Osama bin Laden’s aim in launching coordinated attacks on 9/11 was to force the United States and other “infidel” countries to withdraw from Muslim-majority lands and thereby provide space for Islamist forces to organise to overthrow Western-backed dictatorships.
According to Nelly Lahoud, author of the forthcoming book The Bin Laden Papers, the al-Qaeda leader believed that his attack would provoke, in the US, waves of protest akin to the anti-Vietnam-War movement in the late 1960s. The population did rally—but largely in support of Republican President George W. Bush, whose Gallup Poll approval rating soared to 90 percent.
As if to prove not only the futility, but the counterproductivity, of terrorism in anti-imperialist struggle, bin Laden managed the opposite of his intentions—giving what had been until that time a minority current in the US establishment the pretext it needed to rehabilitate the idea of a muscular, interventionist US imperialism, and provoking a devastating, two-decade-long Western military onslaught in Afghanistan, the obliteration of Iraq and an offensive against Muslims across the rest of the world.
Five years before New York’s World Trade Center buildings were left a smouldering pile of rubble, William Kristol and Robert Kagan penned an article, “Toward a neo-Reaganite foreign policy”, for Foreign Affairs, the pre-eminent journal of the State Department crowd. The gist of the piece was that America had gone soft since the end of the Cold War, and conservatives needed to forge a new consensus about the virtues of, and launch a national mobilisation towards, a greatly expanded and interventionist military-industrial complex.
They and other like-minded thinkers soon founded a think tank, the Project for a New American Century. Before Bush took office in 2001, PNAC produced a blueprint for his cabinet, “Rebuilding America’s defenses: strategies, forces and resources for a new century”, outlining the steps required to secure US imperial domination. Among other things, the document called on the US to “fight and decisively win multiple, simultaneous major theater wars” and described military units deployed globally as “the cavalry on the new American frontier”. It insisted on a permanent presence in the Persian Gulf but suggested that the proposed transformations of the military and shifts in social attitudes would likely be glacial unless there were “some catastrophic and catalyzing event—like a new Pearl Harbor”.
In the days after 9/11, a catalysing event like no other in recent history, few major media outlets published serious analyses of what was unfolding in Washington. In general, the mood pushed in the opposite direction—those arguing that US imperialism posed an imminent threat to the world were vilified as terrorist sympathisers, while the Bush administration, with the full support of liberal Democrats, turned the tragedy of 9/11 into war, invading Afghanistan.
Congress passed the Patriot Act and intelligence agencies embarked on a mass surveillance operation that, in the words of the American Civil Liberties Union, “turns regular citizens into suspects”. Hundreds of Muslims were rounded up and arbitrarily detained and abused, mostly in New York. And a special facility at Guantánamo Bay, on US-occupied territory in Cuba, was established beyond the reach of the justice system to jail and torture others kidnapped overseas.
The post-9/11 period was as close as a country gets to a “total mobilisation”—mustering public sentiment, almost all media outlets, the entire political class and education system, from primary schools to universities, and recruiting and directing a huge array of national resources and human activity to the singular end of projecting imperial power.
Six months after the attacks, New Yorker staff writer Nicholas Lemann sat with US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to gauge the mood of the administration. Bin Laden’s assault had been “one of those great earthquakes that clarify and sharpen”, she told him, relating that she instructed the National Security Council and the administration’s senior staff to think about how to capitalise on the opportunities presented by the terrorist attacks. Comparing the situation to the period immediately after the Second World War, Rice noted that geopolitical plates were shifting globally. “It’s important to try to seize on that and position American interests and institutions and all of that before they harden again”, she said.
Afghanistan was but an opening shot in the more ambitious project outlined by Kristol, Kagan and their allies in the federal government. (Many signatories to PNAC’s statement of principles obtained positions in the Bush administration, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby.) So, in the January 2002 State of the Union address, Bush labelled Iran, Iraq and North Korea an “axis of evil”—even though none had been involved in the attacks on the US. Several months later, Undersecretary of State John Bolton added Syria, Libya and Cuba to the list.
