9/11 and the ‘War on Terror’ twenty years on

On 11 September 2001 the infamous 9/11 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on US soil prompted the then US president George W Bush and British PM Tony Blair to instigate a Western military invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. The stated aim was to remove the Taliban regime which had been harbouring al-Qaeda bases.

Yet, after 20 years of occupation, in a disastrous historic irony, the Taliban is back in power and Islamic State suicide bombers have already killed over 100 people, including 13 US servicemen – the deadliest day for the US military in Afghanistan since 2011.

Alistair Tice examines the events of 9/11 and what the lessons are for the workers’ movement today.

On 11 September 2001, later referred to as 9/11, al-Qaeda carried out the most spectacular terrorist attack in history. On that morning, 19 al-Qaeda operatives hijacked four commercial airliners on internal US flights. Two were crashed into the iconic Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, the heart of the US financial system. Within two hours both towers completely collapsed.

A third plane crashed into the side of the Pentagon building, headquarters of the US military. On the fourth plane, which was probably targeted to hit the Capitol building in Washington DC, the seat of the US Congress, passengers confronted the hijackers and it crashed into a field.

Altogether 2,997 people were killed, including 33 crew, all 213 passengers, 340 firefighters and 72 police, and over 2,000 staff in the Twin Towers, most of them office workers. Over 6,000 were injured.

It was the first attack on the US mainland since the 1812-14 war with Britain, and killed more than the Japanese attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Honolulu in 1941.

9/11 shattered the alleged invincibility of US imperialism, especially as it caught its intelligence and security services unprepared. But the seeds had been planted at least 20 years earlier.

In the last decade of the Cold War, the Stalinist Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 to prop up the pro-Moscow regime, which was facing a widespread rural insurgency by the Mujahedeen – who were being funded and trained by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) via Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

Osama bin-Laden, part of a very wealthy business family close to the Saudi royals, and subscribing to the Islamic fundamentalist Wahhabi sect, funded and trained Arab jihadists to go to Afghanistan to fight with the Mujahedeen against the ‘communists’.

Eventually, Soviet troops were withdrawn in 1989 and the pro-Moscow regime collapsed, leading to a civil war between rival Mujahedeen warlords.

Other former Mujahedeen leaders, including Mullah Mohammed Omar, founded the Taliban (meaning ‘student’ in Arabic) who mobilised Islamic students from the religious seminaries, madrassas, on the Pakistan border.

The Taliban defeated the ethnic-based Afghanistan warlords, sweeping to power with popular support for restoring relative peace and security, but based on traditional Pashtun tribal code and their austere and repressive version of Sharia law. In 1996 they declared the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and by 2000 controlled 90% of the country.

Bin Laden supported the Taliban (who weren’t initially anti-US, in fact they sought US recognition and had talks with a US energy company), but in 1988 he formed his Arab Afghan fighters into al-Qaeda (which means ‘base’ in Arabic), committed to continuing jihad globally.

After establishing a new training base in Afghanistan, he declared war against the United States because of their troops being on ‘Islamic soil’ in Saudi Arabia, for their support for Israel against the Palestinians, and for US sanctions against Iraq.

Al-Qaeda franchises initiated a series of bombings and related attacks in different countries, most notably the 1998 attacks on US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, killing 200 people.


And then came 9/11 – which initially bin-Laden denied responsibility for but later claimed al-Qaeda had masterminded.

Marxists have always opposed acts of ‘individual terrorism’, even when the targets are members or representatives of the ruling classes or the state. This is because, as revolutionary socialists, we want to overthrow the capitalist system as a whole, not just eliminate individuals who can be replaced.

And such acts, at best, reduce the role of the masses to that of onlookers to their self-appointed ‘liberators’. This reduces class consciousness in the need for collective and mass action against the system, the only way capitalism can be overthrown.

Also, such terrorist actions are totally counterproductive. They play into the hands of the ruling class and state, who exploit the revulsion of people at the violence and killings to justify more repressive laws and actions.

Such measures are then used not only against the alleged terrorists, but usually against the very people that the terror acts are supposed to liberate.

Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks were by small groups carrying out mass terror. While targeting symbols of US imperialism’s economic and military power, they indiscriminately killed and injured thousands of innocent people.

The global wave of mass horror at these acts allowed a very unpopular US president, George W Bush, to initially win mass popular support for his ‘war on terror’.

It enabled his administration to pass laws curtailing civil and democratic rights in the US. Similar restrictive laws were passed by governments in the UK, France and elsewhere. This climate resulted in a huge increase in Islamophobic abuse, violence and right-wing terror attacks on Muslims, the very people al-Qaeda purported to represent.

The Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI – the international organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated) condemned the 9/11 attacks. But, in no way did we give support to the hypocritical and opportunist reaction of Bush, Blair and other Western leaders.

It had precisely been their imperialist and discriminatory actions at home and abroad, especially in the Middle East, that had created the fertile ground from which al-Qaeda and other such groups had gained support.

2001 was only a decade after the collapse of Stalinism, when capitalism was restored in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which had previously been based on nationalised economies but suffered one-party dictatorships and bureaucratic mismanagement.

The capitalist West was triumphant: ‘Communism has collapsed, socialism has failed, liberal democracy is the only system’, they gloated.

This left the US as the only global economic and military superpower. President George Bush senior proclaimed a ‘New American Century’. In 1991 he won a quick military victory in the first Gulf War against the former US-backed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who had attempted to flex his regional power ambitions by invading neighbouring Kuwait.

So 9/11 came as a huge blow to US prestige, which had to be avenged. Launching the ‘war on terror’ President George W Bush stated: “Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them”. This put Saddam’s Iraq and the Islamic state of Iran firmly into US military sights.

None of the 19 al-Qaeda operatives were from Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan (15 were from oil-rich Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the US). Bush justified the bombing and occupation of Afghanistan on the grounds that the Taliban would not give up Osama bin Laden, who was holed up there.

Overwhelming US-UK coalition firepower ensured a quick military victory and the installation of a pro-western, US-backed president Karzai. The Taliban were removed from power, and retreated to the rural and Pakistan border areas from which they launched an insurgency against the occupying forces and stooge Afghan government.

Despite as many as 120,000 troops, the US-UK coalition could not suppress the Taliban which forced US presidents, first Barack Obama and then Donald Trump, to negotiate with them.

Trump, ignoring the Ghani regime in Afghanistan, struck a deal with the Taliban to exit the country by 31 May. Current US president Joe Biden extended the deadline to 31 August, but now he has been attacked by political friends and foes alike for his handling of the chaotic departure from the country.

Invasion of Iraq

Flush with the initial military success in Afghanistan, George W Bush quickly turned US imperialism’s attention to oil-rich Iraq, where Saddam Hussein had remained in power, despite his defeat in the first Gulf War and a decade of crippling United Nations sanctions.

The 2003 US-UK invasion of Iraq was justified as part of the ‘war on terror’ by Bush and Blair. It was predicated on the lie that Saddam held ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMD), and his alleged harbouring of al-Qaeda terrorists. But WMD were never found and al-Qaeda and its off-shoot, Islamic State, hardly existed in Iraq prior to the US occupation.

A US ‘shock and awe’ blitz led to another quick military victory, overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Bush on board the USS aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln declared “Mission accomplished”!

But the ensuing power vacuum after the US dismantled Saddam’s Sunni dominated state apparatus, led to a lengthy insurgency against the occupying US-UK coalition forces, and sectarian clashes between the majority Shias and previously dominant minority Sunni populations.

In addition, opposition to the occupation in both the US and UK increased as troop casualties mounted for an unwinnable war based on lies, securing oil, and other geopolitical aims.

Biden has confirmed that all US combat troops will withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2021, along with Afghanistan, another humiliating retreat from a disastrous war.

Rise of Islamic State

Islamic State (IS) arose as an off-shoot of al-Qaeda intent on establishing a Sunni-based Islamic Caliphate. Exploiting the alienation and fears of Iraqi Sunnis against the US-backed sectarian Shia Maliki government, in the summer of 2014 IS swept through northern Iraq capturing the country’s second city Mosul.

