The world was changed by bin Laden’s horrific plan

Farah Pandith
Senior Fellow,
Harvard Kennedy School

In response to the question: September 11 changed America, but did it change the world?

Could Osama bin Laden have imagined the global upheaval he unleashed with his evil scheme? Could he have anticipated years of intense distrust in governments and fear of “the other”? Could he have predicted that the spectacular imagery of the World Trade Center towers collapsing would create a shared global moment that would be replayed time and again, to heighten emotions, increase fear, and spur outrage — all of which lingers to this day?

Maybe not. But what is certain is that the attacks in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania that killed 2977 people from 93 countries changed the very character of nations — especially concerning identity and belonging — and unleashed decades of unforeseen circumstances including the rise of ISIS, the displacement of an estimated 50 million people, and a surge of hate and extremism amplified by the technological revolution.

The political and cultural fallout from the attacks has shaped our human experience, the dynamics of political relationships, and the strategic frameworks that hold them together.

The vast majority of today’s global decision-makers were old enough when 9/11 occurred to understand the long-term effects of seeing passenger planes used as physical and psychological weapons. This critical fact affects the willingness of nations to advance new cooperative frameworks and factor-in the might of non-state actors. It explains the motivation to take protective, collective action around the “us versus them” ideologies used by terrorist recruiters. It also reflects how, from that day forward, the one-quarter of human civilisation that is Muslim underwent a new scrutiny based on religious affiliation.

The political and cultural fallout from the attacks has shaped our human experience, the dynamics of political relationships, and the strategic frameworks that hold them together.

The massive US military response to the 9/11 attacks drew a global reaction through new coalitions, combined military training, intelligence sharing, and allied security operations. Nations expanded friendships, recalibrated enemies, and altered international dynamics. A sophisticated new threat environment required multilateral organisations to work differently to combat illicit financial networks, terrorist exploitation of technologies, and other tools that terrorist groups use to attract new recruits and conduct operations.

While nations have cooperated in the past on international crises, such as famine or climate events, after 9/11 the international priority became security, relegating resources to these other global issues to second. In parallel, this period birthed a new urgency to contemplate how we interact with those who are “different”.

Through it all, “the West hates Islam” narrative of al-Qaeda has had staying power, motivating new recruits to terrorist organisations and causing nations to become less accepting of differences and weary of immigrants. In the years since the attacks, the ability of non-state actors to terrorise has accelerated through their intimate understanding of age demographics and technology, allowing them to form unprecedented new alliances, influencing Gen Z and Millennials from Dhaka to Detroit.

The 9/11 attacks also ignited something far bigger: an overall rise of fear and distrust in governments, individuals, and corporations. Hate, distrust, and fear existed well before 9/11, but the attacks brought forward a new generational wave of uncertainty, passed on from those who experienced the event. How this new generation feels about safety and security is crucial: fearful societies combined with a deep distrust of government will continue to influence issues from trade and health to climate and economics.

The consequences of the 9/11 attacks are more far-reaching than the steady evolution of global terrorism.

These sentiments have driven hate-motived violence, both physical and emotional, on ethnic and religious populations worldwide. They also shape the way nations think about their internal Muslim populations and their foreign policy. Islam and Muslims are part of national equations in a way they were not prior to the attacks. Hate crimes have transformed the global landscape, emboldened former political outliers, fuelled new extremist movements, and altered diplomatic relations and political ties with nations where Muslims are the majority or where they live as minorities. The attacks put a single religion under the microscope and magnified a sentiment that Muslims everywhere continue to experience.

This matters. A tiny minority of bad actors does not represent an entire religion. Muslims have been forced to contemplate aspects of their faith that they did not before the attacks. Asking them to answer for the results of an audacious act of violence by a small band of extremists 20 years before is unreasonable. With so much of the global Muslim population regarded differently now, a new layer of reality and complexity has been thrust upon a quarter of the world’s population.

The consequences of the 9/11 attacks are more far-reaching than the steady evolution of global terrorism. They have affected the very way our world operates and how people think about who they are. They have raised questions about our knowledge on the foundational issues of identity, trust, and fear — matters far beyond the realms of foreign policy. Whether bin Laden knew it or not, his brazen plan has had repercussions far beyond the horrors of that day.

