The attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September, 2001 resulted in the immediate loss of around 3,000 lives. That was the worst terror attack ever at the time. In the 15 years since 9/11, however, some 150,000 people have lost their lives in terror attacks worldwide. The 3,500 global death toll in 2000 rose to 7,000 in 2011, and 32,985 in 2014. The number of countries exposed to terror attacks stands at 62. Terror has grown and spread, and taken ever more lives since 11 September. The world is clearly now a much more dangerous place than it once was.
In the wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush and his staff initiated the “war on terror”. First Afghanistan and then Iraq were invaded and occupied. The aim was to eradicate terrorism and those encouraging it, particularly Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden, in a sudden and violent knee-jerk response. The plan backfired, however. Although Bin Laden has been killed and Al-Qaeda weakened, there are now 170 known terrorist organisations in the world. The number of militants is expressed in the tens of thousands.
Before 11 September, global terrorism was largely limited to Al-Qaeda operations, and a few organisations in Algeria and the Caucasus, as well as some smaller groups on the Arabian Peninsula. Today, however, it exists from Indonesia in the East to Africa’s Atlantic coast in the West. Pre-9/11 terror was in the hands of “professional” terrorists; Al-Qaeda consisted of a small number of fighters trained during the Afghan-Soviet war. The way that the US brought war to the streets of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and most recently Syria, has brought terror down on the population.
Classic terror organisations operate with a hierarchical chain of command; today we see attacks by independent, “lone wolf” cells. In 2014, 70 per cent of attacks in the West were perpetrated by these “lone wolves”. The Tsarnaev brothers, for example, were two university students who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. In January last year, the Kouachi brothers apparently took the decision to attack the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo magazine themselves. With this development, the surveillance of terrorists has become more difficult, if not impossible.
Terror organisations also changed after 2001. Al-Qaeda used to be a limited organisation living in an Afghanistan under the control of the Taliban. Today’s terrorist groups, however, possess stores of weapons looted from the collapsing regimes in Iraq and Syria; they even control oil refineries and reserves. Terrorists engage in daily propaganda via social media and sophisticated production techniques and facilities.
The Western world has failed to enrol civilian populations as allies against terrorism. Evil committed in the name of the “war on terror” — including the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, the torture perpetrated at Abu Ghraib and the CIA’s black sites — has prevented ordinary people from signing up to the counter-terrorism drive. The failure to distinguish between good and bad, the guilty and the innocent, further discouraged the population from supporting the “war on terror”. Being unable to make such important distinctions has lost the West its potentially most important ally.
Rising hostility to Islam has also led to millions of Muslims feeling alienated. They are being singled out in the fight against terror in their own countries. The Terrorist Detection Centre in the US has 1.2 million Muslims listed in its database; five years ago, that figure was 230,000. A good many Americans have reduced to a minimum contact with their Muslim neighbours, workmates and friends in order not to appear on the list themselves. A further 47,000 people are banned from boarding aircraft under the “No-fly List”. Many US citizens are only able to fly after undergoing Secondary Security Screening Selection. Bearing in mind that only around 250 Americans have gone or tried to go to Syria to fight it is, of course, unacceptable for millions of Muslims to be regarded as potential terrorists.
Today in the US, basic human rights, such as the right to a private life, freedom of expression and freedom of movement, are violated by terrorist watch lists. Drone attacks which kill innocent people are corrupting the legitimate US fight against terrorism. This has lost America many friends among Muslim populations around the world. It should be understood that millions of Muslims are just as keen as the US to fight radicalism and terror.
Western policies implemented after 11 September have led to terrorist organisations gaining the upper hand ideologically. People are joining them every day. Some 25,000 to 35,000 fighters rushed to Syria between 2011 and 2015. That figure is greater than the total number of potential terrorists from Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past 20 years.
The FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorist List” was first published in 2001. Nine of the people on the first list have been killed, and three captured. They have been replaced by 18 new terrorists. There are now many more terrorists on the list. Indeed, almost all countries now have their own “Most Wanted” list. Far from ridding the world of terrorism, the “war on terror” has made it a far more dangerous place than it was in 2001.
The world, particularly the US and the West, must learn from what has happened. It is impossible to fight terror through war, guns, rifles, drone strikes and watch lists. Twenty-first century terrorism is an ideological movement dominated by a grotesque misinterpretation of Islam. The only way to defeat that ideology is through a campaign of ideas. Any other method will serve little purpose other than nourish, expand and strengthen terrorism. The antidote to radical terror is genuine Islam. The destructive philosophy of terror can be eliminated only when the Islam of the Qur’an is encouraged to spread. Today, the radicals who resort to violence and kill civilians in the name of Islam are under the influence of non-Qur’anic, violence-promoting sources. The fire of violence and pain can be extinguished only when the morality of the Qur’an is explained by the right people. For this reason, it is important that the Western world channels its efforts into the spreading of real Islam; terror will be eradicated if people are told about — and live by — the true faith.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.