The War on Terror—launched 20 years ago—has been devastating for people across the Middle East, Africa and central Asia.
The US claimed it was in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks. In reality the deliberate crashing of four aeroplanes became a convenient justification for president George Bush’s assaults.
The West invaded countries under the guise of protecting the American homeland and bringing stability across the world.
Bush announced that the US would bring down Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organisation, along with the Taliban and other terrorist networks. But the true terror was that waged by the US from 2001 until now in pursuit of power, profit and global dominance.
The war spans four American presidents, from Bush to Barack Obama, Donald Trump and now Joe Biden. Each administration’s foreign policy was implemented with different tactics, but it united politicians across the political spectrum.
And although the early invasions were painted as a twisted and misguided attack under Bush, 20 years on it binds together the interests of the US ruling class. The post-9/11 wars have displaced at least 59 million people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines. And the true number of civilian deaths will never be known—ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions.
The devastation is unquantifiable—and ongoing. Just between 2018 and 2020 the US undertook missions in 85 countries, including airstrikes and ground combat.
The objectives of the war were to spread US dominance internationally when its economic power was faltering. And stability and control in the Middle East is also crucial for the US’s oil interests in the region.
Operation Enduring Freedom—the name used by Bush for war in Afghanistan—was the first invasion of the campaign.
Even before the attacks on 11 September 2001, the Bush regime decided to give Afghanistan an ultimatum—hand over bin Laden or face attack. Bush soon had his excuse for the invasion he sought.
But the shambles in Afghanistan, and the US’s defeat in Iraq show that the War on Terror has been a huge failure for the US.
Not only has its military—the largest in the world—been beaten repeatedly, but US interference has actually given rise to more terror. The devastation caused by the US’s wars paved the way for the growth of new terrorist groups such as Isis. The hatred aimed at the US played in favour of terrorist groups.
The War on Terror led to mass resistance across the world too. In some countries the anti-war movement has resisted the US, its allies and imperialist wars for two decades.
Heavy bombardment and force from the air and ground began the Iraq War.
George Bush warned of “serious consequences” for Iraq for owning weapons of mass destruction. That was a complete fabrication he and then prime minister Tony Blair created for their own ends.
On 21 March 2003 the first troops entered and by April the capital Baghdad was in US control as Hussein’s government fell.
By 2004 the US transferred power to a new puppet government, built on sectarian lines. But the invasion had destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure, leaving ordinary people suffering.
From the very beginning the Wests’s occupying forces faced resistance and insurgencies—and a civil war in 2006. From March 2003 to March 2005, the US was responsible for 37 percent of 24,865 civilians killed—the largest proportion of any force.
Thanks to the War on Terror, in 2008 Iraq’s humanitarian situation was among the most critical in the world with millions forced to rely on insufficient and poor water.
US troops withdrew in 2011 but were back only three years later to drop airstrikes on Isis who had emerged during the resistance. Since 2017, a few thousand soldiers have remained in Iraq.
Some 11 million Iraqis are in need of humanitarian assistance, and war has created two million refugees.
The result of crushing resistance in Iraq directly produced Isis’s rise in northern Iraq and Syria.
Throughout much of the War on Terror, the West branded Syria an enemy.
Yet it also sent prisoners there to be tortured. The Syrian regime’s efforts to crush the revolution that began in 2011 turned the uprising into a civil war—which Isis spread into from Iraq.
Britain, the US and France sent money to rebel fighters.
As the chaos worsened Isis and al-Qaeda joined the fighting against the rebels and government. The US then dropped its bombs.
The US waded into the civil war in Syria to put down Isis in September 2014—13 years after 9/11.
The Pentagon has acknowledged its rules to avoid civilian casualties are looser in Syria than anywhere else. And it has provided falsified data to hide the true number of civilian deaths.
Some of the worst civilian casualties included a coalition airstrike in July 2016 that killed 56 civilians, including 11 children.
Another airstrike in March 2017 killed 46 and wounded more than 100 after planes hit a mosque. In June 2018 an airstrike killed 70 civilians, mostly women and children, including 39 members of the same extended family.
By April 2021 an estimated 8,311 to 13,188 civilian deaths had been suffered due to US-led and backed airstrikes. The US’s own estimate was 1,410.
Military action in Syria continues.
