The 13th anniversary of the devastating 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US came and went, largely unnoticed beyond the ritual ceremony to honour the memory of those who perished that day when four hijacked passenger aircraft were used as deadly missiles by al-Qaeda terrorists to hit high-profile targets like the twin World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon. At least 3,000 people died in the attacks that made the world’s sole superpower look vulnerable as never before and signalled the emergence of trans-national and inter-continental jihad as a global destabiliser.
Those who have come of age in these 13 years would find it difficult to believe that a group of 19 Arabic-speaking men could have walked into airports, checked in, boarded flights, waited for take-off, then commandeered the aircraft and crashed them into their targets with such seemingly amazing ease.
Nobody could have ever imagined that something like this could happen; it was the worst nightmare of security and counter-terrorism agencies come true. The possibility of passenger planes being used as live missiles was always there. But that possibility was considered to be in the realm of impossibility.
The disbelief and dismay with which 9/11 was greeted 13 years ago still remains undiminished
In a sense, the disbelief and dismay with which 9/11 was greeted 13 years ago still remains undiminished. This is in sharp contrast to the popular response to the 26/11 carnage in Mumbai, when terrorists ran amok in the city. There was great outpouring of outrage over the deed and grief over the dead, but few, if any, were surprised.
India has been the happy hunting ground for terrorists long before the world woke up to the reality of jihadi violence. Sadly, successive terrorist strikes, including one on Parliament House, has not made us raise barriers and obstacles. On the contrary, we remain indifferent even as barbarians threaten to break down the gate.
If 9/11 saw many resolve “Never again”, 13 years later many more are perplexed as to why the civilised world has pitiably failed in putting down barbaric assaults on the very foundational principles of liberty, freedom and pluralism. As a perceptive commentator writing in the Guardian has pointed out, the jihadis are more powerful in September 2014 than they were in September 2001.
It would be infantile to argue, as no doubt some analysts would, that the al-Qaeda is a depleted force today, notwithstanding the whining bluff and bluster of Ayman al Zawahiri. This alone is a huge success of the post-9/11 counter-offensive launched by the US and its allies. It would also be pointed out that Osama bin Laden, the man who inspired young men (and women) to turn themselves into human bombs, has been despatched to the other world.
True, but although Osama bin Laden is dead, his vile ideology is not only alive, it has spread geographically and demographically, bringing new swathes of human habitation under the evil shadow of Islamism. Al-Qaeda may have lost stature and standing, but its core beliefs have spawned groups and organisations far more vicious — for example, the Boko Haram and the Islamic State.
Radical Islam can now draw upon enormous resources, both financial and human.
It poses a serious challenge to liberalism, the oft-mentioned antidote to fanaticism. Whoever thought that Muslim men and women born and educated in liberal Europe would join the Islamic State and indulge in unspeakable horrors? That a group of Britons who don't show the least hesitation in murder and worse as fighters of the Islamic State are called ‘The Beatles’, is an eloquent comment on our tragic yet fearsome times.
As marauders flying the flag of the Islamic State rampage through Syria and Iraq, laying waste to towns and villages, killing men and enslaving women, slaying children, the old and the defenceless, and a new age ‘Caliph’ gloats over the blood-chilling crimes of his followers, we must ask ourselves: Where did we go wrong after 9/11? Was the ‘War on Terror’ destined to result in victory for terrorists?
The world has erred on three fronts. First, there never was any global ‘War on Terror’; in fact, some chose to fight while most chose to sit it out. Shamefully, India, which claims to be the world’s biggest democracy, is among those who wilfully refused to join the ‘War on Terror’. Second, the ‘War on Terror’ was essentially a series of tactical responses, not a strategic war with a grand design. Third, too much emphasis was given to limp-wristed liberalism as an alternative to robust jihadi ideology. The consequences could not have been different.
The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta