Selected analysis from the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks

Sep 17, 2021 | AIJAC staff

The 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001 occasioned many reflections on not only what happened on that day, but also what has happened since and where the world can go from here. (Photo: Flickr | Creator: Picasa 2.0)
The 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001 occasioned many reflections on not only what happened on that day, but also what has happened since and where the world can go from here. (Photo: Flickr | Creator: Picasa 2.0)

Update from AIJAC


09/21 #02

The twentieth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon last Saturday saw the publication of vast numbers of commentaries, analyses, retrospectives and thought-pieces. Below, we have selected three which we thought were both particularly insightful and discuss the present situation vis a vis Islamist extremist terrorism, as well as the past – especially in the wake of the reconquest of Afghanistan by the Taliban.

We lead with a speech by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now head of a foreign policy think tank. He notes that nothing over the last twenty years changes his analysis from 2001 that radical Islamist ideology is a first-order security threat operating across numerous arenas, which must be countered in numerous ways, using both hard and soft power. He suggests a middle path for doing so between “nation-building”, which did not succeed in Afghanistan, and merely reactive counter-terrorism, which he insists will not work. He also takes on those who insist liberal democracy can never take root beyond Western societies. For Blair’s very well-written and considered thoughts,  CLICK HERE.

Next up is American columnist and strategic thinker Max Boot, who takes on those who insist the “war on terror” since Sept. 11 has been a complete failure, noting that it accomplished its main aim – to prevent another attack similar to 9/11 on the US homeland.  He admits there were serious mistakes made, condemning especially the Iraq invasion and abuses of detainees, but notes that  Al-Qaeda fully intended further similar attacks, and also to use weapons of mass destruction, but was prevented from doing so. He notes the irony that it is precisely because of the success of these efforts that it is often hard to convince people that the war on terror worked, because people do not pay attention to disasters that did not occur. For his complete argument,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, American academic and former official Michael Rubin asks, could another attack similar to Sept. 11 happen today? His answer is an unequivocal yes, noting that the next attack will likely be substantively different in form than 9/11, and that bureaucracies are notoriously bad at thinking outside the box to anticipate new threats. He also points out that the renewal of terrorist safe-havens like Afghanistan, with limited intelligence access, increases the threat exponentially. For his full discussion, including some thoughts on some possible forms the next major attack could take,  CLICK HERE.

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Tony Blair: Speech at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI)

Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, Posted on: 6th September 2021

Tony Blair, Britain’s Prime Minister in Sept. 2001: Jihadism is “a global challenge which is getting worse.” (Photo: Tony Blair Institute for Global Change). 


The context for this speech – originally a reflection on the 20 years since 9/11 – has dramatically changed as a result of the events of the past 20 days.

I will not repeat what I have said about the fact and manner of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

I will focus instead on the policy issues raised by it.

The Taliban is part of the global movement of radical Islam. The movement contains many different groups, but they share the same basic ideology.

In simple terms, this holds that there is only one true faith, only one true view of that faith, and that society, politics and culture should be governed only by that view.

Radical Islam believes not only in Islamism – the turning of the religion into a political doctrine – but in the justification of struggle, if necessary armed struggle, to achieve it.

Other Islamists agree with the ends but eschew violence.

But the ideology is in inevitable conflict with open, modern, culturally tolerant societies.

Nearly everything about 9/11 and its aftermath, particularly now, is mired in controversy.

What cannot be seriously disputed, however, is that since 9/11, though thankfully there has been no further terrorist attack of that scale, radical Islam has not declined in force. What is disputed is why.

Is radical Islam a coherent ideology which represents a first-order threat to our security? Or are we facing, despite some common themes, a series of disconnected security challenges, each of which require handling on its own terms based on local circumstances? Is Islamism a problem, or only its manifestation in violent extremism? Is it akin to Revolutionary Communism and must be countered by a combination of security and ideological measures over the long term; or is that to overstate it, overestimate it and thus perversely, as some would argue by the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, to elevate its appeal rather than diminish it?

