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9/11 and the Failure of Terrorism

September 11, 2019

On this day eighteen years ago, al-Qaeda carried out the most ambitious and deadly terrorist attack in history. The Islamist group hijacked four large commercial jets and crashed three of them into major U.S. targets: the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC. (Courageous passengers stormed the cockpit of the fourth hijacked plane, blocking its planned strike but leading to a crash in rural Pennsylvania, with all aboard lost.) The two towers fell, the Pentagon was partly wrecked, almost 3,000 people died, and Americans were terrified. The attack’s immediate success probably surprised even its planners. So what did 9/11 achieve for al-Qaeda? Nothing. In fact, the attack led to disaster for the Islamist group. That’s because terrorism does not work.

9/11 Didn’t Work

9/11 attacks on NYCAl-Qaeda meant to force an American withdrawal of troops from Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s holy places. The troops remain. With U.S. troops gone, the Islamist organization hoped to topple the Saudi monarchy. It remains too. Al-Qaeda probably also wanted to incite a broader holy war against the U.S. and its allies and against Israel, pushing them out of the Middle East. The broad holy war never materialized, and the Western nations and Israel remain. Finally, al-Qaeda of course hoped to increase its own power. Yet the attacks led to to the quick overthrow of the one government that tolerated al-Qaeda’s presence — the Taliban in Afghanistan — the capture or death of most of the group’s leaders, and the loss of much of its fighting force, as well as disruption of its operations, forcing it further underground. Today’s al-Qaeda is a shadow of its former self.

In other words, the most destructive terrorist attack in history achieved nothing for the attackers. Rather, it cost them dearly.

Terrorism Doesn’t Work

Northern Ireland remains part of the U.K., despite decades of terrorism by the IRA. Chechnya remains part of Russia. The Basque region remains part of Spain. And the U.S. federal government remains mighty, multi-ethnic, and warlike, despite terrorism by anti-government militias, neo-fascists, and (strangest of all) anti-war bombers.

Weak nations and peoples do sometimes defeat strong ones, through tactics like guerrilla warfare and nonviolent resistance. The South Africans overcame Apartheid, the Afghans defeated the Soviets, the Vietnamese defeated the U.S., the Indians and the American Revolutionaries expelled the British Empire, and Count Dracula (Vlad III Dracula, a.k.a. Vlad the Impaler) drove the Ottomans from Wallachia, at least for a while. The list goes on and on. But terrorism is not the way.


Photo by Michael Foran, provided through Wikimedia Commons.

© 2019 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.

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