In the afternoon of 11 September 2001, I received a telephone call from a friend in New York speaking in a terrified voice of a plane hitting one of the twin towers. Was it an accident? The second attack left no doubt: this was an operation of a new type. In the following days there was quiet fear in New York. Will dirty bombs or a nuclear attack be next?
I tried to tell my friend not to fear another wave. I was convinced that Osama bin Laden and his accomplices had a “lucky” one-off success, and probably did not have a follow-up plan. After attacking America, I thought, bin Laden and his supporters would instead be preparing for an American air-campaign on their hideouts in Afghanistan.
At the time I did not know how bad a strategist bin Laden was. The Saudi jihadist did not direct his adherents to evacuate Afghan cities, because he was convinced that the Americans would never send soldiers to fight in Afghanistan. The Americans were cowards, he had told his supporters. As a result, the Taliban and their jihadi supporters continued manning the frontlines in northeast Afghanistan, and kept their supporters in hostile cities such as Mazar e-Sharif and Kabul, where hundreds of them perished under the joint operations of the Northern Alliance and the firepower-heavy Americans.
Bin Laden proved to be a poor strategist once again in 2003 when - against the judgment of his lieutenants - he ordered his supporters to unleash a rebellion in Saudi Arabia. This led to their destruction in the hands of Saudi security. In the same year an unknown (Jordanian) jihadi militant known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi gained notoriety when he chose to fight in Iraq, and became so popular as to rival bin Laden himself.
For many people, 9/11 and its architect acquired a compelling aura whose focus was the daring of Osama bin Laden in attacking a global power seen by many as a source of injustice. This posture came at a cost: the middle east was a violent place before 9/11, but after it the violence escalated massively. A generation of Arab youth was sacrificed on the road to a vague project of Islamist utopia. Thousands of militants died in suicide-bombings - 5,000 in Iraq alone.
But the greatest strategic mistake of bin Laden was his idea that the Arab-Islamic civilisation can be revitalised through a military confrontation with inadequately understood enemies. In borrowing from Sayyid Qutb the notion of a “vanguard” of Islamist militants, he eliminated the idea of popular participation from his notion of politics - and it is even more clear, in the wake of the Arab spring, how inept he was!
The future that wasn’t
Another great loser from 9/11 was the anti-globalist movement, which had managed (in Seattle in 1999) to lay siege to world leaders - both physically, and with the values it was articulating. Its growth symbolised the fact that the ideas of human rights and environmental protection were gaining over those of great-power competition and the conquest of resources.
9/11 crushed that equation, and restored militaristic values to fashion. The decade-that-might-have-been was hijacked, and globally important issues ignored; instead, billions of dollars were burned on frontline-free combat in Afghanistan, Iraq, and many other theatres of the “war against terror”.
This made the fortune of the “defence” (military) industry, and of secret services and privatised security, in the United States and beyond. Unpopular and illegitimate regimes in the middle east and Africa joined the game. They supported the “war against terror” to gain favour in Washington, as a last throw of their raison d’être. After all, Gaddafi argued yesterday, and Bashar al-Assad still argues today, that the peaceful demonstrators against their rule are in fact dangerous Islamists.
Looking back on this lost decade, sometimes I wonder who has won most from America’s clash with the Arab-Islamic world. Could it be China?