This is a fundamental strategic question. And it needs a clear answer.

In my view, Islamism, both the ideology and the violence, is a first-order security threat; and, unchecked, it will come to us, even if centred far from us, as 9/11 demonstrated.

The analysis published recently by Dr El-Badawy from my Institute shows how the roots of Islamism stretch back over many decades and grew in strength long before 9/11, and examines the links between the ideology and the violence. This is supplemented by the excellent analysis of the ulema-state concept by Professor Ahmet Kuru and by the annual report we publish of jihadist groups, which shows that this is a global challenge which is getting worse.

This ideology – whether Shia, promulgated by the Islamic Republic of Iran, or Sunni, promoted by groups on a spectrum from the Muslim Brotherhood through to al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram and many others – has been the principal cause of destabilisation across the Middle East and beyond, and today in Africa.

Like Revolutionary Communism, it operates in many different arenas and dimensions; and like it, its defeat will come ultimately through confronting both the violence and the ideology with a combination of hard and soft power.

If this is a correct analysis, then especially after the fall of Afghanistan, the leading powers must unite to develop an agreed strategy. Even if initial discussions centre around Western nations, China and Russia also have an interest in countering this ideology; and our best allies are to be found in the many Muslim countries, including in the Middle East, desperate to retake their religion from extremism.

We need also to assess our vulnerability.

Covid 19 has taught us about deadly pathogens. Bio-terror possibilities may seem like the realm of science fiction; but we would be wise now to prepare for their potential use by non-state actors.

If this analysis is rejected, the alternative is, in effect, to say it is a second-order problem; where we are directly threatened, we retaliate through counter-terrorism measures – drone strikes, surveillance, Special Forces. But otherwise we leave alone.

If this is where policy is heading, it too has limitations.

We need to work out what we mean by not “remaking” countries from which terrorist threats can arise. I understand it means that we do not attempt what we tried in Afghanistan. Though one thing should be understood. Our “remaking” didn’t fail because the people didn’t want the country “remade”. For sure, we could have “remade” better, but Afghans did not choose the Taliban takeover. The last opinion poll in 2019 showed them with 4 per cent support amongst the Afghan people. They conquered the country by violence not persuasion. The barrier to “nation-building” is usually not the people, but poor institutional capacity and governance, including corruption, over many years – and, most of all, the challenge of trying to build while internal elements combined with external support are trying to destroy.

But counter-terrorism measures on their own won’t remove an entrenched threat.

We could seek a middle course. For example, in the Sahel, we could adopt a strategy of assisting countries with security but also supporting the governments’ own attempts to develop their nations, because poverty and under-development undoubtedly facilitate the extremists. In a way, this is what we did in Afghanistan post-2014 when NATO’s mission went to “train, advise and assist”.

Efforts at countering violent Islamist extremism in Africa’s Sahel region may be a “middle ground” model we can pursue,  between “nation-building” and narrow “counter-terrorism”, neither of which is likely to work. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons | License details)

But even here, this will encompass more than conventional counter-terrorism. We need some “boots on the ground”. Naturally our preference is for the boots to be local. But that will not always be possible.

Western societies and their political leaders have become, quite understandably, deeply averse to casualties amongst our armed forces. This is not a problem of the armed forces themselves, who are brave and extraordinary people. But it is now an overwhelming political constraint to any commitment to Western boots on the ground, except for Special Forces.

Yet the problem this gives rise to is obvious: if the enemy we’re fighting knows that the more casualties they inflict, the more our political will to fight erodes, then the incentive structure is plain.

There is an additional challenge for Europe and NATO. It is clear now – if it wasn’t before – that America has decided that for the foreseeable future it has a very limited appetite for military engagement. After Kosovo, I initiated European Defence with France. I did this precisely because I realised that without the USA, and President Clinton’s commitment, we could never have resolved the crisis. And today the Balkans, relative to its history, can aspire to a peaceful future hopefully within Europe. Yet the crisis was on Europe’s doorstep not America’s.

