Fifteen years ago, Al Qaeda operatives put into action a plan they had been hatching for years: use commercial airlines as human-guided bombs to attack several of America’s most visible and iconic symbols. Tactically, the operation succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. They caused thousands of deaths and forever altered Americans’ pysche.
Opinions differ as to Al Qaeda’s ultimate objectives. To hear Osama Bin Laden tell it directly, they expected that people around the world–but especially fellow Muslims in the Middle East–would see Al Qaeda as “the stronger horse” and gain recruits for a grand movement to eliminate Western influence in the region. There is also strong evidence that they wanted to drag the United States into a costly and bloody war in the region that would sap it of resources and gain volunteers for their cause.
It didn’t really work. The American economy was more resilient than they expected, and while we did overreact in some paranoid ways, our resolve as a nation was strengthened. With the help of cynical and deceptive ideologues and war profiteers at home, we did get sucked into an immoral and inadvisable invasion of Iraq that certainly damaged us and our reputation. But that did not work out in Al Qaeda’s favor in the long run. While they gained a stronger foothold in Sunni Iraq at first, the forces they unleashed dwarfed the scope of their vision.
Insofar as they sought to topple corrupt pro-Western regimes, it was not terrorist actions but the hope for freedom from the Arab Spring that did far more to accomplish that goal. Some might say that the Arab Spring arose in part from the dominoes started by 9/11 and the Iraq War, but it seems likelier to be the result of drought, climate change and internal dynamics in Tunisia and elsewhere. Regardless, even the sweetness of the Arab Spring turned sour as societies fell into either chaos or even greater authoritarian turmoil. Populations suffered, as did the image of radical Islam.
Speaking of radical Islam, Al Qaeda itself ended up supplanted by ISIL, which ultimately became hostile to Al Qaeda. ISIL’s goal was a physical caliphate rather than an ideological one, and insofar as it attacked the West it did so with a view toward maximum body counts rather than hitting symbolic targets for propaganda purposes. Its methods were too brutal even for Al Qaeda, which at least in its own perverse way was attempting to win a war of ideas. The forces that Al Qaeda unleashed, rather than create a groundswell of support for radical Islam, only brutalized their own people and made them irrelevant.
But the United States didn’t fare much better in its reprisals. Afghanistan continues to be a mess, and the invasion of Iraq was an unmitigated disaster that left the world far less safe than if Saddam Hussein had been left alone. It is easily arguable that the lives of ordinary non-Kurdish Iraqis would have been better under Saddam–and that’s remarkable in itself. The invasion of Iraq led directly to the rise of ISIL, which put the world and the average global citizen in far greater danger than Al Qaeda did. It unleashed one of the world’s most devastating humanitarian crises in Syria. It empowered the Iranian regime by winning them a regional ally. The Kurds still didn’t get a homeland, and anti-Western sentiment in the whole region increased.
All that death and destruction, and everyone came out of the worse for it on both sides. Violence solved nothing for either side.
There’s a lesson in that for humanity somewhere. It’s one we’ve been taught before, yet we never seem to learn.