Challenge the expert

Lydia Khalil, Lowy Institute’s resident expert on terrorism and extremism, challenges Farah Pandith’s key arguments.

You write about the particular consequences that the 9/11 attacks and the War on Terror have had on global Muslim populations, but has the impact been uniform? And has the scrutiny subsided over the ensuing two decades?

The impact of 24 hours/7-days-a-week scrutiny on global Muslim populations can’t be dismissed. The attacks changed the dynamics of ordinary life. The identity of someone who is, or is perceived to be, Muslim has transformed in societies all over the world. Where once no one cared if there was a mosque in a town, today there is interest. What kind of Muslims are they? What are they doing there? Are they secretly plotting against us?

The fear of hate-activated violence, the overwhelming unwanted attention, and the need to “prove” they are not terrorists, among other issues, are common concerns throughout the globe. Muslims are worried about their safety and well-being; some have even changed their outward appearance, by removing headscarves or wearing Western clothes, to blend in. The way attitudes are displayed may vary, but the common connective tissue is that the Muslim population is invariably in the spotlight without wishing to be so.

The impact of this scrutiny manifests emotionally and psychologically, as noted in a recent US study on Muslims and suicide. Hate crimes against Muslims in America are five times more frequent than before the 9/11 attacks. New realities around Muslim identity appear in surround sound — one can’t escape; the world sees you and responds.

You argue that “‘the West hates Islam’ narrative of al-Qaeda has had staying power”, but by most measures the Salafi jihadist project and ideology has been a failure. How do you account for its staying power when the broader Salafi jihadist project has so far not fulfilled its goals of establishing a global caliphate?

A key goal of bin Laden’s plan was to create a scenario where America would have no recourse but to remove its military presence from Muslim-majority nations. By that measure, indeed, the al-Qaeda “project” did not meet the goal outlined by its leader.

However, the ideological dimension of terrorist groups like al-Qaeda have not been a failure. Groups such as al-Qaeda, the so-called Islamic State, al Shabab, or the Taliban — groups that use the narrative of “the West hates Islam” as part of their ideology — have gained adherents over the world in the last 20 years. It is a magical potion for them. They can use it in any way they wish to illustrate their point, for example to vilify Western actions around trade or security, or domestic treatment of Muslims within Western nations. They use the narrative that the reason something bad is happening to Muslims is because of “the West” and their effort to demonise Islam.

In 2012, the Taliban claimed polio vaccines given by the United States were in fact sterilisation shots because they wanted to prevent Muslim women from becoming pregnant. Local terrorist groups in Indonesia claimed that tsunamis occurred because America had the ability to inject a technological device into the global weather system to cause harm to Muslims. With social media’s advances and saturation, the claims have increased, the power of the narrative has ripened, and more and more young people are being taught conspiracy theories around this framework.

The so-called Islamic State’s ability to recruit from countries as culturally different as Canada and Tajikistan shows the tremendous resilience of their ideology and narratives. If recruitment to groups had diminished and conspiracy theories about “the West” and “Islam” were hard to find, we would be in a very different situation. The success of this narrative shows its ability to deepen mistrust and widen the “us versus them” gap. The ideological appeal of this narrative has remained strong.

Was it the attacks themselves that resulted in these far-reaching consequences and impacts you describe, or was it the US-led response to them, as many of our contributors have argued? In other words, would the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda have had such an impact if the United States responded differently?

An attack of such scale as 9/11 would inevitably have unleashed a broader set of actions by the United States and galvanised a global coalition. The United States would have obviously reviewed its intelligence sharing procedures, scrutinised its prior assessment of the terrorist threat, and recommend fundamental changes to its national security infrastructure — as it did with establishment of the 9/11 Commission. Its recommendations would have set the stage for wider changes — and questions about building a security infrastructure that would be more alert to this type of catastrophe. The inculcation of fear of the other, growth of “us versus them” movements, and other consequences of a terrorist group claiming to speak for Islam would have undoubtedly had an impact on American societies (as did the Iranian hostage crisis) and other communities around the world. The far-reaching consequences were not just about the US military response.

Farah Pandith is a Senior Fellow, Future of Diplomacy Project, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, an adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, the former State Department Special Representative to Muslim Communities, and author of How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat (2019).