Europe faces the immediate challenge from the destabilisation of the Sahel. Europe is already facing the fallout from Libya, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. And for these purposes Britain is part of Europe, like it or not.

How do Europe and NATO develop the capability to act when America is unwilling?

Answering these questions, or at least confronting them, would also reinvigorate Western policymakers capacity to think strategically. For me, one of the most alarming developments of recent times has been the sense the West lacks the capacity to formulate strategy. That its short-term political imperatives have squeezed the space for long-term thinking.

It is this sense more than anything else which gives our allies anxiety and our opponents a belief our time is over.

Finally, one of the most depressing things I have heard regularly articulated over the past weeks is the idea that we are foolish in believing that Western notions of liberal democracy and freedom are exportable, or will ever take root except in the somewhat decadent terrain of Western society.

Maybe my generation of leaders were naïve in thinking countries could be “remade”. Or maybe the “remaking” needed to last longer. But we should never forget, as we see the women of Afghanistan in the media, culture and civic society now flee in fear of their lives, that our values are still those that free people choose. Recovering confidence in our values and in their universal application is a necessary part of ensuring we stand up for them and are prepared to defend them.

Tony Blair is a former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Executive Chairman of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

The war on terrorism succeeded

Max Boot
Washington Post, September 13, 2021 at 8:00 a.m. EDT

Twenty years later, there hasn’t been another attack comparable to 9/11. This has been a great counter-terrorism success – but few seem willing to acknowledge, much less celebrate, this achievement (Photo: Flickr | License details Creator: PH2 JIM WATSON, USN)

Twenty years after the worst terrorist attack in history, there hasn’t been “another 9/11.” By one count, 107 people have been killed in jihadist attacks in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, and nearly half of those were in one attack — the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting. Any deaths are tragic, but more Americans are dying of covid-19 every two hours than died of Islamist terrorism in the United States during the past 20 years.

You would think this counterterrorism success would be celebrated. Instead, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the “global war on terror” — as it was once called — is widely reviled. Most of the chatter today is, as my Post colleague Ishaan Tharoor noted, about the “dark legacy of U.S. counterterrorism” and “American imperial hubris and overreach.” An Atlantic article argues: “After 9/11, the U.S. got almost everything wrong.” The Nation’s cover story proclaims: “20 years of bloodshed and delusion.”

No one can deny the appalling mistakes and horrifying abuses committed in the name of fighting terrorism. The whole invasion of Iraq was a terrible blunder — and it gave rise to a new terrorist group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of the Islamic State. The invasion of Afghanistan was unavoidable once the Taliban refused to hand over al-Qaeda leaders, but the war was marred by numerous wrong turns. The use of torture was an abomination that stained America’s legacy and helped our enemies.

But most of the excesses of the war on terrorism were curbed during President George W. Bush’s second term and President Barack Obama’s first. What was left was a more modest and humane counterterrorism policy — designed to reduce, not eliminate, the threat — that commanded bipartisan support.

The crux of that effort has been improving domestic security and intelligence collection and sharing. New America, a Washington-based think tank, notes that on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. no-fly list contained only 16 names. By 2016, the list had expanded to 81,000 people. Before 9/11, there was no Department of Homeland Security, no Transportation Security Administration, no National Counterterrorism Center. Now those agencies keep us safe.

All of the drone strikes conducted by the U.S. military and CIA in ungoverned territory — in Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Pakistan — have been more ambiguous in their impact. New America estimates that over the past 20 years, the United States has carried out 1,604 drone strikes in those countries, killing roughly 4,727 to 6,601 combatants and 405 to 594 civilians. Undoubtedly those attacks have created fresh enemies, but they also disrupted terrorist plots — which is why four presidents of both parties have continued the strikes.

It’s hard to convince people that the war on terrorism has been successful precisely because it has largely achieved its objectives. We pay attention to the disasters that occurred — especially the tragic loss of more than 7,000 U.S. troops — while taking for granted the disasters that didn’t occur.

