Time for Closure on 9/11 and Its Deadly Legacy
Oxford, 11 September 2011
September 11, 2011 has been commemorated as a sombre day of rememberance and prayer for some 2,800 Americans who died on the fateful day ten years ago in terrorist attacks against the United States. The consequences of these attacks for the rest of the world have been horrendous--with tens of thousands of additional lives being lost especially in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan in terrorism and war.

Last ten years since the great American tragedy have seen the world facing its even more tragic consequences. In two wars waged as part of the US-led War on Terror, in Afghanistan and Iraq, tens of thousands of additional lives have been lost. So has been the case with countries and regions plagued by terrorist violence. In Pakistan alone, terrorism has killed over 40,000 people, including 3,000 security personnel. The material cost of post-9/11 death and destruction that occurred mostly in the name of religion by non-state actors or for the sake of security by state parties has likewise been massive.

However, ten years on, while the world is still haunted by this notorious legacy of 9/11, some signs of hope for a more promising decade ahead are certainly noticeable. Perhaps the most prominent development in recent months is the democratic upsurge in the Arab world, which provided both the ideology and leadership for al-Qaeda. What the Arab spring has done is to smash the gulf that was created, deliberately or otherwise, between the Muslim world and the Western world—with al Qaeda claiming to lead the destiny of the former and the United States championing the values of the latter. If one represented regress, the other denoted progress.

We may finally be moving beyond this binary vision of world politics. Besides the Arab spring, other noticeable indicators suggesting a global trend beyond 9/11 and its legacy in the form of the last ten years of US-led response in War on Terror are a couple of developments in South Asia and Scandinavian Europe.

Within Pakistan, while Taliban and al-Qaeda are trying hard that the conflict in the country remains essentially between them and the state apparatus, militancy and politics in Karachi and elsewhere increasingly point towards a traditional conflicting situation revolving around intra-ethic and inter-provincial issues. The country’s peace process with India is also not being interrupted by recent incidents of terrorism in India.

In the case of Scandinavian Europe, the consistent growth of Islamophobia has suffered a major reversal with the recent spectacular act of terrorism in Norway, establishing that the root-causes of European terrorist troubles are not merely confined to the problem of immigrant Muslim population’s inability to adapt to Western culture and values.

A monitory of Muslims were indeed attracted to al-Qaeda’s regressive discourse. A discourse based upon Western imperialism specifically targeting Islam and Muslims—manifested in Western-backed despotic Muslim regimes and rulers and Western practice of duality over conflicts concerning Muslims like Palestine. This discourse will continue to have audience as long as examples of Western support to despotism in Muslim countries and Western practice of duality over Muslim world conflicts persist. However, at least in countries such as Egypt, where the ideology of violent jihad was born and then spread elsewhere in the Middle East, South Asia and the rest, what has eventually inspired masses is not al-Qaeda’s Caliphate creed, but the simple human desire of a freer and better life.

Al-Qaeda itself, as an international terrorist network, has suffered enormously in the last ten years. This year’s killing of Osama bin Laden was a devastating blow to the organization in southwest Asia. Its remaining leaders are either being killed or caught. For instance, al-Qaeda’s deputy chief Atiyah Abd al-Rahman was reportedly killed in a drone strike last month. And, earlier this month, Pakistani and US security agencies in a joint operation captured Sheikh Younis al-Mauritani, a senior al Qaeda leader known as the group's global operations chief. If Ayman al-Zawahiri is indeed hiding somewhere in the region, it is only a matter of time when he is also either killed or captured.

Al-Qaeda may still continue to thrive on the political turmoil in Arabian Peninsula or the so-called Islamic Maghrib. In Yemen, for example, the lingering leadership crisis provides an opportunity to the organization to regroup, plan and carry out terrorist actions in the region. Then, in Somalia, we see al-Qaeda-linked groups such as Al-Sahabab intensify their guerrilla campaign amid a growing humanitarian disaster. However, the fact remains that the terror network has virtually lost the freedom of action in a region where it planned international terrorist acts such as 9/11. And part of the reason why this has happened is the fast eroding appeal for its regressive ideology among its masses, be they terror-afflicted Pakistanis or war-ravaged Afghans.

Even if al-Qaeda is becoming history ten years down the line since the events of 9/11, this is no cause for celebration. For purely from the Muslim world perspective, what the regressive creed that al-Qaeda leadership preached has undermined and harmed Muslims more than anyone else. The ensuing wave of terrorism has essentially been marked by instances of Muslim-on-Muslim violence rather than anything else. So, when Egyptians or Tunisians or Libyans come out in the streets to fulfil their rightful desire for democracy and freedom, they collectively voice their rejection of replacing Western-backed political despotism in their respective countries with a transnational religious despotism of the sort that the peers of jihadi militancy like Zawahiri have been articulating for decades.

