Ten years after those terrible attacks, Al-Qaeda has changed the US way of life. At the same time, the US has fragmented the terror group and killed most of its leaders. So who's winning?
As America looks for meaning today, a decade on from the terror attacks of 9/11, one question keeps nagging at me – who exactly is winning the wars that have followed that awful day?
Guardian journalist Jason Burke has written a book called The 9/11 Wars, which has been reviewed in The Economist as “the best overview of the 9/11 decade so far in print”. As I flicked through it last week, I kept wondering – is it al-Qaeda or America who can claim victory at this point in history?
And the answer wasn’t as obvious as it first seemed.
Al-Qaeda, formed in Pakistan in 1988, aimed to “radicalise and mobilise all those who had hitherto shunned the call to arms, eventually provoking a mass uprising that would lead to a new era for the world’s Muslims”.
In that first part of its goal – that is, radicalising Muslims – it has had some success. And it has been helped immensely by America’s over-reaction in the year or two after the attacks.
If the purpose of terror is implied by its name – that is, to strike fear into the heart of your enemy, then al-Qaeda’s attack achieved its purpose. America, angry and afraid, lashed out in disproportionate retaliation; a retaliation that was a more effective call to arms than anything a terrorist group such as al-Qaeda could achieve directly.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have and angered and radicalised thousands of Muslims around the world.
What’s more, President George W. Bush’s promise in launching his war on terror – that it would not end “until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated” – has not been kept. Indeed, it never could be.
America’s fear also twisted that country’s famed way of life, and that may be al-Qaeda’s most lasting victory. In the US the loss of liberties imposed – and accepted – as a result of 9/11 have now become every-day reality. The Patriot Act, the surveillance society best represented by the way airports have been turned into Fort Knoxes, and the willingness to send young men and women to die in futile wars have all changed how Americans live.
The world too, looks at the United States in a different way. Let’s not forget that the 9/11 attacks provoked the use of torture by a country that once knew better. When French newspaper Le Monde ran the famous headline, “We are all Americans” immediately after the attacks, the US had the support and sympathy of the world – it’s decisions since have squandered that.
Many commentators have argued this weekend that 9/11 didn’t change the world as much as many thought it would – America was already terribly in debt, China was already on the rise, President Bush and his aides may have found a reason to invade Iraq regardless. The main trends continued, altered certainly, but not interrupted. More recently, the global financial crisis and the Arab spring happened without any help or hindrance from al-Qaeda.
But I find it hard to accept that the $2.5 trillion cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (as calculated by a Brown University study, with interest costs included) has not had a hugely damaging effect on the US economy, and thus the global economic stagnation of recent years. America has paid an immense cost for what Bruce Springsteen hoped back in the day would be nothing more than “a little revenge”.
But what about al-Qaeda? Does it look like a winner? Its leader, Osama bin Laden, is dead. So are most of its other leaders, victims of drone bombings. It no longer has its tentacles into extremist Muslim groups around the world, no longer has the capability to undertake mass attacks, and no longer has a network of training camps. Its presence in Afghanistan is down to at most a few dozen, and even in Yemen and Somalia it isn’t the force is used to be.
Burke describes the group variously as “chaotic”, “battered and disjointed” and writes that “in many ways it had ceased to exist”.
He notes that the most recent suicide attacks on the West, such as the Times Square bomber, have been individuals acting alone out of fervent belief, not organized missions. While al-Qaeda still has the power to inspire via its videos, words, and online chatter, it has lost the ability to organize and lead.
Al-Qaeda today reminds of nothing more than an old quarterback with a dodgy arm, still talking big and bragging of his glory days to the few willing to listen, but who in truth is a shadow of his former self.
A new era for the Muslims of the world? Hardly. The suffering of many Muslims in many developing countries continues, but the Arab Spring has shown that the focus now is on clearing out their own corrupt and brutal leaders, rather than lashing out at the West, however culpable it may have been in propping up those dictators.
Al-Qaeda, more than ever, is simply on a different page from many of those young Muslims it has sought to radicalise.
So who is winning the 9/11 Wars? I realize now that’s the wrong question; there is no winner. Both sides have lost and continue to lose. Such is the path of violence.