The president’s daily CIA briefing at 8am on the morning of September 11th 2001 focussed on events in the West Bank and Gaza – there was no reference to al Qaeda and certainly no hint of the attacks to come later that day.
In fact, there was no mention of international terrorism at all. It was the last time that would happen.
By the time the briefing was over, the early stages of the attacks were already under way. A few hours later, the catastrophic spectre of Islamist terrorism smashed into the global consciousness, and it hasn’t left since.
If the focus that day and the weeks following was on New York, the victims and America’s grief, September 11th 2001 was also the day that everything changed for the Arab world.
The US response was to invade Afghanistan: within months they had removed the Taliban from power and eliminated the al Qaeda threat from the country.
Operation Enduring Freedom, which had British military support, was swift and successful, so much so that by March of the following year US attention was shifting towards Iraq, the next target in the War on Terror. It would prove a mistake.
In 20 years of military occupations and covert counter-terror operations, trillions of dollars have been spent fighting Islamist organisations in countries across the Middle East and North Africa: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Libya. To what success?
Well, it’s highly unlikely an attack on the scale of 9/11 could happen today – the infrastructure and leadership of the two main terror threats, al Qaeda and Islamic State, has been degraded to such an extent that planning such an audacious assault would not go unnoticed.
Increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology has given military and intelligence analysts greater awareness of activity in the ungoverned regions that were once stations for training camps.
But a covert CIA drone programme, predominately in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Yemen, proved controversial, as targets were taken out with little regard for collateral damage.
Every wedding party bombed, school destroyed or funeral targeted, was a recruiting advantage for the jihad. The War on Terror alienated millions across the Middle East and they remain so to this day.
Improved border and immigration operations have prevented suspected fanatics from travelling to the battlefields and back again to carry out attacks in Europe, but not after many made their way to Syria and Iraq to join IS.
Faced with restricted movement, the internet became the new battlespace for plotting and recruiting. IS exploited it to devastating effect, propagating messages and remotely inspiring or even guiding attacks on European cities.
Western cyber agencies, led by GCHQ and the NSA, are now far better at discovering, monitoring and taking down content, but they played catch up for a time.
Across this region, there are families still grieving for relatives killed during western military engagements, and they will always hold America and her allies to blame; there are men angry for the years they were imprisoned and sometimes tortured in US custody, often without being charged or tried; and there are religious fanatics, who will forever distort the scriptures to find a reason to fight the foreign infidel.
It is debatable whether the groundwork for IS was laid before or after the 2003 invasion but the perceived abandonment of the Sunni community in Iraq certainly accelerated the rise of IS.
The full consequences of NATO’s departure from Afghanistan are yet to unravel, but already we are seeing a psychological boost to jihadists across the globe.
Fighters are trying to move to Afghanistan to take advantage of the security vacuum, the Pentagon already estimates there are around 2,000 ISIS-K fighters in the country and IS and al Qaeda affiliates in the Sahel have renewed belief they can oust occupying French forces in the way the Taliban did to the Americans in Afghanistan.
How successful terror groups are at attacking the West in the future will be down to myriad reasons, but the driving force behind 9/11 has been eliminated.
To his followers Osama bin Laden was charismatic and inspirational, to the West he was elusive and dangerous. Bin Laden’s success in masterminding such a devastating attack, right in the centre of western capitalism, was down to luck and failings in US intelligence, but it was also the culmination of a vision to strike inside America that he had first voiced as far back as 1986.
Few, if anyone, could have followed such a strategy through, certainly not his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al Qaeda.
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But the threat hasn’t gone away. During the COVID-19 pandemic, MI5 disrupted six potential attacks, all in the late stages of planning; over the last four years, the agency has foiled a total of 31 plots, all well developed.
The threat might have changed, so too the personnel and battlefield, but the warped ideology of Islamist extremism remains constant and as long as it has an audience somewhere, a threat to the West will exist.
The good work being done in the shadows belies the reality on the streets.
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