Twenty years on from 9/11, a grim new era of terror approaches
Violence breeds violence. The terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001, still reverberate today, as suicide bombs detonate in Kabul and yet more people fall victim to unimaginable evil.
The events of 9/11 did not emerge from nowhere. We were forewarned by Al-Qaeda’s embassy bombings in East Africa just three years previously. The murderers of Al-Qaeda were the product of the hundred battlefields that preceded them. When America began funding Afghan extremists during the 1980s in the context of Cold War superpower confrontations, these scattered seeds would eventually coalesce into Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. When Arthur Balfour, at the stroke of a pen, resolved to dispossess the entire Palestinian nation, the bitter fruits of his promise fermented into a plethora of radical tendencies that would still be fueling anger, grief and hatred more than a century later; not least among Jewish terrorist groups like Irgun, Lehi and Kach.
Extremism breeds extremism: Far-right tendencies fuel extreme-left retaliation. The shah’s pro-American dictatorship was supplanted by Khomeinist theocracy. Russian-sponsored Latin American communists waged war with CIA-backed reactionaries. The chaos and mass dislocations arising from the Syria conflict helped fuel far-right populist tendencies throughout the Western world, reaching their logical extremes in the floridly Trumpist delusions of QAnon.
Bush’s “war on terror” could only cultivate infinitely nastier mutations of terrorism: Osama bin Laden’s calculated economy of terror gave way to Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi’s frenzy of slaughter, which gave birth to Daesh’s carnivals of carnage.
Insanity breeds insanity: Al-Qaeda’s devastating lightning strikes against the heart of American governance empowered a cabal of far-right neoconservatives, who until then were regarded as “crazies” even by those within their own political party. Neocon imperialism in Iraq brought down a dictator who Donald Rumsfeld not long before had fawned over. The murderous tyranny of Saddam Hussein was soon to be replaced by the paramilitary hegemony of Tehran. And it would not be long before the ayatollahs resolved that the entire region was there for the taking.
Chaos breeds chaos: Following Joe Biden’s capitulation, the speed at which Afghanistan fell under Taliban control was nothing short of miraculous. Why should the Taliban now compromise? Their victory came so easily and suddenly that it bore a sense of inevitability.
Al-Qaeda has long been in the doldrums under the ailing and uncharismatic Ayman Al-Zawahiri. The Taliban’s lightning conquests are undisputedly the greatest boost for global terrorism since 9/11. Terrorist franchises across Africa and Asia are readying themselves to surf a tsunami of renewed momentum, funding, recruitment, and militant zeal. Many commentators who should know better are now touting the Taliban as America’s best hope in fighting Daesh-Khorasan, the group that murdered more than 100 people in the recent Kabul airport bombing. Yet the Taliban then came out and denounced subsequent US airstrikes against Daesh-Khorasan. Many Daesh personnel are defectors from the Taliban, and the Taliban recently released thousands of Daesh fighters from prisons. Using terrorists to fight terrorists is no recipe for success.
We witnessed a comparable lurch in the balance of power in Iraq in mid-2014, when a rag-tag band of Daesh militants confronted an Iraqi army in Mosul many times their size, with infinitely superior US-supplied weaponry. But instead of standing and fighting, Iraq’s corrupt and incompetent military leaders fled and the mighty Iraqi army disintegrated.
Just like in Afghanistan, Iraq’s army under Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki was rotten from the top down. The vile sectarian climate created by Al-Maliki’s style of governance acted like rocket fuel for cultivating radicalization. Between 2012 and 2014, Daesh mushroomed from only about 700 fighters to more than 30,000 recruits. Over the following two years, Daesh perpetrated 143 attacks across 29 countries, killing more than 2,000 people.
For more than 20 years, there has been an inseparable symbiosis between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Al-Qaeda today remains deeply embedded within the Taliban. There are more Al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan today than there were before 9/11. Al-Qaeda’s second in command, Abu Muhsin Al-Masri, was killed in Ghazni province last October. The Al-Qaeda-linked Sirajuddin Haqqani — one of the world’s most wanted men — has emerged as a principal Taliban powerbroker in Kabul.
According to a recent UN report, prior to the US withdrawal, Al-Qaeda was present in about half of Afghan provinces. The report concluded that the two movements were “closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties.” Al-Qaeda functions as the Taliban’s force multiplier, with its fighting, communications and intelligence skills. The Taliban hosted and sheltered Bin Laden, despite immense pressure to evict him. America may abandon its allies without a second thought, but the Taliban’s connections to Al-Qaeda run deep.
Biden’s argument that the West can have an “over the horizon” grip on terrorism in Central Asia after retreating from Afghanistan is ridiculous. Regions like the Hindu Kush were almost impossible to police, even with tens of thousands of coalition troops inside Afghanistan. The Biden administration may boast technological innovations that they could not have dreamed of in 2001, but it certainly does not possess the superhuman powers that would be required to contain extremist expansion within a region where it no longer even enjoys a foothold.
Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal was perfectly timed to allow Al-Qaeda and the Taliban to be celebrating their surge back into power just at the moment when Americans commemorate the appalling events of 9/11. Once again, terrorist training camps will throw open their gates and radicalized fighters will flood in via Afghanistan’s porous borders, while the outward flow of opium will be sufficiently lucrative to fund all the world’s insurgencies ten times over.
The Taliban’s lightning conquests are undisputedly the greatest boost for global terrorism since 9/11.
Stupidity breeds stupidity: Today we are entering yet another new era for globalized terrorism. Western political leaders must stop shortsightedly worrying about the richly deserved domestic political fallout from their Afghan debacle and prepare to confront the oncoming inferno.
We are in this mess because these leaders learned precisely nothing from 9/11. The brutal consequences of worldwide wars against terrorism merely nurture new generations of terrorists.
Tragedy breeds tragedy, which breeds tyranny: Terrorism is born among the multitudinous horrors of refugee camps in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan — among damaged, angry youths with nothing to lose.
Victory against terrorism can never come through building bigger walls or invading fragile states. The real war on terror is a war against poverty, intolerance and chronic instability.
Virtue breeds virtue. Justice breeds justice. Hope breeds hope.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.