It is not just al-Qaeda, or the terrorist manifestation of its extremist ideology that can be solely blamed for all the havoc in the world pre or post-9/11. The way the War on Terror has been waged in the last decade has also played its due part in making the world a less safe place to live. The United States used the terrorist event to settle old scores, say, for instance, against the Saddam regime. Al-Qaeda had planned 9/11 inside Taliban-led Afghanistan. Iraq war was a great diversion of the War on Terror, because of which the war in Afghanistan has lingered on and Pakistan has consequently suffered enormously in both human and material terms.

The American militaristic response to 9/11 also gave an opportunity to despots and dictators to justify their repression of political opponents by simply branding them al-Qaeda activities of their sympathisers. President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan has, for instance, employed this trick quite successfully for several years. In the absence of 9/11, it might have been difficult for General Musharraf to rule over Pakistanis for so long. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi tried to play the same game until recently, accusing the people who rose against his 42-year rule from Benghazi and beyond this year as belonging al-Qaeda. But the trick did not work.

Thus, for the United States and its Western allies in the War on Terror, the 10th anniversary of 9/11 should be an opportunity to introspect about why extremist causes spread and terrorism thrives on them. Their decade-long approach of tacking merely the symptoms of a global menace won’t work, as evolving revolutionary trends in various Muslim countries suggest. The way forward is reconciliation and democratization. The longest war in American history, the one on Afghanistan, can only end by reconciling the enemy. And countries where al-Qaeda and its extremist-terrorist affiliates flourished have finally chosen the path to democracy, and they are looking towards the free world for support.

Even otherwise, 9/11 and especially the response to it in the form of the War on Terror have shaken the very foundations of the way world politics has evolved for centuries. In the guise of fighting al-Qaeda, countries’ sovereignty has been violated with impunity and dangerous precedents have been set insofar as international law’s applicability to inter-state relationship is concerned. America’s post-9/11 retribution knew no bounds. The rules of warfare were re-written, to allow for, for instance, controversial drone technology to penetrate sovereign nations’ terrains, and to transform US Special Operation forces into a ‘killing machine.’ Now that al-Qaeda and the extremist-terrorist wave that it led have started to recede, it would make sense to revert to the same codes of conduct that members of the world community, big or small, have long adhered to.

There is no doubt that terrorism will continue to plague the world in some years to come. However, as high profile terrorist acts such as the most recent instance of lone wolf terrorism in Norway suggest, no one religion or nation can be singled out for extremism and terrorism—both of which were and would always be complex subjects, requiring equally intricate causal explanations.

While thousands of those who lost their lives in the tragic event of 9/11, or many thousands more who died in its aftermath in terrorism or wars deserve our prayer, their collective sacrifice for humanity can only be duly honoured if the most powerful of nations are willing to get their act together for the sake of greater democracy and peace in the world. It is only by moving beyond 9/11 and its legacy that we can ever contemplate such eventuality.

Ten years are enough a period for the world to bear the drastic consequences of the War on Terror. Apart from suffering an irreparable human loss, poor countries like Pakistan have paid a huge economic cost for playing a lead role in the War on Terror. In Pakistan’s case, this cost is estimated to be close to $ 70 billion. No amount of financial compensation offered to the country by the United States and, with its help, by global financial institutions is enough to help Pakistan make a quick economic recovery.

What Pakistan has gained by joining the international counter-terrorism campaign in the region as a frontline state is a virulent form of extremism whose horrendous implications will be with the country for years to come. There is, therefore, absolutely no reason why Pakistan and the world should continue to face the consequences of 9/11. This is especially true when we look at the principal ground reality of terrorism today: that is, while the United States and the Western world may have secured themselves against terrorism in the last ten years, countries like Pakistan continue to be its greatest victims.

The world sympathised with America when it suffered enormously at the hands of terrorists on 9/11. Now America must also sympathise with those countries in the world currently suffering enormously from terrorism. The tenth anniversary of 9/11 is the most appropriate occasion to declare a closure on the cataclysmic event the world suffered on the eve of the new millennium, and to explore all possible post-9/11 opportunities for greater freedom, harmony and peace in South Asia and the world.

The commentary was published in weekly Pulse Magazine, August 26-September 1, 2011. It can be accessed at