Above: Names of victims of the 9/11 attacks displayed at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City.
The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were a tragically defining moment for the United States. In the two decades since that dark day, America and the world have struggled to make sense of the senselessness and to find an international solution in the Middle East that ensures the United States’ safety moving forward.
Daniel Brown, visiting assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, has spent his academic career studying the comparative politics and international relations of the Middle East, specializing in contentious politics (protests, coups, revolutions) and the dynamics between states and society in the Middle East. He’s spent time doing field research in Jordan and Lebanon, conducting interviews with activists, professors, lawyers and workers with nongovernmental organizations, among others. He has also extensively studied international law in certain aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 on the horizon, The College Today asked Brown to reflect on the impact of the attacks both at home and abroad, where that has led us and how we and the international community move forward today on the heels of the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.
What were the international conditions that led Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda to plan and carry out the 9/11 attacks?
In terms of overall structural elements in the international system, it’s important to remember, contextually, that in 2000 and 2001 the world was only about a decade out from the end of the Cold War with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Intelligence professionals in the U.S. realized quite quickly that, after the USSR collapse, the world was not simply returned to the U.S. as the sole remaining superpower, but that we found that new and different threats had emerged, including transnational terrorism by non-state actors.
The attacks on 9/11 were ultimately only the midpoint of a larger process. The U.S. had known of and intercepted chatter from and about this new group calling itself al-Qa’ida (meaning “the Base” in Arabic, written as Al Qaeda in most English translations). We know that it was brought to the attention of the White House at least as early as the late-Clinton era because the administration used cruise missiles to attack what was supposedly a training camp/chemical weapon manufacturing facility (known as the al-Shifa factory) run by al-Qai’da in Sudan.
For al-Qa’ida, the al-Shifa factory bombing was a good image to add to the rhetoric that the U.S. was behaving like an imperial power. This was added to the existing grievances that al-Qa’ida said motivated all their attacks on the U.S. and Western targets from 9/11 and beyond, including stationing troops in Saudi Arabia during and after the first Gulf War (1990-91) and the wider grievance against the Israeli occupation of Palestinians and Palestinian land.
Were there domestic factors that left the United States vulnerable to such an attack at the time?
One notable domestic factor that has received quite a bit of attention over the years was the compartmentalization of intelligence across different intelligence agencies in the U.S.
The CIA and FBI, for example, could have complementary intelligence on a planned attack, but because of turf protection, funding and bureaucratic/administrative arrangements, they wouldn’t or couldn’t cooperate with each other to respond to threats.
This is not at all to say that 9/11 occurred because of U.S. ineptitude or something of the sort. And again, context and history matter here in the sense that the Cold War was over, but the world had not yet shifted entirely to confront the new international landscape.
The attacks on 9/11 were also entirely unique in terms of a tactic. Though it seems relatively simple compared to a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device or a human-delivered bomb, the 9/11 attacks were financially and logistically quite unique and complicated. That’s one reason, besides increased diligence and safety/security protocols globally, that we thankfully haven’t seen a repeat or copycat attack of the type and scale of the Sept. 11 attacks since.
What were the immediate domestic and international impacts caused by the 9/11 attacks?
The immediate impact, beyond the unimaginable grief experienced by the loved ones of those killed in the planes, twin towers and the Pentagon, was widespread uncertainty and fear.
I grew up in Oklahoma during the Alfred P. Murrah bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995. I mention that because the responses in terms of information and rumors were similar after 9/11. There were whispers of another attack coming. Speculation about not only who would have done this, but who could have done this. In the days and weeks after 9/11 there was a great deal of information that was just lacking in terms of what the public was told. We were groping in the dark for answers and direction.
Internationally it was the same. Borders closed, heightened police/security presence at airports and other “soft targets” (i.e., important locations that are not normally actively protected 24/7, much less hardened as “mainstream” military targets would be in a normal war).
There was also an enormous outpouring of sympathy for the U.S. and especially for those killed in the attacks. It’s often forgotten or overshadowed that it was not only our allies who expressed sympathy, but erstwhile opponents and much of the public and government sources in the Middle East.
Understandably and predictably, after 9/11 there was a large rally-round-the-flag effect in America. Patriotism and nationalism were practically commodified. Many Americans chose to outwardly and publicly express support and patriotism in the wake of the attacks.
Finally, it’s crucial to remember how many persons of color, especially Muslims (or even people mistaken for Muslims such as practitioners of the Hindu and Sikh faiths) felt the backlash across the U.S. and across the world in the aftermath of 9/11.
At the time, President George W. Bush said, “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” How did that ideology play out in the United States’ response to 9/11?
The most immediate policy effect was the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). Passed by Congress on Sept. 14, 2001, and signed by President George W. Bush on Sept. 18, 2001, this exceedingly broad legislation consisted of about a paragraph that gave the president, as commander in chief, the authority to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons.”
Much ink has been spilled by experts and scholars on how this changed the powers of the U.S. presidency and the intelligence agencies. It is remarkably broad and brief as legislation goes, both in its breadth and lack of specificity.
The most obvious consequence of this legislation was the emergence of what has since been called “Forever Wars.” The reality is that the AUMF was brief and vague because authorities were still grappling with information about who was responsible.
But this same vagueness perhaps intentionally left wide open which states and which organizations could be targeted as responsible, and even more open in terms of states, organizations and persons who aided and abetted Bin Laden and al-Qa’ida in planning and carrying out the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
This connected Afghanistan and the Taliban with the attacks, but it also opened the way for erroneous beliefs that Iraq and Saddam Hussein were somehow connected to the attacks. Ironically, in a similar way to Bin Laden stretching to connect the U.S. presence in the Arabian peninsula to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians in terms of injustice, the George W. Bush administration stretched to connect Saddam Hussein’s past financial support for families of Palestinian militants and suicide bombers to support for al-Qa’ida and the atrocities perpetrated by Bin Laden and al-Qa’ida.