The intention, if it were not already obvious, became clear with the invasion of Iraq in early 2003: the US was going to overthrow a series of governments and install client regimes as part of its efforts to secure the “new American century” of global dominance. The drums of war were beating across the political spectrum. Several months before the invasion, the New York Times magazine published an essay by liberal academic Michael Ignatieff titled “The American Empire; The Burden”.
“Those who want America to remain a republic rather than become an empire imagine rightly, but they have not factored in what tyranny or chaos can do to vital American interests”, he wrote. “The case for empire is that it has become, in a place like Iraq, the last hope for democracy and stability alike.”
But the White House underestimated what it would face in the Middle East, just as bin Laden and al-Qaeda had miscalculated the US response to their terror attacks in the US. Ferocious resistance to occupation grew in Iraq, bogging down the US military in an intractable conflict that, while destroying the country and resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths, put paid to any idea that Washington had the capacity to launch another major regime change war.
It wasn’t simply the death and destruction rained upon Iraq and Afghanistan that defined the political consensus forged after 9/11. The total mobilisation in the US, with the support of its allies, normalised military engagement as a permanent fixture of politics. It normalised extrajudicial murder. It normalised the idea of torture as a perhaps legitimate means of obtaining information, and of “extraordinary rendition”—kidnapping suspects and disappearing them across borders into secret prisons.
The permanent war abroad developed as its mirror image an extraordinary assault on domestic civil liberties. “In just one of many examples, from 2003-2006, the FBI issued more than 192,000 National Security Letters to get Americans’ business, phone or internet records without a warrant”, Trevor Timm noted in a 2012 article for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “These invasive letters—which come with a gag order on the recipient so they can’t even admit they received one—have been used to gather information about untold number of ordinary citizens, including journalists.”
The year after the terrorist attacks, the US government established the Department of Homeland Security, an umbrella office shrouded in secrecy, which became the main coordinating body of permanent war by the US government against its own citizens. Along with the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice, Homeland Security has, among other things, been integral for the redistribution to local police departments of military equipment used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many of the developments in the US have been replicated abroad in allied states. “Europe [after 2015] found itself taking measures so strict they would have been politically impossible just a few years earlier: closing mosques, deporting preachers, stripping people of their citizenship”, Thomas Hegghammer, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, writes in Foreign Affairs.
“It may not be obvious to the ordinary citizen just how powerful modern intelligence services have become ... All your Internet searches, emails, and cell phone calls are in principle accessible to the state ... Venture into a city, and you will be caught on surveillance cameras, perhaps ones armed with facial recognition software ... The computer allowed states to accumulate more information about their citizens, and the internet enabled faster sharing of that information across institutions and countries. Gadgets such as the credit card terminal and the smartphone allowed authorities to peer deeper and deeper into people’s lives.”
By 2019, the “war on terror” that followed 9/11 had cost $6.4 trillion, according to the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs. Instead of stability, the US created mass destabilisation, paving the way for the foundation of the Islamic State in northern Iraq and Syria. Instead of augmenting American power, the US government’s attempt at military projection exposed the limitations of its armed forces and heralded a crisis of US imperialism, which the country’s ruling elite to this day has not fully remedied.
Political leaders across the world followed the US in almost all respects, leaving a legacy of unchecked growth of states’ coercive powers; increasing the militarisation of national borders just as millions were being displaced by the Western invasions in the Middle East; and normalising bigotry against Arabs and Muslims, helping previously fringe far-right forces gain a toehold in the mainstream of debate and even challenge for office in some countries as politics more generally has been pushed to the right.
In all these ways and more, world politics has been fundamentally changed, not by Osama bin Laden, but by the people who, while claiming to be the enemies of terror, saw in the tragedy of 9/11 little more than an opportunity to reshape the world in the interests of Western imperialism. Their legacy of death and destruction puts into the shade the exploits of al-Qaeda.