It’s salutary, therefore, to remember how many terrorist plots were foiled over the past two decades. New America reports that 471 people have been charged with offenses related to jihadist terrorism in the United States since 9/11, while another 39 died prior to being charged but were widely reported to have engaged in such activity.

The reason there wasn’t another 9/11 wasn’t because al-Qaeda decided to stop attacking us. It was because it lost the ability to do so. In Foreign Affairs, terrorism researcher Nelly Lahoud writes that, in 2004, Osama bin Laden outlined plans for “martyrdom operations akin to the 9/11 New York attack.” His subordinates had to tell him that, as Lahoud writes, “al Qaeda had been crippled, and such operations were out of the question.”

By that point, several al-Qaeda attempts to repeat the “planes operation” had already gone awry, including a plan to fly a hijacked airplane into the tallest building in Los Angeles. Yet al-Qaeda has never given up its ambition to use aircraft as weapons of mass destruction. Less than a year ago, the Justice Department indicted a Kenyan affiliated with al-Shabab, al-Qaeda’s Somalia affiliate, of “conspiring to hijack aircraft in order to conduct a 9/11-style attack in the United States.” He was arrested in the Philippines while in pilot training.

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden insisted there was a religious duty to obtain weapons of mass destruction – and his terror group actively sought fissile material. (Photo:  Wikimedia Commons | License details

Al-Qaeda had even more terrifying ambitions to acquire actual weapons of mass destruction — something that Osama bin Laden called a “religious duty.” The group tried to get its hands on fissile material and established close links with renegade Pakistani nuclear scientists. Its goal was to kill 4 million Americans.

There are multiple explanations for why so many Islamist plots were foiled, including overly grandiose ambitions and mistakes in execution. For example, Richard Reid tried and failed to set off shoe bombs on a flight from Paris to Miami in 2001, and Faisal Shahzad tried and failed to set off a car bomb in Times Square in 2010. But New America concluded: “The limited threat to the United States is in large part the result of the enormous investment the country has made in strengthening its defenses against terrorism in the post-9/11 era.”

If it hadn’t been for the war on terror, there likely would have been many more victims of Islamist terrorism in the United States. That is a lesson we are at risk of forgetting — to our great potential cost — if we write off the whole 20-year effort as a costly debacle. While right-wing terrorism has surged in recent years, Islamist terrorism has hardly disappeared — and could be turbocharged by the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. We need to keep our guard up.

Max Boot is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.

Where Will The Next 9/11 Come From?

By Michael Rubin

19fortyfive.com, Sept. 13, 2021

The 9/11 Commission found that there were ample warnings of a potential major al-Qaeda attack before Sept. 11, 2001, but they were not recognised or were ignored. Are we any better equipped to pick up such warnings today?

There were no shortage of warning signs that Al Qaeda might try something spectacular in the months and years before the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, although many of these—now chronicled in the 9/11 Commission Report—became apparent only in hindsight. That Al Qaeda enjoyed an Afghanistan safe-haven in which Al Qaeda leader Usama Bin Laden could plot and the hijackers could train, however, helped make Al Qaeda’s operation possible.

Successive U.S. administrations cited the failure of Al Qaeda to repeat any similar attack on the American homeland to argue that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan had succeeded. President Joe Biden argued, in order to justify American withdrawal, that America had accomplished its post-9/11 mission. “We delivered justice to bin Laden on May 2nd, 2011 — over a decade ago.  Al Qaeda was decimated,” Biden explained. “We succeeded in what we set out to do in Afghanistan over a decade ago.” Biden, however, did acknowledge continuing risk. “The terror threat has metastasized across the world, well beyond Afghanistan. We face threats from al-Shabaab in Somalia; al Qaeda affiliates in Syria and the Arabian Peninsula; and ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and establishing affiliates across Africa and Asia.”