At the same time, in neighbouring Syria, a popular uprising against dictator Basher al-Assad – initially part of the ‘Arab Spring’ movement – had degenerated into a protracted sectarian civil war, with atrocities on both sides.

The ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Levant’ (ISIL) at its height, controlled 10 million people in 40% of Iraq and one-third of Syria. Using barbaric methods against all opponents, including public beheadings of western hostages, ISIL threatened the complete breakup of Iraq, Syria, and beyond.

Due to public opposition at home and throughout the Middle East after the Afghanistan and Iraq war disasters, US imperialism did not dare to put more ‘boots on the ground’ and could only rely on proxy forces and air strikes, which were not enough to completely displace ISIL.

Moreover, the US administration was powerless to stop the strengthening of global and regional enemies, Russia and Iran.


US imperialism was initially strengthened after the 9/11 attacks, exploiting the opportunities to overcome the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ (humiliating defeat in the Vietnam War, which debilitated the US from directly intervening elsewhere) and demonstrate its ‘full spectral dominance’.

But 20 years on, disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have weakened US capitalism economically, militarily, in spheres of influence and diplomatically. While the US is still the strongest capitalist power in the world, it is in relative decline and is being challenged regionally and globally in an increasingly multipolar world.

The rise of China has forced US imperialism to pivot it’s foreign policy towards the Indo-Pacific to try to counter China’s influence. This is likely to lead to more local clashes and proxy conflicts in that region.

Al-Qaeda has not been able to repeat another 9/11-scale terrorist attack, and Osama bin-Laden was assassinated by the Obama administration in 2011.

The ISIL Islamic caliphate was territorially dismantled by 2019. But as the rapid resurgence of the Taliban and the Kabul airport bombing show, if the workers’ movement doesn’t build or provide organisation and leadership, then imperialism, poverty and division will fuel the re-emergence of al-Qa’ida and Islamic State or groups and individuals inspired by them, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabab in Mozambique.

The US is now conducting ‘counter-terrorist’ activities in 85 countries, showing how their ‘war on terror’ has spread terrorism rather than defeated it.

The US Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs calculates that at least 800,000 people (500,000 civilians) have been killed from direct military violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, with large areas of those countries and Gaza, Libya and Somalia being reduced to rubble. US post-9/11 wars have displaced 37 million people either internally or as refugees.

The end of the Cold War 30 years ago has not brought the global peace and security heralded by the triumphalist West. Global instability, especially since 9/11, is greater than any time since World War One.

In 1915, the great socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg said humankind faced a future of either “socialism or barbarism”. Today, there is barbarism in many parts of the world.

Yet the resources exist for socialism. Imagine if the $6 trillion spent by the US on wars and occupations over the last 20 years had instead been spent on clean water, sanitation, housing, health and education. How the lives of millions would have been transformed!

And out of the death, destruction and misery around the capitalist world, we have seen the hope for the future in the largest protest event in human history, the anti-war demonstrations around the world in February 2003 when tens of millions marched in 800 cities. If such movements had embraced the workers’ movement in a struggle for socialist change then wars could have been stopped and a lasting, prosperous peace developed.

Nonetheless, the anti-war movement fed into the anti-capitalist and subsequent global climate change movements, women’s and Black Lives Matter protests, radicalising a generation of young people towards socialist ideas.

And the Arab Spring, when mass movements and mass actions overthrew dictatorial regimes in North Africa and the Middle East, showed where the real potential power in society lies, not in small terrorist groups who played no role in such uprisings, but with the working class and youth.

Even in civil war-torn Iraq, divided Lebanon, and repressive Iran, non-sectarian anti-government demonstrations have erupted in the last three years, toppling presidents and prime ministers.

But to be successful, these movements need independent, working-class organisation and revolutionary socialist policies and leadership, to ensure than in the next 20 years capitalism and terrorism are eradicated and replaced with a socialist world free of war, poverty and oppression.

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September 2021