The day will come when 11 September is just another date on the calendar. But that time is still some way off.
Eleven years after the horrible spectacle of the World Trade Center towers being struck by one 767 airliner and then another, then collapsing into nothingness, continues to capture our imagination like a fragment from a recurring nightmare.
Almost 3000 lives were lost in New York City, Washington DC and on a lonely field in Pennsylvania. Had it stopped there we would by now have begun to move on and have rejected as mere hubris the claim that 9/11 changed everything.
Sadly the lives lost that day were just the beginning. The consequences of the 9/11 attacks, and our reactions to them, continue to ripple through communities around the world. Diligent intelligence work has helped prevent further attacks in the US and has thwarted numerous attempted attacks across the UK Europe and even Australia. But Al Qaeda and the ideas associated with Al Qaeda have not gone away and lives continue to be lost at an alarming rate. The magnitude of this often escapes us – while the West has been scarred by the spectre of terrorism, the vast majority of its victims are Muslims.
Twelve months ago, reflecting on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a degree of cautious optimism was palpable. That optimism has faded somewhat. Just this past weekend we had a disturbing but all-too-familiar news of a suicide bombing in Kabul, this time a 14-year-old boy detonating outside the NATO headquarters, killing himself and half a dozen other children. Analysts link to this attack with the infamous Haqqani network.
Al Qaeda in Pakistan – the core of the old Al Qaeda leadership – has been greatly weakened. But the fact that it appears to have been actively assisted by both the Haqqani Network and by elements of the Inter-Services Intelligence means that Al Qaeda’s legacy and enduring influence in both Pakistan and Afghanistan is enormous. At the same time what little optimism there was about the future of Afghanistan has largely evaporated over the past 12 months.
The US and its allies launched strikes against the Al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan immediately after the 9/11 attacks. This was understandable, and arguably unavoidable. Nevertheless the consequences have been tragic. Eleven years on we are still in Afghanistan looking at an exit but with little confidence of being able to achieve the stable, safe, future for Afghanistan that was the pretext for being there.
One of the reasons why the Afghanistan operation has been so disappointingly ineffective is that the resources and attention that it deserved were siphoned off for operations in Iraq. The 2003 invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation was effective, of course, in toppling the regime of Saddam Hussain but like Afghanistan it remains even now unclear whether all the sacrifice of lives and resources has achieved a lasting good. This gloomy prognosis was reinforced over the weekend with news of wave of coordinated suicide bombing attacks on a massive scale.
Al Qaeda’s strength today is not just in Iraq and in Yemen, it now has growing influence across North Africa being linked to groups such as Abu Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria and violent extremists in Mali.
How much of this can be blamed on misguided responses to the outrage of 9/11? At the very least there is growing consensus that the invasion of Iraq was a grave strategic mistake.
Terrorism works through asymmetrical force. It is less concerned with violence and terror for its own sake than it is in provoking an angry response. It is clear that on 9/11/01, Al Qaeda intended to provoke America and its allies into going into Afghanistan.
It seems likely that even Al Qaeda didn’t anticipate the invasion of Iraq. But that invasion gave the organisaion a foothold in the territory where it previously had virtually no presence. It drained the military, financial, moral and political resources of the Western powers caught up in the joint military operation.
It also had a devastating effect on Western soft power. There was great sympathy across the Muslim world for the US in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist strike. Social attitude polling tells us that positive sentiment towards America, and its allies, plummeted precipitously following the invasion of Iraq in April 2003. Al Qaeda, its allies and fellow travellers have drawn tremendous energy and support from resentment at occupation and military strikes.
So are we safer 11 years on from 9/11? We do have much to be grateful for, there is much that has been achieved, most of it not by military means but by intelligence and cooperation with vulnerable communities. Nevertheless, it is very hard to say with any certainty that we are safer.
This was brought home by the director of ASIO David Irvine in a public statement last week at security conference in Canberra. He spoke frankly about the capacity of the international movements mentioned above to inspire responses even in remote and comfortable Australia.
It is not that Muslim communities as a whole are particularly vulnerable in Australia, nor is it not the case but there isn’t an increased level of trust and understanding between community leaders and police. Rather it is the fact that instruments of globalisation – cheap international travel, internet conductivity and the unfettered movement of ideas – mean that even in stable communities, individuals can be drawn into dangerous relationships.