Twenty years after 9/11, did US win its ‘war on terror’?

Ever since the United States declared a so-called global “war on terror” in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, the mission and goals of the effort have gone through many iterations as the level and scope of the threat changed over the decades.

“Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there,” former US President George W Bush told Congress days after the attacks, on September 20, 2001. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

Twenty years later, after two US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that killed tens of thousands of civilians, and trillions of dollars spent, the threat of attacks on the US still looms, although it looks different than it did in 2001. The power of groups that utilise mass killings as a tactic around the world has waxed and waned since. The goal of national powers to eradicate them completely remains unfulfilled.

Organisations with the power to launch a successful attack on US soil like that of al-Qaeda on 9/11 may have been reduced, splintered or weakened, but groups with similar ideological sympathies have spread to other parts of the globe, particularly in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

While many of al-Qaeda’s leaders targeted by the US following the 9/11 attacks were captured or killed – most notoriously Osama bin Laden, who was killed in an American raid on his Pakistan compound in 2011 – al-Qaeda has remained resilient, with affiliated groups in as many as 17 countries.

“We’ve seen repeatedly over the past 20 years how we counter a terror threat in one region and then, opportunistically, a concatenation of events enables terrorists to migrate and take hold of another region,” said Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security at the Council for Foreign Relations.

Not being predominantly centred in one part of the world, their geographic proliferation makes these fighter groups more challenging to track and contain. These groups lack the ability to orchestrate a wide-scale attack on the US comparable to 9/11, but their continuing spread speaks to the challenge of carrying out Bush’s stated goal of stamping out “terrorist groups”.

“They’re in more places than they were in 2001. There’s no question,” said Seth G Jones, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Recent events, particularly the US military’s departure from Afghanistan, could increase the ability of these networks to grow. Experts have warned that the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the recent troop withdrawal could increase the ability of anti-US groups to organise and proliferate in a way they have not been able to in years.

While the ability of these groups to flourish again in Afghanistan is still yet to be seen, the risk of it becoming a safe haven without a dominant US presence has risen substantially.

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