A decade on from 9/11: identifying the right threats

By Chris McCarthy

The wrenching, violent images of that clear autumnal morning on September 11, 2001, when four passenger planes were converted into make-shift missiles and launched into totemic symbols of American financial and military might, shaped the political, social, and geopolitical arenas of the subsequent decade in innumerable ways.

Newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters have devoted vast column inches and airtime this past week reflecting on the fallout from that tragic day, and the consensus is calcifying. The collapse of the Twin Towers spawned two disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, ballooned the security industry, led to a curtailment of civil liberties and freedoms across Western states providing succour to extremist creeds, accelerated Islamophobia, and fostered a binary narrative of a supposed clash of civilisations from which a more mature debate is only just emerging.

It was unsurprising that the hawkish Washington administration would respond militarily to the attack that, unlike Pearl Harbor, was targeted against civilians and not a military base*. This was not conventional warfare but America’s brutal and unsophisticated response (and her allies), reacted as if it were. States invaded and occupied other states, misidentifying the origin of the threat that had emerged from non-state actors, in the pursuit of a nebulous agenda of spreading democracy and freedom.

The Iraq War is over for British and American combat troops but it’s questionable both whether the prospects for its people are any better than they were before the invasion, and if the West is any safer. The forgotten war in Afghanistan marches on at ever-rising financial cost and with a growing loss of life while it’s neighbour, Pakistan, remains a vastly more dangerous situation. Several more thousand British and American lives have now been lost in these two wars than were killed on September 11, with incalculable loss and disruption to Afghan and Iraqi life.

Are we any safer since those planes pierced the Manhattan skyline; have we won the war on terror? The greatest mistake of the reaction to the gross criminal acts of 9/11 was to launch a campaign of rhetoric that grouped diverse, complicated and nuanced threats under one homogenised banner and responded to them with a uniform, unsophisticated sledgehammer. It’s not defeatist to assert that the war on terror is unwinnable when the enemy is as clumsily defined as anybody against the freedoms and liberties enjoyed in Western states.

On the other hand, it’s disingenuous to argue that the security threat to Britain, America and other Western nations is a fabrication of the political elite and military-industrial complex. The anti-terror industry, to use an ungainly catch-all term, is certainly bloated, but because we haven’t been attacked on the scale of the 7/7 bombings since, could speak as much to the effectiveness of our security services as it does to the lack of any genuine threat.

Where the conversation in Britain needs to move, and has begun to over the last 12-18 months, is a more sober rational analysis of the nuanced threats we face today. The scale and severity of those threats is best understood by our security services and within a constrained fiscal environment the difficult decisions pertaining to allocation of resources will be made by the informed judgment of our politicians. The new arenas, however, are beginning to take shape while older challenges persist.

As our infrastructure and economy become more reliant on computers, the vulnerability to cyber attack of our financial sector, airports, energy supply, personal data and private company records increases. It’s arguable that the financial and banking crisis of the late 2000s, in which we remain firmly mired, will have a greater impact on our quality of life and material well being than the fallout from 9/11. A deliberate, systematic attack (or even a rogue, isolated case) on our financial sector could, quite conceivably, precipitate even graver consequences. The battleground is moving from the desert dunes of Afghanistan to the silicon of cyberspace.

Western foreign policy over the last ten years has focused heavily on tackling the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, marginalising the very real danger from other extremist ideologies, in particular the rise of the far right across Europe. It has fed an anti-Islamic narrative, ostracised moderates, and laid a fertile recruitment ground for jihadist leaders. Governments need to identify a more effective approach to tackling domestic radicalisation in all its guises, working with self-appointed community leaders who have for too long buried their heads in the sand about what’s happening in their localities or lacked the capabilities to challenge it.

The July 7 bombings in London were carried out by four individuals of Pakistani and Jamaican descent, raised and educated in Britain. In their suicide videos they cited the government’s involvement in the Iraq War as justification for their actions. It’s too simplistic and naïve to expect a programme of exporting democracy to lawless regions or countries to arrest the radicalisation of Britons at home. The answer lies somewhere in between; providing the necessary support to fragile states to strengthen civil society while identifying the causes of domestic radicalisation and remaining prepared and vigilant to new emerging threats.

The US and its allies may have exaggerated the threat posed by failed states, as Rory Stewart has remarked, and though we have overestimated our capacity and resources to transform those states, preventative policies are preferable to reactionary responses driven by emotion and pride. Preventative not in the sense of pre-emptive military attacks, but a strengthened diplomatic presence in troubled regions; providing the technical and specialist support to weak governments or fragile nations such as Yemen and Pakistan; continued support for multilateral bodies such as the UN, NATO and regional organisations like the Arab League and African Union.

There are imperialist undertones in the suggestion that Britain, America or their Western allies shoulder the responsibility for righting the world’s wrongs. The decade since 9/11 has demonstrated the folly and unviability of the neo-conservative agenda but we mustn’t let the pendulum swing to the complete opposite end – Britain cannot retreat from the world stage owing to the mistakes of the past ten years.


*Isabel Hilton, journalist and editor of chinadialogue, described the event at a Frontline Club panel discussion last week as an “extraordinary piece of theatre that demanded a extraordinary piece of theatre in response.”


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