The attacks that took place on 11 September 2001 in the United States were horrific atrocities that left at least 3 000 civilians from 90 countries, as well as many emergency workers dead. Even two decades later, bodies are still being identified.
Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is said to have based the idea to attack the World Trade Center in New York on the Israeli military bombardment of high-rise buildings in Lebanon during the 1982 war. The US attacks, which came to be known as 9/11, were preceded by truck bombings in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 in which more than 200 people were killed. Before deciding to target the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, Al-Qaeda had contemplated targeting nuclear power plants.
In a video released in 2004, Bin Laden claimed that the attacks were reprisals for US foreign policy in the Middle East, such as the sanctions that led to the premature deaths of vast numbers of civilians in Iraq and US support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine. But the 9/11 attacks were themselves a grotesque act of collective punishment as officer workers and maintenance staff were killed for the often clandestine actions of the US security state.
A small group of highly motivated extremists delivered a shocking blow to a country with the most powerful military apparatus on Earth. This kind of conflict between unevenly matched opponents is often described as “asymmetric warfare”.
Throughout the 20th century, both political organisations and criminal cartels used asymmetric tactics in battle against more powerful states. In the 1980s, Pablo Escobar unleashed a terror campaign on Colombia through the Medellín Cartel, a criminal drug organisation that planted bombs on passenger airplanes and used a truck bomb to level a government building in the capital, Bogotá.
Al-Qaeda took this tactical approach to a nightmarish extreme, using passenger airliners full of civilians as hugely destructive fuel bombs. Its operations inspired abject terror as millions throughout the world watched live on television as United Airlines Flight 175 smashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, instantly incinerating hundreds of people trapped inside. Political and corporate elites were quick to capitalise on the visceral anxiety inspired by the spectacular acts of carnage.
On 16 September, as the flames still smouldered in the wreckage, then-president George W Bush announced a new global “War on Terror”, a conflict that was defined as being geographically unlimited in scope.
Bush, vice-president Dick Cheney and secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld framed this as a struggle between good and evil, a war for freedom and security. In practice, however, they were motivated by cynical opportunism. The aftermath of 9/11 was seen as a chance to assert American hegemony in the Middle East in order to control the world’s oil supply and open new markets for US corporations.
Twenty years later, the resulting wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond have left almost one million dead and squandered trillions of dollars on endless conflicts. Far from increasing freedom and safety, it has reduced civil liberties, fuelled authoritarian governance and militarised everyday life.
The sense of fear that the attacks provoked was used to push draconian “anti-terror” legislation. The US engaged in illegal detentions, torture and the disappearance of suspects into Central Intelligence Agency “black sites”. In turn, this encouraged state abuses in allied countries. In Thailand, the location of the first black site, the security forces adopted tactics such as waterboarding (a form of simulated drowning) to quell domestic dissent.
In South Africa, the government used 9/11 as a pretext to introduce a wave of anti-terror laws, such as the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-related Information Act, which handed a raft of increased powers to the intelligence services. (Earlier this year, the Constitutional Court ruled that certain provisions of the act were unlawful.)
Port cities such as Durban were also forced to accept draconian security measures in order to continue trading with the US. These onerous new laws restricted public access to the formerly open city harbour.
The war bonanza
The War on Terror was a lucrative opportunity for corporate interests to sell “security” to a scared public. The war zones of the Middle East became a bonanza for private military companies, which hired former security personal from repressive regimes such as apartheid South Africa and Augusto Pinochet’s dictorship in Chile. Infamous companies like US private military contractor Blackwater were regularly implicated in human rights abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan, among others.
It also fuelled a rise in new forms of killing, seen in the increased use of automated drones, as a recent attack that killed seven children attests. These hunting machines have become increasingly deadly – according to reports from Libya this year, there are now drones that can act autonomously, without human control.
The attacks also led to increased paranoia around security in cities and suburbs across the world. From intensified airport security regimes to the fortification of buildings, the world after 9/11 saw a drastic militarisation of everyday life.
This fused with an existing “war on crime”, aimed at defending sites and spaces against an “outside deemed unruly … and dangerous”. In particular, it intensified the militarisation of domestic policing, with tools and techniques originally developed for conflict zones being deployed against impoverished people and political protesters.
The creeping securitisation extended to the online space. As revealed by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency in the US collaborated with Silicon Valley tech companies such as Google to gather information clandestinely and on a mass scale. This has normalised a dystopian situation in which private interests own and share the personal information of millions of people.
Conspiracies and paranoia
In the paranoid world post 9/11, governments implemented new border security regimes while darkly warning of “enemies within” and “terrorist sleeper cells”. This resulted in growing Islamophobia and heightened xenophobic behaviour targeting migrants in general.
The image of Muslims as a demonic menace became a central mythology of a new, populist far right in the US and Europe. Demagogues such as Donald Trump capitalised on this, whipping their supporters into hysteria about the forced implementation of Islamic Sharia law and other conspiracy theories.
Migrants from conflict zones have become increasingly demonised as “security threats”. The Brexit movement in the United Kingdom used fearmongering about the “uncontrolled influx” of Syrian refugees to swing votes in 2016, and Afghan migrants now fleeing from the Taliban are meeting a hostile reception from many governments across the world owing to sentiments like these.
The War on Terror has been of great benefit to the powerful and unscrupulous. The government spent trillions of dollars creating profit for arms dealers and other death-based industries. But for the global majority, it has made daily life both more unstable and less democratic. Instead of responding to the real existential challenges of our time, such as catastrophic climate collapse and the spread of pandemics, governments have squandered resources on bombs, drones and border walls.
From increasingly fragmented urban spaces to hellish refugee detention centres, the dictates of “security” have had a chilling impact on civil liberties and public life. The endless war that began in 2001 has only fuelled racism, abuse of power and a growing political climate of authoritarianism and fear.