Early last month, a group representing family members of Americans killed on 11 September 2001 informed Joe Biden he wouldn’t be welcome at 20th anniversary commemorations of the catastrophe unless he persuaded the FBI to declassify files relating to the involvement of Saudi institutions or individuals in that day’s terrorist attacks.
The US president made a gesture in that direction last week, although the extent of the FBI’s compliance remains dubious. Not only are US agencies inclined to keep inconvenient information classified for decades on end, but if and when they feel obliged to release a few files, they tend to be heavily redacted.
The low-key controversy serves as a reminder, though, of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals. And that in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the Bush administration facilitated the rapid evacuation from the US of minor Saudi royals and members of the extended Bin Laden family.
Then the US invaded Afghanistan, but the administration’s leading hawks already had their eyes on Iraq.
There wasn’t a single Afghan among the hijackers, but the Taliban regime was allowing Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda to operate from its territory, and America had vowed not to make a distinction between terrorists and those who harboured them. Besides, as George W. Bush reportedly confided to religious leaders days before launching the revenge mission in Afghanistan, “I’m having difficulty controlling my bloodlust.”
The recent Taliban recapture of Afghanistan has neatly squared the circle ahead of the 20th anniversary of the US invasion, serving as a timely reminder of the wretched consequences of the post-9/11 US mission.
There are, of course, still those who imagine a layer of red, blue and white icing on what is essentially a dung-cake. Writing in the Washington Post, Michael Leiter, a former director of the US National Counterterrorism Centre, argues that despite the Afghan debacle, “purely from a counterterrorism perspective, the United States and our allies have made incredible strides since 9/11 … that make us vastly safer than we were the last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan.
“Moreover, the global Sunni violent extremist movement, while far from eradicated, has been weakened in important ways over two decades.”
That’s a fine illusion to entertain, provided you overlook the extent to which the US armed funded and encouraged this violent extremism in Afghanistan beginning in 1979, exacerbated it with the second invasion of Iraq, and then bolstered it more directly during its interventions in Syria and Libya.
One can only wonder whether some of the worst atrocities committed by Islamists in Europe would even have been plotted without the invasion of Iraq, whose consequences included a sprawling jihadist-run territory.
What must also be ignored in claiming the ‘war on terror’ as a success is the domestic manifestation of extremist violence in the US. The mainstream distinction between ‘far right’ and ‘Islamist’ militancy can be (perhaps intentionally) confusing, given the ideological affinities between white supremacism and religious extremism. But it’s decidedly the former that has claimed far more lives in America since 9/11.
Another point that deserves reconsideration is the ‘terrorist’ designation. Does it exclusively apply to the perpetrators who ruthlessly wreak havoc in the name of their ideology or faith? Why should the perpetrators of equally vile crimes against humanity be denied that dishonour merely because they are clad in the uniform sanctioned by a particular power?
This question does not apply to any particular country, but Martin Luther King Jr’s description in 1967 of his homeland as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” remains unchallenged. And it serves as a useful reminder that the unexpected brutality of 9/11 did not descend from a clear blue sky, as some American commentators continue to pretend. The violence, in various proportions, was commonplace. The novelty lay in perpetrating it at the heart of the empire.
It was awful. But violence anywhere is awful, regardless of the nationality or skin colour of the victims. Had that been recognised in September 2001, the aftermath might have been less destructive. A useful counterpoint to Leiter’s comment is provided by an essay in the same newspaper by Carlos Lozada, who offers a thought-provoking survey of post-9/11 literature, acknowledging that “war-or-terror tactics were turned on religious groups, immigrants and protesters” in the US. “The war on terror came home,” he writes, “and it walked in like it owned the place.”
The American pullout from Afghanistan has been accompanied by reminders of “over the horizon” capabilities. Add that to more familiar terms such as “shock and awe”, “targeted killings” and “collateral damage”. The lessons of 9/11 (and long before) remain unlearned. Until proven otherwise.