorist ideology are still insufficient. Unfortunately, many of the lessons learned since 9/11 (such as the need for greater national and international cooperation and coordination) must be re-learned and reinforced, and it is rare for countries to implement the necessary changes until they experience significant attacks themselves. That said, there are also grounds for cautious optimism. As already noted, understanding of the problem has certainly improved and if there is a silver lining to the currently escalated terrorism threat (undoubtedly part of the 9/11 legacy) it is that the international community is mobilizing against terrorism in a way that has not been seen before. This also includes many grassroots, non-governmental efforts to counter terrorist ideology, as well as increasing initiative on the part of the private sector. The 9/11 attacks have left a wound that continues to fester -and will do so for many years to come- and yet in the grand scheme of things the terrorists have failed to mobilize all but a tiny minority of the world’s Muslim population (indeed they have killed more Muslims than anyone else) and are they unlikely to achieve their real long-term strategic objectives.

Adrian Guelke, Emeritus Professor, Institute for the Study of Conflict, Transformation and Social Justice, Queen’s University of Belfast

The events of that day were certainly horrible and shocking. The scale of the atrocities was of an unprecedented magnitude, with a death toll normally associated with natural disasters. However, beyond that, it is possible to overstate their significance, particularly in a geo-strategic or political terms. 9/11 is commonly compared to the attack on Pearl Harbour, but the analogy is inexact. The mass casualty terrorism of al Qaeda presented a security challenge., to be sure. But even that can be exaggerated, 9/11 itself might be seen as self-negating insofar as it provided the incentive to authorities everywhere to put in place measures to make a repeat of such attacks most unlikely, despite politicians insisting at the time that further 9/11’s were inevitable.

From the outset, the political influence of bin Laden tended to be exaggerated. The numbers willing to participate in his war on the far enemy and to sacrifice their lives in the process were relatively small. The great harm done globally by 9/11 has almost entirely stemmed from the RESPONSE to the attacks. Hubris played its part in the assumption that 9/11 provided an opportunity to effect changes across the Middle East and Central Asia that would transform the entire region. The outcome of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the interventions in Libya and Syria have been little short of catastrophic. Their consequence is that despite the virtual demise of al Qaeda, the threat of the mass casualty terrorism has not gone away. The current strategy of the decapitation of the leaders of Islamic State gives that organisation every incentive to follow al Qaeda in orchestrating attacks on the far enemy, despite the fact that it had originally rejected this strategy. Admittedly, stoicism along with a measured response to terrorism is hard to sell to democratic electorates as the right approach to the problem that terrorist attacks pose. What governments should be underlining is the essential meaninglessness of horrific murders that may capture headlines but do little else and certainly do not change history.

Kurk DorseyAssociate Professor of History, University of New Hampshire

It seems to me that the biggest change brought on by the events of 9/11 was a decade-long postponement of the US public’s drift toward isolationism.  The elections of 1996 and 2000 were marked by very little attention being paid to foreign policy by the candidates or the American public.  The end of the Cold War and the botched operations in Somalia in 1992-3 suggested to many Americans that an active foreign policy was not needed and not wise (although of course many people did not have an accurate sense of the breadth of US foreign policy).  The 9/11 attacks flipped that around by telling Americans that even remote caves in Afghanistan would need to be  controlled to maintain US security.   In exchange, we got a lot of good will around the world and patriotism and willingness to sacrifice at home, but we also got Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

While I have no doubt that the course of the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have helped sour many Americans on a more assertive foreign policy, I think it was probably almost inevitable that the US public would drift back toward an isolationist attitude, although I admit to being surprised at how powerful and bitter the “Make America Great Again” rhetoric has been.  But even Hillary Clinton’s campaign has shown signs of turning its back on engagement with the world by flipping her position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  And we also have seen President Obama’s reluctance to do anything substantive about Syria, despite drawing a red line around the use of chemical weapons, and that seems largely because he perceives a lack of public support.

The impact of the public’s hyper-assertiveness regarding terrorism and drift back toward, and perhaps past, an isolationist norm can be seen in three areas: 1) the boost to what became the Arab Spring movement and then the US’s inability to think of much productive to help it along  2) the Russians’ sense that they were being marginalized and new ability to assert themselves in places like Syria.  It seems to me that President Putin perceived himself to have lost influence post 9/11(hence his attempt to show George Bush that the US and Russia had similar problems with Islamic radicalism) and he certainly thinks he’s gaining from this US turn back from an active foreign policy 3) relations with China, in which China seems to think that the US is in a period of retrenchment and hence not as likely to challenge it.  I am not sure that that’s actually true, in part because George Bush’s big crisis before  9/11 was about a US surveillance plane that was forced down on Hainan, so it seems we’re still in the same pattern as 15 years ago.

Had 9/11 not happened, I suspect that the US policy makers would have stayed focused on the challenges of managing antagonistic relationships with Russia and China on their own terms, without too much concern about public input.  And of course all of the stuff that flies under the public’s radar, like aid to Africa, forestry assistance programs, and initiatives on democracy would have gone on largely unnoticed but doing more for the US national interests than any invasion or bombing.

I’m still trying to figure out what the lessons are from 9/11.  On one hand we had the national debate along the lines of “why do they hate us?” which probably generated mostly inaccurate lessons about how much the US is hated and why.  Likewise, we learned that we had better take off our shoes at the airport and have surveillance of everyone’s email and cell phone conversations, just in case.  I’m not sure that any of that has really been helpful or in the national interest.  On the other hand, the 9/11 attacks did remind us that the US really cannot isolate itself from the world, and that our foreign policies have ramifications that are very hard to predict.  There was no way to look at Afghanistan in 1989 or Saudi Arabia in 1990 and predict that we were stirring up a hornet’s nest called Osama bin-Laden.  One final thought is that my students were as young as 3 on 9/11, so on one hand they know only the post-9/11 world, but on the other they have no memory of the event itself.  9/11 is quickly becoming like Pearl Harbor day, another day on the calendar that has historic significance but less direct relevance to people every day.

Nathaniel Barr, Research Manager, Valens Global

Al Qaeda is arguably stronger than it has been at any point since 9/11. The group has successfully implemented its deliberate and gradual, Maoist revolutionary warfare model in both Syria and Yemen, and is making gains across North and West Africa, while expanding into new territories, such as Bangladesh, as well. The fact that AQ is in this position of strength some 15 years after the horrific events of 9/11 attests to our ongoing struggles in understanding and countering jihadist groups. We continue to make strategic errors and pursue short-sighted policies that ultimately harm our long-term interests. And although we are making gains in our fight against the Islamic State, our myopic focus on defeating IS has left us ill-positioned to deal with the conflicts and rivalries that have erupted in post-IS environments. If we do not alter the paradigm that we use to interpret the behavior of jihadist groups, I fear that we will be grappling with these same issues for another 15 years.

Joshua Walker, Director, Global Programs, APCO Worldwide, Non-Resident Transatlantic Fellow, German Marshall Fund of the United States

9/11 still looms larger not only over us strategic thinking but globally given that what al Qaeda did on that day not only launched America on a war footing but also changed the rules of modern warfare. No longer was it state against state but a non state terrorist actor turning airplanes into missiles. So as we think about Isis and al Qaeda in the Middle East it’s not just a problem for “them” to isolate and manage it is very much “our” global problem thanks to what happened 15 years ago.

I think the lessons learned are that unity in the aftermath of crisis is a valuable opportunity that should not be squandered and the further away from the event the harder to harmonize consensus since many people experienced 9/11 differently than Americans and we must work together to educate about and prevent attacks like this for future generations.



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  1. […] 15th anniversary of 9/11: How al-Qaeda’s attacks have changed the world […]

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