Twenty years after 9-11: a world turned upside down

Editorial | The so-called “war on terror” became a flimsy excuse for war and reconstruction economics inside Iraq, but the effects of the American and British invasions are felt today

Surely the last 20 years since 9-11 have seen a world turned upside down by events that upset an entire world order. 

It is not just the added security inside airports, which seem to be the least inconvenient of necessary changes. The mood of world politics has been marked by the rise in Islamophobic, the effects of marginalisation on immigrant populations, the inequalities in global development, and the effects of American military expansionism. Today we witness a sea-change: it is the U.S. that appears in retreat, while regional powers like Turkey and Russia jostle for greater influence in and around the Middle East, and China extends its soft power and economic might with its Silk Road diplomacy in Central Asia. 

The so-called “war on terror” became a flimsy excuse for war and reconstruction economics inside Iraq, but the effects of the American and British invasions are felt today. Gone are Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, but the hell unleashed in Iraq created ISIS and the effects of the new Islamic wave of terrorism were felt inside the Syrian civil war; and also on European soil and even in Libya and other parts of Africa. 

Under George W. Bush, war on terror allowed the United States to use its laws to make it easier to use surveillance against its own citizens, as well as to extend mass surveillance among Five Eyes allies, as well as using its NSA to spy on foreign governments and their citizens. Torture was disguised as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ and secretive ‘rendition flights’ implicated many European countries.  

The human rights breaches of the war and the illegal data interceptions revealed by Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden forced them into exile or jail. The latter two still face extradition to the United States for what they did. But it was their work that revealed the illegalities of the war on terror. And it was ironically, the revelations of Wikileaks that contributed to the Arab Spring’s deposition of nasty dictators, of which only Tunisia today seems to be managing to hold together a fragile democracy. 

Even Muammar Gaddafi, who dismantled his more real WMD programme to save his skin for his rehabilitation as a guardian of the EU’s external frontier, was finally ousted by the Arab Spring (and the so-called ‘humanitarian intervention’ by French, US, and UK-backed forces which left the country in chaos). Indeed, Libya and Iraq remain destabilised, and Afghanistan is now back in the hands of the Taliban. In Egypt, a counter-revolution set in with the military taking back power in Egypt under Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, whose security services are notorious for torturing and butchering their victims. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad is backed by Russia. Palestine’s problems are just a sideshow to the chaos unfurling elsewhere. 

The Taliban resurgence puts a difficult question to the anti-war movement: should the west withdraw after unleashing hell to see Afghanistan relapse into the dark ages? The absence of a multilateral alternative, and a durable system of global governance bound by respect of human rights, has left a vacuum, now increasingly being filled by an assortment of tyrants. 

For Europe, unfortunately, the bloc struggles to build its own common foreign and defence policy, and is further destabilised by Vladimir Putin’s support for the European far-right through social media manipulation. 

Even Malta experiences its fair share of post 9-11 effects. The international framework of anti-terrorist financing rules means Malta’s economy has come under greater scrutiny; so has its sale of citizenship to the global elite. The spillage of the monsters unleashed by Iraq into neighbouring Syria and chaos in Libya, contributed to a greater influx of migrants across the Mediterranean. 

All these factors require policy-makers to consider wisely their actions on subjects that affect the Maltese, such as migration, where the movements of asylum seekers cannot be treated in a vacuum without the context of the wars and events that are pushing them out. Simplistic solutions that favour strongmen dictators to tend to Europe’s external borders are hypocritical perspectives on which countries should enjoy the freedom of democracy, and those which should not. The return of the Taliban and the 20-year anniversary of the 9-11 attacks remind us of the dangers of careless war, our domination by the military-surveillance complex, and the importance of humanitarianism and diplomacy.