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.


Comments (9)

by Richard Aston on September 12, 2011
Richard Aston

Who is winning – good question Tim.

As you point out no one.But only if you limit the field of victory to Al-Qaeda expanding its scope and domain or the US doing the opposite.  In that context clearly it US 1: Al Qaeda: 0

What were the other motivations behind this War on Terror? From the US side, there was much talk of securing access to oil, either the oil fields themselves or the oil pipelines.  George Friedman’s book “America’s Secret War” outlined a Byzantium web of geo politics, the main aim of which was Saudi Arabia – showing them power and strength to stem their rising ambitions etc.  What the intelligence community (of which Freidman is a part) call the deep game.  On the Al-Qaeda side was the Shiite/Sunni power game, the internal politics of Saudi and their global ambitions .

Who is winning the deep game? 

I heard Freidman talk and he seemed reasoned and reasonable but reading his book left me with a deep feeling of despair. The extraordinary lengths the big powers will go to in their efforts to establish their version of a geo power balance – who’s on top and who is not.
Al Qaeda like everyone else ended up being just another chess piece in an elaborate game.

by Tim Watkin on September 12, 2011
Tim Watkin

To ponder the oil question for a minute... I assume the US is maintaining control of Iraq's oil. Saudi Arabia remains a willing supplier, although I'm not sure what their ambitions ever were. Given the nationality of the terrorists, the US could have chosen a much more direct show of strength against the Saudis if that was there goal. And the attack on Iraq has done Saudi Arabia no favours, because it's permitted the regional rise of Iran – the other big story of the past decade.

The US still has an oil supply from offshore, but it's goal of oil/energy independence seems as remote as ever. Presumably the reason to fight for oil is to keep the US economy prospering – well, Wall St did more to bugger than than the mullahs. And the recession has limited Obama's ability to improve America's move to more sustainables.

So not much that's good to report there.

by alexb on September 12, 2011

Can anyone really win a war when one side is a superpower and the other is a loose network of like minded individuals? The wars have brought nothing but suffering to those who were unlucky enough to be living in countries which were made targets by America. You are right to point out that the American economy has taken a hit from a decade of war, but lets not forget the super-wealthy, who have gained immensely during the post-9/11 era. Halliburtan, Lockheed Martin and the directors of numerous private mercenary contractors have made a killing (pun intended) out of the wars. On the other side, Osama is a martyr who will be remembered as a resistance hero for centuries. So who are the winners? Those at the top of the food chain on both sides, definately. And who are the losers? Everyone else.

by Richard Aston on September 12, 2011
Richard Aston

"US could have chosen a much more direct show of strength against the Saudis if that was there goal"
True and the consequences would have been dire. George Friedman’s notion was a direct show of strength by the US would have called for the same back - he says by invading Iraq the US was showing its muscle to the Saudi's - see this boys, you F... with us and you'll get this etc etc. Just shaking up the whole middle eastern political landscape ( eg the rise of Iran) would do the same job of depowering the Saudis.

He is political scientist who has worked with the US military and runs the Stratfor private intelligence company so he is not an amateur conspiracy theorist.

It wasn’t his particular analysis that got me just the incredibly complex layers of geo political power plays he refers to.  I don’t think these wars are ever as simple as good guys fight bad guys for clear end goals. Or good guys liberating downtrodden victims towards the shining truth of democracy.

Your point about the fallout from all this crap is very well taken. I guess I am struggling to understand why it started in the first place.  Eg , according to Friedman and others the Taliban got their big leg up when the CIA funded, trained and supplied them to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. The US didn’t want to front the Russians directly so built up an Islamic movement ( with help from Pakistan) to do it.  And why did they do this ? Oil pipelines maybe , cold war hangover , shit,  who knows.


by Richard Aston on September 12, 2011
Richard Aston

Good point Brandt and some cool art work you are doing there.

by Chris de Lisle on September 13, 2011
Chris de Lisle

Funding the precursors of the Taliban occured at the very end of the Cold War; and there are some who argue that the quagmire that the Soviets found themselves in there is why they exist no more. Personally, I think that by that stage, funding rebel anti-communist groups had become something the CIA did automatically.

The other side to radical Islamism is that it has been pushed very hard by the Saudis for the last eighty years. Ever since they took control of Mecca and Medinah post-WWI, they have been at pains to establish that their strict Arabian-style Wahabist Islam is legitimate, and to establish themselves as benefactors to all range of Islamic movements throughout the region (Eg. Much more pleasantly, they are the prime funders of waqf movements, essentially parallel mosque-based welfare systems, in Egypt and elsewhere).

I think you're right about no one winning the "war," and that part of the reason for that is that they were fighting two very different wars; both with very open-ended goals.

by Richard Aston on September 13, 2011
Richard Aston

Good points Chris,

Wars with open ended goals - they scare me, the traditional clash of forces will never end these wars - I wonder are there other examaples from history of open ended wars?


by Tim Watkin on September 14, 2011
Tim Watkin

Well, the hundred years' war went on quite a long time! And the war against drugs is open-ended, if you think it's really a war. But from memory, people wrote at the time that the 'war on terror' was the first time war had been declared on something other than a country...

But two points – it's become more common to fight wars without actually declaring war and it's also more common to fight wars with a goal of protecting economic interests, rather than invasion and takeover.


by on July 19, 2012

What amazes me is that afte all these years there are still people who believe the nonsense we have been told about 9/11.

Just this simple fact should make people realise that something is not quit right.

On 9/11 a third WTC building collapsed. WTC 7. A fortyseven floor skyscraper which had it been build in Auckland woud have totally dominated the city. It was build and reinforced twice to with stand a nuclear blast. It contained Giuliani's security bunker, The NY CIA headquarters and the archives and courtcase documents of many Wallstreet and the Enron scandal.

It collapsed in its own footprint in freefall speed (6.5 seconds) breaking all laws of physics as according to NIST not even they could account for the reason why it should collapse like that. NIST refused to contemplate explosives because "nobody" heard explosions.

Added to that the collapse was announced by the BBC as having happened 20 minutes before the actual collapse which considering not a single steel framed building had ever collapsed due to office fires and never has after 9/11 is pretty strange.

Architects and Engineers have called for a new and independent investigation into the events of 9/11.

The question of who gained from the events is simple to answer. It was the military industrial complex Cheney's Haliburton comes to mind, big oil and the big financial institutions who made out like bandits and are doing so to this day.

The big losers are the poor brown people who live on top of the oil, litium and other resources in the countries we had to attack to liberate them.

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.