Yemen has suffered immensely from the War on Terror. In January 2009, Saudi Arabian and Yemeni branches of al-Qaeda merged.
So on 24 December 2009, the US began drone strikes—inflicting its own terror on Yemeni people.
US warplanes fired cruise missiles at supposed al-Qaeda training camps in Yemen.
Instead, they hit a village killing more than 60 civilians, 28 of them children. The US followed up with another series of drone attacks.
By 2014, fighters from the Houthi movement ousted President Hadi who was backed by Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia invaded, blockaded and bombarded Yemen starting from 2015—an horrific war that continues to this day.
Yemen now faces the biggest humanitarian crisis on the planet—with 80 percent of the population in need of aid. More than two million children under five suffer from acute malnutrition. The US and Britain have armed and supported the Saudi intervention.
US and British naval forces and British air forces also attacked Libya under the government of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
The West had demonised Gaddaffi at one point, then done deals with him, then turned on him again.
The justification was the War on Terror—the reality was the war was used as a justification to launch other invasions that may lean toward terrorist regimes.
The US intervention was full of hypocrisy, as was Britain and the US’s so-called “responsibility to protect” Libyan people.
After the invasion to remove Gaddafi, US forces left Libya and returned again in 2015 with airstrikes against Isis.
The evening after 9/11, George Bush told Richard Clark, the US counter-terrorism chief, “Everything is available for the pursuit of this war. Any barriers in your way, they’re gone. I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.”
On 17 September Bush signed a directive giving the CIA the power to secretly imprison detainees. They were called detainees for a reason.
While 9/11 was treated as an act of war the US was determined not to follow rules on how to treat prisoners.
CIA top lawyers considered the legality of torture, writing that “the Israeli example” could serve as “a possible basis for arguing torture was necessary to prevent imminent, significant, physical harm to persons.”
The first detainees taken in Afghanistan were innocent and had been sold to the CIA for bounties.
In 2002 the torture programme became better organised and an “enhanced interrogation program” was signed off
In the first five years of the occupation some 83,000 people were incarcerated by US forces—93 percent were captured by local militiamen and exchanged for US bounty payments.
When the war spread to Iraq another 100,000 people were detained. They were subjected to beatings, electric shocks, extreme cold, suspension from the ceiling by their arms, sexual humiliation, hooding, sleep deprivation, bombardment with white noise and drowning in buckets of water.
In 2002 the torture programme became better organised and an “enhanced interrogation program” was signed off.
One CIA officer describing Guantanamo Bay pointed out, “This is the press release. This is what they want you to see. This is where they’re taking the cameras.”
Khaled el-Masri, a car salesman, was mistaken for an al-Qaeda suspect with a similar name. He was arrested at the border while crossing from Serbia into Macedonia by bus. The CIA stripped him naked, shackled him, and put him on a Boeing 737 jet. The 737 flew to Baghdad and then on to the Salt Pit prison outside the Afghan capital, Kabul. Masri was chained to the floor of the jet and injected with sedatives. He was released after four months of torture.
The US flight crew fared better. After the 737 delivered Masri to the Afghan prison it flew to the resort island of Majorca, where crew members stayed at a luxury hotel for two nights.
The Salt Pit was an abandoned brick factory. CIA operatives wandered through dark corridors with head torches that scanned the bodies of detainees handcuffed to overhead bars. Most prisoners spent 22 hours a day like that. One was left hanging for 17 days.
Gul Rahman died in November 2002 naked from the waist down and chained hand and foot to a concrete floor. He froze to death.
The officer who ordered it received a £1,600 cash award for his “consistently superior work”. Gul was later recorded as a case of mistaken identity.
The prison moved to Bagram airbase. It became the hub of a huge network of torture sites.
At least 50 prisons were used to hold detainees in 28 countries, in addition to at least 25 more prisons in Afghanistan and 20 in Iraq. The US also used 17 ships as floating prisons to hold and torture people
There were some 1,622 flights in and out of Britain by aircraft used in rendition torture flights between 2001 and 2006.
Torture was central to the war of terror from top to bottom
Outsourcing some of the torture was useful to Britain and US. It allowed politicians to deny overseeing torture. As in the US, British government ministers were not only authorising torture, they were encouraging it.
Thousands suffered under this system. British soldiers killed Baha Mousa in Iraq in 2003. He was held for questioning for days in a stress position, deprived of sleep, covered alternately in urine and cold water, and repeatedly beaten.
