How 9/11 changed the Arab world

How 9/11 changed the Arab world

Twenty years after the 11 September, the tragedy has wide-ranging geopolitical and humanitarian impacts on the Arab world, writes Salah Nasrawi.

Two decades ago at the beginning of the 21th century, the Arab world looked at a crossroad facing huge challenges and perspectives. The region was moving forward cautiously a decade after the Gulf war to remove Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait and the signing of the Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement.

The new modus operandi had provided a degree of stability that so many had hoped would allow the Middle East to enter a new era of peace, stability, cooperation that could ensure a flourishing future for its people.

Yet, suddenly the lots of the Arab region had dramatically altered as the world watched on 11 September smoke billowing from the collapsed twin towers in New York and from the Pentagon in Washington by terrorist attacks swallowing almost 3000 lives in an instant and changing the world as we knew it.

The Bush administration had thrust of American power into the light of the day, and unleashed its global war on terrorism and with it invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and in doing so it deeply unsettled much of the world put particularly the Arab World, the geopolitical center of the Middle East.

While US leaders blamed the fateful 9/11 attacks on the al-Qaeda terror group and its leader Osama bin Laden, not Muslims in general, rhetoric, reactions and some political trends stoked Islamophobia and anti-Arabism.

Nowhere was that evident than in the Arab world where American power manifested by US counterterrorism strategies were mismanaged in the 11 September aftermath, creating new security, political, and social problems whose impact can be felt even today.

When faced with decisions to respond to the scourge which American commentators were quick to compare it to a new “Pearl Harbour”, President George W. Bush vowed that the United States “will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them” in the war he declared on terrorism.

As it became clear that nineteen hijackers of the commercial airlines and carried out the attacks on New York and  Washington came from Arab countries and acted under orders from bin Laden’s al-Qaeda group, it became evident the US relationships with the Arab and Muslim world seemed fated to change radically and permanently.

Driven by anti-Muslims hysteria, fight against terrorism has become the defining issue first for the US administration and then by Western governments. Anger and furry triggered by the 11 September attacks soon became the norms in how the United States and Europe engaged the Arab world.

From intense scrutiny and distrust that was unleashed after the attacks, visa restrictions, headscarves bans, abuse of “ostensible” religious Muslim symbols to physical assaults on Muslims, a toxic environment have prevailed ever since for Arabs in the United States and the West in general.

This discriminatory backlash shaped by the events of 9/11 and their aftermath had created multilayered unease in America’s political and cultural relationships with Arabs that deepened the mutual misunderstanding wrought by the traditional misguided and hostile US foreign policy choices in the Middle East.

Though the war on al-Qaeda which was made US top priority was meant to eradicate Islamic Jihad threats in the way that stopping Communism once was the Western grand strategy, the crusade has utterly failed as a more powerful terror terrorist organization the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) with worldwide appeal soon emerged.  

Despite twenty years of military actions by the United States and its international partners aimed at stamping out terrorism that have exacted major tolls on al-Qaeda and IS, the two groups have been able to adapt and expand in too many hot spots and put their violent extremism into action.

Perhaps the worst manifestations in the “war on terror” was the two wars that the Bush administration waged in Afghanistan and Iraq which resulted in dramatic geopolitical and humanitarian impacts that continued to have ripple effects across the region.

Less than a month after 11 September, 2001 US troops invaded Afghanistan in an attempt to dismantle al-Qaeda, the terrorist group that claimed responsibility for the attacks and remove the radical Taliban government harbouring it.

The Afghan war which came to an end last month was America’s longest war and one of US worst foreign policy gambles. Its death toll in Afghan national military and police amounted to 66,000 in addition to 47,245 Afghan civilians and 51,191 Taliban and other opposition fighters. Millions of Afghans were either war refugees abroad or internally displaced.

The financial cost of the war in Afghanistan was over $2 trillion, nearly $300 million a day according to some modest estimates while the violence continued to destroy lives and induced breakdown of security, public health, security, and infrastructure.

America’s stunning retreat from Afghanistan was widely seen as strategic miscalculation that has sweeping implications. The hasty withdrawal did not only affect Afghanistan but constituted a major defeat which dismayed key US allies and allowed US main global adversaries, China and Russia to seek reaping advantages.

Closer to the Arab world, the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam regime in 2003 was more catastrophic when the occupation of an Arab powerhouse ended in a series of failures and epidemics of violence effecting much of the region more than Iraq and unleashing a perfect storm of political and sectarian conflicts.

 The United States and a coalition of allies invaded Iraq vowing to destroy Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and cut al-Qaeda’s links with Saddam’s regime which the Bush administration alleged dating back to the early 1990s, and was based on a common interest in confronting the United States. 

The Bush administration claimed that overthrew of Saddam would bring peace, prosperity and democracy into Iraq but the declared objectives for invading Iraq soon proved illusory and ever since, violence, civil warfare and economic pitfalls have wracked the country. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people were dead and wounded and millions others have been displaced and enormous resources have been squandered.

As a violent insurgency arose, Iraq laid in wreak wasted by terrorism which later hatched IS, a monster of Islamic extremism which managed to seize large swathes of Iraq for a while and expanded into a network of supporters in several countries with affiliates increasingly carried out attacks across the region and in Europe.

The group has re-established its clandestine intelligence network in parts of Iraq after it was kicked out of major cities and towns in 2017 and resumed conducting lethal attacks against government forces, village chieftains, and targets like oil pipelines and electricity grids.

The Iraq invasion also set off the chain of turbulent events in the region that led to empowerment of anti-regimes activists who triggered the Arab Spring nearly ten years later. It also had indirect connections to Iran’s growing influence in the region and allowed the Islamic Republic to expand its power and achieve its strategic objectives.

Fast-forward two decades, and the picture in many parts of the region doesn’t look very different. While terrorist groups are either active or lurking in hubs, extremism has not abated since 9/11 and is still posing ideological and security threats to the region.

The chaotic and humiliating US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the dramatic comeback of the Taliban is a likely boost to Islamic radicalism in the Arab world and could increase dangers of  terrorist groups proliferated in ways unimagined in 2001.

The 11 September attacks gave the United States an opening for a crusade conducted through sheer power, arrogance and vengeance. The Arab region, apart from the rest of the world, will continue to experience this blowback from the US-led international war on terrorism well into the near future.

Published in Al Ahram Weekly, 9/92021

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