9/11, Twenty Years On

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


Two decades since the deadliest terrorist attack on US soil, the region and, indeed, the world have been badly shaken. From Iraq to Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya, regimes have been toppled, while elsewhere those that have survived struggle to reassert control. The United States, still the world’s premier economic and military power, finds itself, nevertheless, in a quagmire of its own making, challenged by a rising China and an assertive Russia. The latest setback in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to Kabul after being driven out in the wake of the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks, only underscore, for many, the futility of retribution and the so-called “war on terror.”

Across the United States, the anniversary was an opportunity to reflect on the impact of the terrorist attacks on the country and its people. However, as Fawaz Turki reminds us in this Gulf News op-ed, the implications of what transpired on September 11, 2001, go beyond the United States: “So keenly felt was its horror, so immense was its toll, and so slow was its impact in dissipating that the event continues, two decades after the fact, to gnaw away at Americans’ collective memory, like a raw wound. Very simply, the magnitude of it all left a lasting historical legacy that would not be easily erased…. The magnitude of the 9/11 attacks did not leave a lasting legacy on the historical memory of America alone. The legacy belongs to all of us who inhabit what today has become our little, contracted global village where we all live and are in turn affected by each other’s actions.

Hussam Itani, writing for Asharq Alawsat offers a different view on the significance of the 9/11 attacks on the region and its people: “From an Arab perspective, the September 11 attack marked the beginning of catastrophes that continue to unfold in the region and ravage its residents, undermining any opportunity to achieve development or improve conditions of life. This attack was the epitome of nihilistic terrorism that culminated with [the perpetrators], as well as its advocates, being destroyed, only after causing the deaths of thousands of civilians and the destruction of cities, metropolises, and societies.”

Mustafa Alrawi picks up on a similar theme, asking, “What does it mean to be an Arab” in the aftermath of such devastating events. In his commentary for The National, Alrawi asserts that, despite the obvious challenges, “Two decades after 9/11, Arabs have stood up to be counted…. For Arabs in particular, that day marked a watershed. The question of identity and what it meant to be Arab suddenly became everyone’s concern…. Even as we continue to wrestle with tough questions, Arabs did not let others control the narrative about them. Perhaps there will never be a definitive answer to identity, but complexity can be a good thing too. Twenty years on from those attacks, the world is still terrified. Perhaps it is progress that it isn’t Arabs it is chiefly afraid of anymore.”

Others have taken the opportunity during this anniversary to reexamine US strategic choices in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Turkish observer Talha Köse, for example, notes in a column for The Daily Sabah that the US may have squandered an opportunity to consolidate its global preeminence: “Mismanaged responses to 9/11 will be mentioned as the moment that triggered the decline of U.S. power. This slow decline … may continue for the upcoming decades. The U.S. will continue to be a superpower, yet the status of inalienable might will eventually disappear. The hubris that responded to the 9/11 attacks, instead of the attacks themselves, is the main reason behind this slow decline. Al-Qaida and other terrorist groups did not defeat American power, but they distracted the U.S. from other more inclusive and constructive goals…. The strategy to handle the post-9/11 era was wrong, and the U.S. wasted its opportunity to demonstrate successful leadership in this interim period.”

Jerusalem Post contributor Michele Groppi goes so far as to call the war on terror and US intervention in Afghanistan a “failure,” laying the responsibility at the feet of the US government: “If we look at the wider picture, however, we failed. Our initial strategy – if we had one in the first place – displayed more realistic goals. So, what went wrong? Initial premises quickly turned into borderless war on al-Qaeda and the like, toppling hostile governments, imposing democracy, doing peacekeeping, state building, and training local forces.”

Some suggest that efforts were bound to fail since they were built on the wrong premises. That, at least, is the argument put forward by Michael Laitman, who in his recent Times of Israel op-ed, faulted US overreliance on military power and dominance, scorning calls for a unified approach in the process: “The series of flights hijacked as weapons against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the plane crash in Pennsylvania claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people. Unfortunately, I do not see that after two decades of the deadliest terrorist attack on US soil the world has truly changed…. Like it or not, a military solution will be only a palliative action to combat terror. A more comprehensive approach should include a solution at a higher level than our earthly passing calculations. Unity is the one ingredient that the world needs, but it has no idea how to achieve it.”

Finally, there are also those who, rather than dwelling on the past, offer ideas and suggestions for how to move forward. Baria Alamuddin, a columnist for Arab News, points out that the only way to move past the hurt and anger of the past is by creating a virtuous and just circle: “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…. 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.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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