September 11, 2001 brought the United States to its knees with the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history.
Soon afterward, part of the world saw a sharp contrast: there were the good guys and the bad guys. “Every nation, every region,” then President George W. Bush declared, nine days after the attacks, “now has a decision to make. You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.”
The so-called “war on terror” was declared. It has since led to the invasion of Afghanistan, then Iraq, the rise of the Islamic State and the proliferation of Iranian-backed militias across the Middle East, and the deaths of thousands of soldiers and civilians.
Terrorism has not been eliminated — several European countries have come under attack in recent years — but there have also been successes. So far, there has never been an attack approaching the scale of 9/11.
Al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan were destroyed, and its leaders were hunted down in Pakistan. The caliphate of the self-styled extremist group Islamic State, which had terrorized much of Syria and Iraq, has been dismantled.
But, after all, what lessons have been learned from the last 20 years of fighting terrorism around the world? What worked and what didn’t?
The list below is undoubtedly controversial and far from complete, but it may help us to understand if we became wiser than we were on the morning of 9/11.
1. Must share vital intelligence data
The clues were there, but no one connected the dots in time. In the months leading up to 9/11, the two main US intelligence agencies, the FBI and the CIA, were aware that there was some sort of conspiracy going on.
But such was the rivalry between domestic and foreign intelligence gathering that they kept what they knew to themselves. Since then, the US government has scrutinized the mistakes made, and important improvements have been made.
At the US National Counter-Terrorism Center, 17 agencies across the country now share their intelligence data on a daily basis. The UK has set up its own centre, where dozens of experts from various fields come together and carry out an ongoing assessment of the progress of the terrorist threat at home and abroad.
But the system is not perfect. Two years after the British center was created, al-Qaeda carried out the July 7 attacks in London, the British capital, and killed more than 50 people. A massive plan to bomb several planes in mid-flight was averted the following year with Pakistan’s help, but the UK still suffered several attacks in 2017, including the Manchester bombing.
The 2015 Bataclan attack in Paris, which killed 130 people, was in part the result of a failure by European authorities to share timely information across borders. Therefore, even good information gathering and sharing can fail to prevent attacks if wrong decisions are made.
2. Define the mission and don’t get distracted
Of all the many reasons Afghanistan has now returned to Taliban rule, one stands out: the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. That ill-fated decision became a major distraction from what was happening in Afghanistan.
Many American and British special forces that had been successfully hunting down al-Qaeda members and working with Afghan partners to keep Taliban insurgents at a disadvantage were diverted to Iraq. This allowed the Taleban and others to regroup and come back stronger.
It’s easy to forget that the original mission in Afghanistan was well defined and well executed. After Taliban rulers refused to hand over the perpetrators of 9/11, the United States joined with the Northern Alliance (Afghans who opposed the Taliban) to successfully expel the extremists.
But in the years that followed, the mission was diluted in several directions. Life improved during this period for most Afghans, but billions of dollars spent on “building a nation” were wasted on corruption.
The UK’s partnership with its closest ally, the United States, in the invasion of Iraq meant that the UK had less power over almost every key decision that followed during the occupation.
Urgent calls not to disperse the Iraqi army or ban all members of the Baath party (then Saddam Hussein’s party) from government posts were ignored or rejected. The result was a catastrophic alliance between disaffected and newly unemployed Iraqi military and intelligence officers with fanatical jihadists. This created the Islamic State.
The collective panic that followed 9/11 caused the US and UK intelligence services to end up cooperating with certain regimes with dire histories of human rights violations.
Today, violent jihadism is re-emerging in the ungoverned and ungoverned parts of Africa, which poses a problem with whom exactly the West should partner with.
4. Respect human rights or lose morale
Repeatedly, people in the Middle East said they might not like US foreign policy, but they respected it because the country was ruled by law. Even the Guantanamo prison scandal.
Arresting suspects “on the battlefield,” including innocent civilians, and taking them halfway around the world to a US detention center in Cuba has done untold damage to the reputation of the United States and the West as a whole. Detention without trial was something to be expected from autocratic countries, but not from the United States.
Worse was to come, with revelations of interrogation abuses, such as drowning and other ill-treatment, in secret CIA locations where terror suspects had simply disappeared. US President Barack Obama ended it, but the damage was already done.
5. Have an exit plan
The Western interventions that preceded 9/11 were relatively quick and simple. But the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and later Iraq resulted in what has been called “the eternal wars.”
Nobody imagined in 2001 or 2003 that they would still be ongoing two decades later. Simply put, the West did not understand what it was getting into and had no exit plan.
There is no doubt that if the West had not driven the Taliban and al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan in 2001, more attacks would have taken place. The counterterrorism mission in that country was not a failure, but the nation-building one was.
And today, the only lasting image most people will retain is that of desperate Afghans trying to escape a country the West has abandoned.
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