As with the pictures of US soldier’s brutality to the 8,000 people in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, it showed how torture was central to the war of terror from top to bottom.
Defence of imperialism tied the rendition and torture to the occupation. The soldiers would do the initial arrests. Then, in a cruel filtering system, those thought to know something would be passed up the chain.
As a tool for gathering information it was pointless. But the purpose was to intimidate occupied populations. It also spurred resistance and the global opposition to the war of terror.
Some people were already busy conjuring up Muslims as the US’s new enemy soon after the end of the Cold War in 1991.
Harvard professor Samuel P Huntington published an early version of his book The Clash of Civilisations in 1993—nearly a decade before 9/11.
In its final form Huntington wrote, “The ideal enemy for America would be ideologically hostile, racially and culturally different, and militarily strong enough to pose a credible threat to American security.”
The dividing line in Europe “has moved several hundred miles east. It is now the line dividing the peoples of Western Christianity…from Muslim and Orthodox peoples,” he went on.
Huntington’s “clash”, and it’s singling out of Muslims, became a guiding light to president George Bush and prime minister Tony Blair’s War on Terror.
Sometimes Blair talked of “good Muslims”—those who accepted that their culture needed “modernisation” to come into line with the West. But he mostly discussed “Bad Muslims”—those who opposed his wars and saw no need to adapt their faith to fit his prescription.
The targeting of Muslims abroad also had deep ramifications at home. It helped construct an “enemy within”.
In general, Bush and Blair agreed that Islam was uniquely “backward” and incompatible with the modern world.
The task for the enlightened West was, therefore, to impose its superior values globally—by force, if necessary. Bush coined this “The New World Order”.
The targeting of Muslims abroad also had deep ramifications at home.
It helped construct an “enemy within”. Everyone against the West’s wars, but specifically almost all Muslims, fell into this category. Muslims were to lose many of the rights that others citizens could lay claim to.
On Friday 2 June, 2006 some 250 police raided a house in Forest Gate, in east London, after a tip-off that the house was a “chemical weapons factory”.
Mohammed Abdul Kahar, aged 23, was shot while he and his brother Abdul were arrested.
The media were full of lurid tales—leaked by the police—of dirty bombs and terrorists that had blended into the community.
Then, on the 9 June, the brothers were released without charge.
No officers were found to have breached their duties, and no one was held to account for the shooting. And for the media, a mealy-mouthed apology from Scotland Yard was sufficient to close the matter.
Similar stories of police raids on innocent Muslims suspected of terrorism offences were to be repeated time and again. The degree of distrust of the state that grew among Muslims in Britain cannot be overstated.
Some saw Islamophobia as a recurring feature of Christian societies going back to the Medieval Crusades. Others thought it was a passing phase that would end when memories of 9/11 passed.
But writer Arun Kundnani rightly described Islamophobia as a new form of “structural racism”.
He noted the way the prejudice was given life by those in positions of power, and was now deeply intertwined with the state and its laws.
“Its significance does not lie primarily in the individual prejudices it generates but in its wider political consequences,” he wrote.
This was a new form of racism, and it was being driven by those at the top of society.
The government’s Prevent programme, for example, aims to identify and counter political and religious “radicalisation”.
It acts as both a source of racism, in that it disproportionately targets young Muslims and oppresses them, but also as its ideological reinforcement.
By instructing all public sector bodies that their staff must report any signs of radicalisation, Prevent popularises the idea that Muslims are potential terrorists.
It can hardly be an accident that many of those who joined the Black Lives Matter movement last year extended their solidarity to Palestinians
Though Islamophobia has played a terrible roll in igniting racism, it is important to know that it has not gone unchallenged.
From the millions who marched against the war to the thousands who protested against the police shooting in Forest Gate, people of all backgrounds have fought to repel Islamophobia.
But the demonisation of Muslims did spread fear that becoming political, and taking a stand against the War on Terror could see you targeted by the state.
That caused some who had joined the movement to retreat.
That state-inspired fear did not last long.
It can hardly be an accident that many of those who joined the Black Lives Matter movement last year extended their solidarity to Palestinians. They’re victims of some of the most blatant anti-Muslim racism anywhere in the world.
Recent struggles against Islamophobia show us that fighting oppression has itself become a unifying force.