What is the connection between Al Qaeda and the Taliban?
The connection technically begins with the Cold War and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Cold War was a “cold” conflict because it never featured open military conflict between the major players, the U.S. and USSR. That doesn’t mean it was entirely without conflict, as each side funded and supplied proxy states and proxy organizations to fight the other’s proxy states and organizations. The Soviets funded, armed and trained the North Vietnamese forces against the U.S. and the Republic of Vietnam just as the U.S. funded, armed and trained the mujihadeen (“fighters”) forces in Afghanistan against the Soviets. Bin Laden, along with many others from countries surrounding Afghanistan and around the wider Middle East, was among those mujihadeen.
Once the Communist-led regime in Afghanistan was destabilized, the Afghan state was weakened. The departure of the Soviet forces after years of war left a political and social power vacuum that the Islamist groupings later known as the Taliban moved to fill.
Bin Laden and the nascent al-Qa’ida organization moved from Sudan to Afghanistan, because Bin Laden had ties and experience there and, because his Saudi Arabian citizenship had been revoked, he was essentially stateless.
The Taliban, as defined by the AUMF, harbored and aided Bin Laden and al-Qa’ida in training and planning for various terror attacks, including 9/11, at the very least by providing time and haven in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. That said, the Taliban is not synonymous with al-Qa’ida. The Bush administration reportedly gave the Taliban chances to turn over Bin Laden and avoid a full invasion, but the Taliban declined.
At the time, the Taliban were removed from power very quickly, but the U.S. remained in Afghanistan for two decades. What were the political, international and cultural issues that made the United States’ long-term mission in Afghanistan ineffective?
I’m speaking in generalities here, but Afghanistan has always been difficult for anyone to fight in and effectively control. The purported failure of the overall mission in Afghanistan (to stabilize and politically codify a more free and capable government in Afghanistan) is a result of several simultaneous factors:
- The terrain is very difficult to fight in. Afghanistan is very mountainous and dense rocky terrain. Terrain alone might be difficult, but can eventually be overcome by specialized troops and training.
- Unfortunately, this is also a similarity of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars: The U.S. and coalition forces did not prepare for the necessities of state building and nation building.
- What is substantially more difficult for any military is winning the “hearts and minds” of the people. This was a guerrilla war. It was not – at least on sum – a war between two equally matched and equipped and tactically/strategically similar militaries. This was, not unlike Vietnam, a very powerful and capable military able to effectively and quickly project coercive force anywhere in the world in hours, versus comparably small, decentralized, but highly mobile units of fighters that blend in (physically, culturally and linguistically, even if not ideologically) with the very people that live in the battlefield. It’s very difficult to gain the support of the Afghan people when they are constantly under threat (real or, perhaps more powerfully, imaginary) from such an enemy.
- Both Afghanistan and Iraq are ethnic mosaics. Even with the intention to rebuild a society, these are not homogenous societies that would be easily patched together.
- An immediate consequence that I think we and our allies were reluctant to accept, at least to admit publicly for a long time, was that we discovered just how porous the borders were between Afghanistan and surrounding states, especially Pakistan. If it were not for this weakness of the Afghan state and the openness of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Bin Laden would not have escaped and dug in in Pakistan.
In terms of the end stages of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, there are several different variables and “moving parts” that ultimately led to the outcome we see today.
Despite efforts to shift tactics and techniques to destroy the Taliban and pacify Afghanistan, there was ultimately not a commensurate state-building campaign that ever fully worked. The Afghan government, even under Hamid Karzai, was later renowned for its corruption, among other things. And when we add a corrupt and ineffectual government to a destabilized, traumatized, mistrustful country, it’s hardly going to bear the desired fruit of a stable and effective democratic state. This would be the case even if Afghanistan hadn’t been a weak state with porous borders and poor infrastructure.
Twenty years later, what is the legacy of 9/11 and how does that traumatic moment in history continue to shape the United States’ international relationships and policy with countries in the Middle East?
That’s definitely the most difficult question to wrestle with. But it behooves all of us to debrief and understand what happened in the years leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, and the ensuing 20 years.
In many ways, 9/11 and the conflicts it sparked were a glimpse into a new post-Cold War reality. Economic and political forces were supposed to have leveled the playing field globally. The Iron Curtain of the Cold War had fallen just as the Berlin Wall had fallen. 9/11 was a very tragic and costly wake-up call.
I think in the final analysis, many in the West genuinely believed in the mission of the War on Terror and the responsibility of the U.S., as a world power, in ferreting out groups like al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State. But this process resulted in the shattering of a naiveté in the U.S.: that every war was tidy, quick, efficient and limited and that allies were always allies and enemies were inexorably enemies.
I don’t know what the Middle East, much less the world, would look and feel like in an alternate reality where 9/11 didn’t happen. It tragically happened, it influenced and catalyzed other tragic and traumatic events, and we have to learn from that painful process. But just like an individual struggling to learn from painful lessons, if we refuse to confront and process these realities and painful lessons, we’ll ultimately lose whatever insight we could have gained from a critical self-reflection.
But I am hopeful. From conversations I have with students, they are willing to engage in the painful self-reflection about what went wrong and how the world has changed. In Afghanistan, though it’s difficult to watch the Taliban stroll back into government in Kabul, I think the people of Afghanistan are also less willing to simply allow the Taliban to behave with the brutality they did before. I hope that translates into a less brutal and less corrupt Taliban or Taliban-led government. Or maybe the Taliban find an Afghan public that is more critical of the Taliban’s actions and governance.