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Don’t let your guard down, the Islamist terror threat is as real as ever 21 years on from the 9/11 attacks that shocked the world

Written by
12 September 2022
Originally appeared in Sky News Australia

As the West is distracted by domestic issues and the rise of Russia and China, the threat of Islamist militancy hasn’t disappeared. It’s in hibernation.

Twenty-one years have passed since Al-Qaeda militants attacked the World Trade Centre in New York.

In its aftermath, US President George W. Bush called on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan — believed to be sheltering mastermind Osama Bin Laden — to hand him over to the United States.

The Taliban refused to comply.

President Bush launched his “War on Terror” by invading Afghanistan in 2001.

The Taliban were toppled.

A pro-United States regime headed by President Hamid Karzai was installed in 2002.

Twenty-one years have passed since Al-Qaeda militants attacked the World Trade Centre in New York.

In its aftermath, US President George W. Bush called on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan — believed to be sheltering mastermind Osama Bin Laden — to hand him over to the United States.

The Taliban refused to comply.

President Bush launched his “War on Terror” by invading Afghanistan in 2001.

The Taliban were toppled.

A pro-United States regime headed by President Hamid Karzai was installed in 2002.

Bin Laden was eventually found and executed in neighbouring Pakistan in 2011.  

The world has since wondered why militants would hijack passenger planes and fly them through skyscrapers murdering 2,996 innocent civilians.

According to President Bush, it was simply an attack on American freedoms and way of life.

This column provides the context that’s otherwise left out of media commentary. 

The sequence of events in the lead up to 11 September 2001 began in 1979.

The Soviet Union launched a military operation in neighbouring Afghanistan.

This was supported by the Parcham faction of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan.

Large sections of Afghanistan’s armed forces had switched sides.

The Soviet goal was to incorporate Afghanistan as another one of its many “Socialist Republics”.

This had previously been done with other Muslim nations across Central Asia, such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. 

Twenty-one years after the September 11 attacks that shocked the Western world, the threat of Islamist militancy hasn't disappeared, writes Dr Sherry Sufi. Picture: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Twenty-one years after the September 11 attacks that shocked the Western world, the threat of Islamist militancy hasn’t disappeared, writes Dr Sherry Sufi. Picture: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The largest ethnic group in Afghanistan are the Pashtuns who, by and large, weren’t in favour of Afghanistan joining the Soviet Union.

The Soviets were eyeing access to the Pakistani city of Gwadar.

This would have given the Soviet Union access to a warm water port right at the edge of the shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf — the world’s “jugular vein” of major oil supplies.

This was a strategic threat to the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The three joined forces to raise a militia from scratch with volunteer fighters from all over the Islamic world.

The aim was to help local Pashtun tribesmen drive the Soviet invaders out.

This militia became known as the Mujahideen.

The US sponsored thousands of madrasas (religious day schools) in Pakistan that served as training camps for the Mujahideen to cross the border and fight next door.

Saudi millionaire Osama Bin Laden, along with Egyptian Dr Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Palestinian Dr Abdullah Azzam, became three prominent “foreign fighters” in the Soviet-Afghan War.

By February 1989, the Soviet Union was defeated.

Overlapping with that Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989) was the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988).

During which, the United States had supported Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to help overthrow the regime of Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

The war produced no winner.

Iraq ended up owing neighbouring oil-rich nation Kuwait $14 billion USD in debt raised from financing the war.

Saddam argued that since fighting the Iranians was in American and Kuwaiti interests, the debt should be written off.

Kuwait refused.

Saddam responded in August 1990 by launching a ground invasion of Kuwait, claiming it had historically been a part of Iraq.

As a key supplier of crude oil, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait posed a strategic threat to US interests.

The United States and its allies began preparing to launch their own counter-invasion to drive the Iraqi military out of Kuwait — known as Operation Desert Storm.

Osama Bin Laden in April 1998. Picture: AP Photo, File

This meant American troops being stationed across the border in Saudi Arabia as a launching pad.  

At the time, the Mujahideen militia were in high spirits having pulled off its miraculous victory against the might of the “atheist” Communist Soviet invader.

Bin Laden put to American and Saudi officials, that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was a dispute between two Muslim countries and it wouldn’t be appropriate for US soldiers to intervene in their internal affairs.

As an alternative, he offered his own battle-hardened Mujahideen to be contracted with the task of driving the Iraqis out and liberate Kuwait, as they had recently done with the Soviets. 

The Americans and Saudis refused.

Bin Laden saw the stationing of American troops on Saudi soil — the birthplace of Islam — as an affront.

The Gulf War, as it’s now known, went ahead as planned.

The United States and its allies won.

Iraq was driven out of Kuwait by February 1991.

This all became a turning point for Bin Laden.

His newly-established militant organisation Al-Qaeda made it a goal to undermine American strategic interests by hook or by crook.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan was plunged into a violent civil war following Soviet withdrawal in 1989 until 1996.

That ended with the Taliban — a breakaway faction of the Mujahideen mostly made up of Pashto-speaking Pashtuns — taking over 95 per cent of Afghanistan.

Dari-speaking Pashtuns headed by Ahmad Shah Masood’s faction were restricted to the Panjshir Valley.

The 1990s saw the Taliban and Al-Qaeda work in tandem to neutralise American presence in the region.

This meant continuous attacks on US embassies and personnel, including a failed attack on the World Trade Centre in 1993.

Bin Laden went on to issue two fatwas (religious decrees) in 1996 and 1998 urging Muslims world-wide to attack Americans.

He condemned the United States for sending its Sixth Fleet to assist Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 which, according to him, resulted in destroyed skyscrapers and civilian casualties.

After persistent efforts, Al-Qaeda finally managed to strike the twin towers in New York on this day 21 years ago with the help of 19 plane hijackers.

Bin Laden’s blend of anti-Americanism remains widespread across the Islamic world.

Following former US President Donald Trump’s treaty with the Taliban, they’ve been back in power in Afghanistan from August 2021.

Taliban 2.0 claim they’re no longer as anti-American as their predecessors.

Yet their global alliances suggest otherwise. 

Russia has had its share of struggles with militant Muslim separatists inside its own borders in Chechnya and Dagestan.

China has had its share of struggles with militant Muslim separatists in Xinjiang (or East Turkestan).

Despite all that, both Russia and China have official ties with Taliban 2.0 and it seems their only common interest is to keep American influence out of the region.

As the Anglosphere is distracted by domestic issues and the rise of Russia and China, the threat of Islamist militancy hasn’t disappeared. It’s in hibernation.

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Sherry Sufi

Senior Fellow, The Centre for the Australian Way of Life at the Institute of Public Affairs

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