September 11, 2016: Are we safer today? – By Maria Chr. Alvanou

It was 15 years ago, since terrorism shaped global history and turned international terrorism into the number 1 security threat. The infamous attack remains a symbol of jihadist atrocity and a reminder of how even the mightiest military power on earth can be vulnerable. “Al –Qaeda” became a name to fear, perceived as the Lernean Hydra of terrorism, especially because it waged global jihad as an “umbrella network”, under which off-springs, cells and individuals could perpetrate attacks in a flexible way and without the conventional structural and operational limitations of the past.In the years that followed, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were part of the US dogma “war against terrorism” that had a clear military outlook. Also part of the whole counter-terrorism agenda was the legislation of the Patriot Act that gave powers of investigation and prosecution without the previous existing legal boundaries. Water-boarding interrogations, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo conditions of detainment were some of the by-products. Al-Qaeda members were hunted down everywhere and the dreaded Osama Bin Laden was finally exterminated. Should one assess the success of the above policy, he must take in to account several parameters. First of all, no major terror attack took place again in US soil, with the exception of the Boston Marathon attack. So there is a tangible success to be measured. On the other hand, there were also two notable victories for the terrorists. The first has to do with the Western principles and values. The United States of America have been considered the safeguard of Western Democracy and Freedoms. All during the Cold War it was the advocate of human rights against the cruel Soviet block where people could get arrested and put to interrogation and trials without any respect for human rights. Yet, after September 11, the shock and fear allowed measures to be taken by the US that created a precedence of official, legal and public derogation from human rights protection. The second victory has to do with international security and especially the security in Europe. Neither the world, nor Europe has become more secure. There are attacks frequently taking place in several countries, showing that islamists have not been defeated. They continue to carry out their deadly work.

Europe certainly was no stranger to terrorism before 9/11. Most countries had their domestic terror history with mainly ideologically driven groups. Whether it was the Brigatte Rosse, Rote Armee Fraktion or November 17, the fight was against the “corrupted establishment of the capitalists” and the NATO/US policies. And of course there were ETA and IRA, both with national aspirations as a motive. Honestly, Europe was no stranger to terrorism exported from the Middle East either. Hijackings during the ‘70s and of course the Munich 1972 Olympic Games attack are blatant examples of how Palestinian organizations operated in Europe. But during the 90’s the terror scene seemed to have relatively calmed down and terrorism was not perceived by the average European as a threat for everyday life. This lasted until the London and Madrid attacks that shook governments and people, making Al-Qaeda a European problem (though in many ways and especially due to the Hamburg cell behind the September 11 preparation, the group was a European problem already). It was now evident that mass casualties, random victims were a threat for Europeans too.  Jihad had operational manifestations in European ground and cells as well as individuals were activated. After the assassination of Al-Qaeda leader, the collapse of order in Syria and several international developments, the Islamic State took the lead. “Daesh”, as many like to call the organization in a pejorative form, has initiated a European horror campaign. France, Germany and Belgium were recent victims of this series of attacks. The “clash of civilizations” that many were denying as an absurd idea, came back to haunt society, as it was expressed with the recent initial “burqini ban” by a French court. Many cannot differentiate between Islam and islamist terrorism, between Muslims and terrorists and see an inescapable clash of two worlds (and with such an attitude this could  actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy). Europe was unprepared to react to such a situation. Of course there were so many European declarations over the years for respect to multiculturalism, but how could this be achieved without acknowledging and respecting a local culture and the many other individual cultures of the people who have immigrated to Europe to become part of a new social reality? The French vision of secularism (and the “burqini” issue) shows us exactly how a European state can fail into sustaining a multicultural society with real acceptance and solidarity, as it bases its peace( which proved to be totally superficial) upon denying or hiding cultural differences.

Another thing that followed the 9/11 attacks was that counter-terrorism became an industry. Money makes the world go round and thus new technology, new science, new security measures, all in the quest of thwarting the terror threat and making citizens (feel) safe became business.  Security has become an industry even in the academic field, with university schools, experts, seminars, journals, researches. Nationally and internationally, many projects researching the phenomenon of terrorism and ways to combat it are financed. The words “radicalization” and “de-radicalization”, “religious violence”, “terrorism”, “extremism” are essential for a scholarly “trendy” project and academics try to explain how and why terrorism rose to this current level and which should be the best answer. The industry of politics has exploited security too, taking advantage the fear and the survival instinct of people. For example the racist and xenophobic rhetoric of populist parties has been based in the assumption that all foreigners and Muslims are potential (to say the least) terrorists, so they should be expelled as part of a secure Europe.

After 15 years since the September 11 an alarming question arises: Are we safer? The answer is already evident and equally alarming: Hardly! The situation speaks for itself. Despite research projects, expert meetings, conferences, lectures, books and articles, laws and measures, policies and strategies, wars, special squads and police forces, we have not managed to win the terrorists. Under the international islamist network, contemporary terrorists pose a unique operational type of threat. Anyone can carry attacks with simplicity. The “street” level of attacks (originating from the Middle East, with the use of knives, vehicles, unsophisticated bombs etc.) is dangerous exactly because it is so simple. Moreover, another problem is that islamist terrorism is quite like apocalyptic terrorism in the sense that it has a metaphysical point of reference and proclaims a sacred truth that demands absolute victory. Secular Europe needs to grasp that there are no negotiations and no middle ground as an option. It is a fight that must be won in 2 levels: Prevention of attacks (meaning good intelligence to thwart attacks and arrest as soon as possible future perpetrators) plus countering radicalization. There is eminent need for a systematic effort to stop the radicalization of new islamist network members, ready to attack and kill. This should be carried out in the web, in mosques, in schools, in Universities, in neighborhoods, everywhere radicalization takes place. And it should be done effectively. Is it possible to win the fight against islamist terrorism?  The answer is not an easy one, because the task is not easy. The only answer though we can afford to give is: We must surely try.