It is time to assess how safe the world is now compared to how it was in 9/11. In the next lines, we will see what has changed, the mistakes the international community has made and evaluate how safe our world is today.
1) The terrorist threat worldwide has changed. No similar attacks have been carried out since 9/11, except the Madrid and London bombings that struck public transports in 2004 and 2005. If this is the standard to measure the success of the counterterrorism efforts, then yes, those have been quite an achievement. This idea, among others, was used by President Biden to justify the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Yet, the lens to look at this is much more complex and the balance is quite mixed if we take the threat level into account.
2) al Qaeda has changed, the group is not as international but it is more effective at the local level. al Qaeda is stronger now than it was in 2001. It has more supporters now compared to 20 years ago and has now an increasing number of affiliates across the world. The networks and branches operate more independently. Its approach has also changed with a focus on the near enemy (local and national authorities) and no longer the far enemy (the US and its allies). This means that the objectives are more local and rooted deeper in the regional situation. Al Shabaab in Somalia, one of the deadliest terrorist groups in the world, is the best example of this new trend.
The counterterrorism measures have played a role in the change of tactics as the group was increasingly under pressure. By rebuilding and expanding its network in various parts of the world, it hopes to be able to achieve its overall strategy and objective by having local communities on their side.
3) There are bigger and more complex threats now than in 2001. Other threats have emerged since 9/11. The US war in Iraq in 2003 has contributed to the emergence of the so-called Islamic State that controlled a part of Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2018, and directed or inspired terrorist attacks in many parts of the world. Even if the territory that ISIS once controlled was taken back, the terrorist group continues to be a threat in the region and has branches and affiliates in key countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The groups is reorganizing and still counts with a solid financing system and supporters in person and online.
In Western countries, far-right extremism is also on the rise, with more and more violent manifestations, becoming nowadays in the US a higher threat than jihadist-related groups.
4) The highest number of victims of terrorism worldwide: Muslims. The threat of groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS is greater for Muslim countries and populations than for Westerners that are supposed to be the primary target. Since 9/11, hundreds of thousands of Muslims have been the innocent victims of such terrorist attacks. We are in the thousands for Westerners or non Muslims across the world, even counting military personnel killed in action. This implies that the best solutions to eradicate those threats are local, with the support of the region and the international community.
5) Some traditional methods to control terrorism only got the situation worse. If the methods used to prevent a new 9/11 type of attack seem to have been effective, experts agree that some of the measures taken, such as the Guantanamo detention camp without proper trial, waterboarding interrogation techniques, profiling and other discriminatory measures, have also alienated individuals and groups. Measures to counter terrorism and radicalization are needed but should not create other incentives to mobilize individuals and groups around a common cause or a target.
6) The cost of lives and money related to fight terrorism is higher than nation building costs. The so-called war on terror has cost billions of dollars if we take into account the cost of military operations across the world that were necessary to destroy and disrupt terrorist facilities. Such a huge investment, also in terms of intelligence and technology, has been essential. The complex question being debated is whether it was too much or whether the funds have been rightly allocated between repressive and preventive measures. The tricky issue is that it is impossible to measure the exact potential cost of terrorist plots that have been foiled or simply prevented at all.
7) The Middle East: Weak states and lack of security are a breeding ground for terrorism. Instability is the perfect breeding ground for terrorist groups. Civil wars and ethnic and religious tensions, as well as the difficult transitions in many Arab countries in 2010-2011 have often served terrorist groups to rally disappointed and left-out individuals. Often, those joining terrorist groups are at the beginning far from the ideology they then fight for.
8) More restrictions, control and tracking to improve international security. Many aspects of our daily lives have been changed forever. The way we travel and keep our private or public data is no longer the same. This is now part of the new normal and there won't be any turning back, but the opposite: more registrations, tracking and data sharing between countries. Since 9/11 more data sharing tools have been created, more tracking of our financial movements has been compiled and more complex is to leave without leaving a trace, particularly online.
Preventing instability and future grievances are key for countering extremism and terrorism. The tools to that end are often long term and do not immediately yield results, which is therefore sometimes less appealing for short-term political gains. But they are in the long run less costly, also in terms of lives. This is also what is at stake nowadays in Afghanistan but also Syria, Irak, Libya, the Sahel and Mozambique.
In conclusion, the fight against extremism and terrorism is probably an open-ended struggle. This is unfortunately not a war that can be won once and for all and not a new phenomenon. It is a daily struggle that begins within our own communities and that requires international cooperation given the globalization.
The threat has changed and the counter-terrorism tools developed in 2001 were meant to fight the threat coming from out of the US, but now, the threat to the US is mainly coming from inside the country, so new tools need to be designed and put in place to be able to adapt and fight domestic terrorism.
The use of the internet and social media have indeed accelerated and facilitated the radicalization of new sympathizers and recruits all over the world, which makes the threat bigger than ever before. The pandemic and the confinement has also accelerated radicalization online and the impact is difficult to assess, so better tools to counter the threat need to be put in place. Each local injustice or tension online or offline can quickly become a domestic, regional or international issue.