We still struggle to explain why al-Qaeda did what it did
We have all inhabited a fractured world for the 20 years which have gone by since the Twin Towers in New York were brought down by terrorists. It is a shame, a lasting pain we go through. Much has changed in the way we have lived, in the way we have thought, in the way we have dealt with the issues thrown up by the carnage caused by two aircraft flying into the Twin Towers and bringing them crashing down in a haze of dust and smoke and powder in a matter of minutes.
We will long remember those searing images on our television screens, have not forgotten the pain it caused in all of us, this brotherhood of decent men and women, all over the world in that apocalypse.
Two decades on, there are the questions we raise every day, queries we have not had responses to. Did those men who hijacked and crashed those planes into the towers, into the Pentagon, and further away, have no feeling for the men and women trapped in the aircraft they had seized? What psychology worked in them? Indeed, the questions have kept piling up. How did that all that hate well up in Osama bin Laden and his rabid followers, enough for them to decide that the lives of all those innocent people in the aircraft and in the Twin Towers did not matter at all? When does political belief mutate into terrorism?
Our world has never recovered from that shock, from the ramifications of it. And yet, we have more questions. A decade ago, couldn’t the American forces who raided the safe house bin Laden occupied in Abbottabad have taken him alive and let the world see a leading terrorist tell the world why he had committed all his misdeeds? When the Obama administration had bin Laden killed and had his corpse dumped into the sea, the many questions the world needed answers to went down with the al-Qaeda man.
Two decades after 2001, we still struggle to explain why al-Qaeda did what it did. We do not know what impelled the Taliban, then holding Afghanistan, as it does once more, in their grip, to give bin Laden a base in the mountains around and beyond Kabul.
Afghanistan was to pay a price. There were other nations which suffered through the consequences, often wrongly, of the disaster of September 11, 2001. George W Bush and the arch-conservatives he led in Washington seized on the tragedy to inflict more tragedy on our world. They chose not to negotiate with the rulers of Afghanistan over an expulsion of al-Qaeda from the country but opted for regime change.
They seriously thought that they could gather all the tribes, all the ancient history of Afghanistan into the edifice of a nation. The nation-building would not work and for 20 years, as American and British and Nato forces kept the country under occupation, it was a series of puppet regimes which came to exercise power in Kabul but not beyond it. As many as 80,000 Afghans have perished after September 2001; more than 2,000 US and other soldiers have died.
The world did not come upon peace with the ouster of the Taliban from power and with the decimation of al-Qaeda. Hundreds, indeed more, have been blown to pieces in neighbouring Pakistan by al-Qaeda and its affiliates. In these two decades since the Twin Towers were reduced to rubble, terror outfits have spawned in Asia and Africa, all driven by vicious thoughts of exterminating everyone not of their twisted line of thought.
Al-Shabab and Boko Haram in Africa are yet alive, the latter regularly kidnapping school children in Nigeria. The so-called IS, with its macabre practice of equally macabre thoughts -- abducting innocent non-Muslims and beheading them in the desert, destroying libraries in Timbuktu -- has not quite died, as the recent explosions at Kabul airport by IS-K have so eerily demonstrated. In Pakistan, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) operates with impunity, with the country’s military establishment unable or unwilling to go after it.
In the two decades since September 2001, three countries have been destroyed by willfully wrong policies shaped and pursued by governments in the West. Terrorism by al-Qaeda gave men like George W Bush and Tony Blair carte blanche in their delusion that they could remake the world as a safer planet.
They ended up making it worse. In all their brazen impunity and in their arrogance of power, they marched into a sovereign, secular state called Iraq on the basis of lies about Saddam Hussein being in possession of weapons of mass destruction, occupied it, and so opened the floodgates to chaos and sectarian politics.
These men have never been prosecuted for their war crimes. Neither have the Nato powers been pilloried over their role in engineering the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and so sowing the seeds which have since sprouted into a fearsome forest of endless instability.
In our fractured world, global politics is today a mirror image of the tens of thousands of refugees trying to reach the coasts of Europe from Africa, a large number of them going into watery graves in the process. Islamist terror has killed bloggers, writers, and publishers in Bangladesh. The notoriety of al-Qaeda and the terror groups it has spawned, together with misplaced Western policies, has radicalized politics -- and ideas -- nearly everywhere.
In these two decades, the idea of democracy has progressively receded into a lengthening distance. Generals have overthrown legitimate governments in Thailand, Myanmar, and Egypt and no one is worried about such atrocious behavior. Russia is in the hard grip of an oligarchy. America’s reputation, frayed after Iraq, has become even more tenuous with the resurgence of the Taliban in Kabul. Following its withdrawal from the European Union, Britain struggles to find a place for itself in the global scheme of things.
Emmanuel Macron in France seems headed for a second electoral battle with the ultra-rightist Marine Le Pen. Brazil has a president whose poor sense of science has plunged his country into grave social disorder in these pandemic times. Malicious efforts have gone on to destabilize Iran.
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi has been forgotten and Muhammad bin Salman has remained above the rule of law. The million-plus Rohingya, pushed into Bangladesh by the junta in Myanmar, do not expect to go back home anytime soon.
This is the fractured world we inhabit 20 years after September 2001. In all this time, the lamp of human dreams has struggled to remain alight against the thrusting winds. Two decades ago, our world changed forever. The fires yet smoulder.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.