Twenty years later, could any of these or other groups stage a new 9/11? The answer, unfortunately, is yes. First, if there is another attack, it will be unprecedented rather than a repeat of the past. Bureaucracies are bad at thinking out-of-the-box. While the United States is adept at preventing the last terrorist attack, it remains ill-prepared to face the next one. The United States has been warned: Al Shabaab terrorists, for example, attacked a shopping mall in Kenya killing 67, and later stormed a university, slaughtering 147. Few shopping malls in the United States, meanwhile, have any effective security, and universities are permissive. It is likely only a matter of time before terrorists strike at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, knowing that they can win international headlines by holding the children of America’s elite hostage.

Then there are non-conventional attacks. America’s critical infrastructure remains vulnerable to cyberattacks that could wreak havoc with the country’s water systems and electrical grid. As Americans become more dependent on technology and just-in-time delivery, the impacts on availability of food and medicine could become severe within just a day or two.

The renewal of a terrorist safe-haven in Afghanistan increases the threat exponentially. The reason why so many American policymakers remain blind to the danger is a fundamental misunderstanding of terrorism. Too many officials—especially within the State Department—see grievance as motivating terrorism, be it occupation or some other sleight. This can be comforting to officials since they might then change policy to resolve the grievance. They ignore the motivating factor of ideology, though, which can be impossible to rectify. Both Trump and Biden, for example, misread the fight against the Taliban as rooted in the group’s antipathy toward U.S. presence; they do not realize that the Taliban and the terrorist groups with which they associate view Western culture as the problem and will not hesitate to strike out at Americans in fulfillment of their ideological endgame.

Certainly, the next 9/11 might originate in Afghanistan. For all Biden and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s talk about over-the-horizon capabilities, the end of the U.S. presence will change the flow of intelligence from Afghanistan to a trickle; eventually, it will dry up entirely.

Boots on the ground provide intelligence which is hard to replace – as Afghanistan reverts to being a terrorist safe-haven. (Photo: CPL Sam Shepherd, Copyright: Crown Copyright 2011, NZ Defence Force – Some Rights Reserved.)

The Sahel, however, is another candidate. With the exception of Morocco’s Saharan provinces and the unrecognized state of Somaliland, there is no stable and secure Sahelian state from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Aden. New risk spots now also emerge in central and southern Africa, although countries like Rwanda seek to fill the vacuum to prevent countries like the Central African Republic to fail and the Islamic State to triumph in Mozambique.

Most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi. This created a counterterrorism blind spot for two reasons: Saudi Arabia was an ally and so officials were loathe doing anything that might undermine relations and because Saudi authorities’ diplomatic immunity could stymie investigators.  After Saudi Arabia faced its own Al Qaeda blowback, it grew to take the radicalization threat more seriously. Unfortunately, today, both Pakistan and Turkey fill the role Saudi Arabia once did. Both countries enjoy unofficial lobbies among former diplomats who run interference for their interests and prevent punitive action based on Pakistan and Turkey’s behaviour. Both might also use the diplomatic immunity their diplomats and consular officials enjoy to support and supply U.S.-based radicals.

Of course, the perpetrators of the next 9/11 might not be foreign. Polarization is at a general high in the United States. While right-wing anti-government radical like Timothy McVeigh have already struck at American targets, leftwing terrorists are perhaps an even greater threat for a simple reason: Press and bureaucratic attention on the former because of Trump derangement syndrome takes the focus from those motivated by leftist or environmental causes. Indeed, the latter may motivate those prone to the greatest destruction. What better way to reduce America’s carbon footprint than striking a death blow to America or its economy?

Could another 9/11 happen? It is a certainty. When vacuums exist, forces of altruism do not fill them. Potential safe-haven now grow. From which group might the next attack come? Here, there are no shortage of suspects. Bin Laden created a bar that every new group strives to surpass. Unfortunately, America’s own domestic distractions and the shredding of any national consensus only makes the jobs of tomorrow’s terrorists easier.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East. He also regularly teaches classes at sea about Middle East conflicts, culture, terrorism, and the Horn of Africa to deployed US Navy and Marine units.


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