The September 11 terror attacks changed the world, with no community feeling the aftershocks more than Muslims in the West. Sweeping counterterror measures undermined civil liberties, enabling heightened surveillance and eroding Muslims’ freedoms.
At the core of America’s response was the rushed Patriot Act. As the ACLU critiqued, it sanctioned the warrantless surveillance of Muslims. Similarly, the UK’s flawed Prevent Strategy enlisted institutions to monitor Muslims, drawing criticism from human rights groups as well as the UN.
The freedom of Muslims in the post-9/11 world became tenuous at best. Hundreds faced detention, predominantly for minor violations. No-fly list limitations arose too. Alongside legal measures, Islamophobia surged. Discrimination, hate crimes and vandalism against Muslims swelled, Pew data shows. As a result, many now self-censor to counter allegations of extremism.
Beyond intensified monitoring and shrinking liberties, 9/11’s hidden costs have arguably been more damaging than the terrorist attacks itself.The “War on Terror” drove exorbitant military spending. US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq carried a $6.4 trillion price tag by 2020, reshaping economic priorities. Domestically, the post-9/11 era saw the rise of populist sentiments, owing largely to the loss of confidence in government and the inability of democracies to preserve global peace and stability. Added to the loss of faith is the toxic combination of fear over immigration and perceived threats to national identities, which has come to shape the political discourses of several Western nations, where talks of the collapse of the global liberal order have become routine.
While it may be tempting to view the legacy of 9/11 as a thing of the past, it still casts a dark shadow, as revealed by a new report from Brown University’s Costs of War project. Released yesterday, the report “Total Information Awareness: The High Costs of Post-9/11 US Mass Surveillance” details the extensive surveillance apparatus erected following the 2001 terrorist attacks. This vast monitoring network is characteristic of systems more commonly associated with authoritarian regimes. The report highlights two major issues – the overall lack of government transparency about post-9/11 surveillance programmes and the immense difficulty of assessing the full economic impact of these systems.
“Our ever-expanding surveillance systems have acquired an aura of inevitability, which organisers and regulators struggle against,” said Jessica Katzenstein in a press release. Katzenstein is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and the National Science Foundation and the author of the report. “Yet this normalisation is not itself inevitable, but has instead been underwritten in large part by the loosened regulations, heightened fear, racism, xenophobia, and flow of funding sanctioned in the post-9/11 era.”
The report underscores how the post-9/11 era ushered in an unparalleled escalation of mass surveillance programmes in the US, especially what it calls ‘suspicionless surveillance’.
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, federal agencies cast expansive digital dragnets, which indiscriminately monitored the public rather than focusing on individuals suspected of crimes. Among the communities most severely impacted were Muslims, immigrants and activists. The report highlights the sheer scale of this “suspicionless surveillance” enabled by new laws like the Patriot Act. It also explicates the dire costs that have resulted from the exponential growth of the government’s monitoring capacities. From the erosion of civil liberties to the normalisation of privacy violations, the report examines the extensive damage wrought by two decades of unconstrained surveillance.
The report found that while surveillance historically centred around marginalised communities, new laws passed after 9/11 enabled pervasive warrantless government spying on the entire US population. Key policy developments that facilitated sweeping unchecked surveillance include a provision in the USA Patriot Act that enabled bulk collection of citizens’ phone records without oversight, as well as part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act that legalised certain warrantless wiretapping programmes and authorised access to tech company servers. Together, these laws allowed intelligence agencies to implement vast monitoring programmes that gathered data on Americans en-masse in the name of national security.
Meanwhile, Muslims and immigrants faced the most severe impacts. For example, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which registered and tracked Muslim immigrants, as well as partnerships between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and local police departments, facilitated increased arrests and deportations. Social media monitoring programs that target immigrants’ online activity at the border also expanded.
Beyond Muslims and immigrant communities, the report revealed an increase in the suppression of protests targeting racial justice advocates, environmental activists, and other political groups, to reveal how the post-9/11 surveillance apparatus has effectively been leveraged to expand detentions and undermine activism.
The surveillance infrastructure relies heavily on racial profiling, often targeting Muslims and America’s black population. Muslims have long been framed in the West as an innately foreign “enemy within,” and the post-9/11 era simply provided new tools for acting on this racist assumption. Federal agencies like the FBI loosened restrictions to allow spying on and mapping of Muslims without any evidence of criminal suspicion.
One of the most egregious examples was the New York Police Department’s secret surveillance program. Based on the Islamophobic theory that Muslim religious practice itself breeds extremism, NYPD sent informants into mosques, spied on Muslim student groups, and tracked the daily lives of people from 28 “ancestries of interest.” No terrorism leads ever came from these efforts – only a chilling effect on Muslim civil liberties.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials also profiled Muslims, Sikhs and people of Middle Eastern descent at airports through programmes like “behaviour detection”. Muslim travellers must endure extra screening, harassment and intrusive questioning. Meanwhile, social media surveillance targets Muslims’ profiles, messages and networks, including at the border.
Outside government, anti-Muslim citizen surveillance has also risen. Far-right vigilante groups patrol the southern border of the US, on the lookout for anyone appearing Middle Eastern. Groups such as the ‘Minuteman Project’, which arrogated to themselves “every legal means [for]…identifying and apprehending those who violate our borders,” is said to have burgeoned across the country. Such groups, the report states, are rooted in the xenophobic and racist vigilantism of the 1980s and ‘90s, and the deeper history of lynching and white supremacy in the borderlands.
A disastrous consequence has been to ignore the threat of right-wing violence. The US government has historically focused its surveillance and disruption efforts on leftist groups, especially Black liberation movements, while showing relative restraint towards white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Federal agencies have often been slow to address organised right-wing violence. The intelligence community has struggled to adapt to the new reality that the primary threat to homeland security (as identified by these same agencies) is now domestic terrorism driven largely by anti-government and white supremacist ideologies.
Despite billions spent on developing this surveillance infrastructure, the government has struggled to demonstrate meaningful improvements in public safety that justify the massive costs. Moreover, surveillance has imposed steep costs on marginalised communities through family separation, suppressed speech, weakened social movements and has spread fear. Although programmes often target specific racial, religious and political groups, their ripple effects also broadly undermine privacy and freedom for all US residents. In short, concludes the report, the tremendous investment in surveillance has yielded minimal security benefits while concentrating harm on already vulnerable populations and eroding civil liberties more broadly.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.