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How 9/11 and the 'war on terror' tore the Arab world apart

The seeds of destruction were already planted with prior decades of colonialism propping up corrupt, weak governments.

Analysis | Global Crises

Today in our series 9/11 at 20: A week of reflectionwe hear from Rami G. Khouri, Director of Global Engagement at the American University in Beirut andan internationally syndicated political columnist and author, who contends that the U.S. wars accelerated negative trends and further impoverished and destabilized a region already suffering from western conflicts and authoritarianism.

The 9/11 attacks and subsequent U.S.-led “Global War on Terror” have massively degraded life conditions for most people across the Arab region, in almost every dimension of life, society, and governance.

The attacks and GWOT did not emerge from a vacuum, however, or mark a new stage in regional or world history. The destructive cycle of human suffering and state fragility they spurred should be seen more accurately as peak moments in a much longer historical trajectory — one defined by rickety Arab states and increasingly suffering citizens, within a world of endless militaristic imperialism and colonialism.

These last 20 years accelerated and aggravated negative trends that had already defined most Arab societies, sparked a few new ones that plague it today, and promise continued pain for years or decades to come. We better understand this if we recognize that 20 years ago the Arab region was already plagued by a historic cycle of six destructive trends that the post-9/11 era has rapidly and significantly worsened.

Citizen pauperization amidst obscene wealth accumulation by small regime-linked minorities. U.N. and other credible analyses indicate that around 75 percent of people in Arab countries are poor or vulnerable, which has increased and deepened due to COVID-19. Inequality among Arab citizens is the highest in the entire world — the middle class has shrunk in recent years from 44 to 33 percent. Poverty has widened and deepened; it is also now chronic and trans-generational, as poor youth today are guaranteed a life of poverty and deprivation like their parents, given the inability of economies or governments to help them enter the middle class, as they did in previous eras of sustained development.

Declining quality or availability of state social services has been a main reason why passive citizens often turned into angry opposition activists since the 1980s, when basic education, health care, staple foods, housing, transportation, fresh water, heating oil, and other critical family needs either became more expensive, harder to access, or of lower quality. Recent regional surveys show that about 80 percent of families cannot meet their weekly essential needs, largely because the expansion of corruption across the region. Ordinary citizens recognize corruption as a main cause of the lack of social justice and governance systems, erratic social services, and a lack of opportunities for quality education and employment.

The politically helpless Arab citizenry is unable either to choose or hold accountable its national leaders. Most leaders are military elites who seized power in a coup, or single families that rule based on hereditary identities or being chosen by former colonial powers, who help keep them in power. The feeling of total powerlessness by most Arabs who suffer daily indignities was (in 2001) and remains even more so today a big reason why many otherwise ordinary middle class young men turn to extremist movements, militias, and resistance and terror groups like al-Qaida or ISIS. They do so largely to escape their helpless victimhood and, in their desperate worldview, seek a better world for themselves and their families.  

— The ongoing expansion of politically neutered citizens who are economically vulnerable and marginalized leads to alienation from structures of society, the state, and government. This phenomenon first gained steam in the 1970s, when the Muslim Brotherhood and other (mostly nonviolent) Islamists attracted huge popular followings during the oil-fueled spree that also included high inflation, wider corruption, and more foreign penetration of Arab economies and privatized basic services.

The continuing alienation has led to deep fractures in citizen-state relations and the birth of major non-state armed actors (Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthis, Popular Mobilization Forces) that often share sovereignty with the state. Al-Qaida and ISIS are merely the latest and most violent manifestations of Arab and other citizens turning away from their states to assert new identities that also assume new agency that replaces their former helplessness. 

The three largest identity movements across the Arab region throughout the past century — Arabism, tribalism, and Islamism — have all challenged the modern states that came into being mostly after World War I. This hints that the core weakness in the modern Arab state is itself, which was never fully anchored to the identities, needs, or allegiances of its citizens. Those structural weaknesses in many Arab states have increased since 9/11.

Foreign military interventions at will in the region, mostly by non-Arab powers, have plagued Middle Eastern societies for the past two centuries or more — since Napoleon’s attacks in 1798. Such militarism has increased sharply since 2001 and has either initiated or hastened the slow collapse of Arab states like Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Yemen, Libya, and Sudan.

While the colonial-era U.K. and France were once the main foreign military invaders in the region, in the past 40 years, and especially since 2001, the United States has led the large-scale military penetration of Arab and South Asian lands, which has since opened the flood gates. Now it is common to see troops or hired mercenary proxies from Russia, Turkey, Sudan, Iran, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel active in many Arab countries. This perpetuates wars that continue to weaken national economies, increase poverty and emigration rates, destroy basic service facilities, weaken central governments, and hasten tendencies for secession or autonomy. The Iraqi Kurds, South Sudanese, and South Yemenis are the most distinct breakaway regions from existing Arab states, and others could follow. 

Israel’s non-stop illegal colonization and annexation of Arab lands persists without protest by global powers that simultaneously wage war across the region in part, they say, to promote the rule of law. The core Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been among the most destabilizing and radicalizing forces in the Arab region since the 1940s, and its destructive wars and military spending among the biggest waste of Arab resources that should have gone into genuine national development. It also sparked the advent of Arab military coups and rulers, which have been a central source of Arab state mediocrity and economic mismanagement and corruption ever since. Israeli colonization and annexation of Arab lands have continued since 9/11, adding to the many reasons why many ordinary Arab citizens resent their governments’ weaknesses or explicit acquiescence in Israeli acts.

These six dynamics existed before 9/11, but they have all worsened rapidly and spread across Arab lands since the “war on terror.” The GWOT and its parallel world of militarism and corrupt local governments has directly led to some of the most dangerous new developments, like the birth and expansion of ISIS, the rebirth and triumph of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and al-Qaida’s survival and diversification across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

Perhaps GWOT’s most dangerous consequence, in view of the six major structural troubles within Arab societies, has been the U.S. reinforcement of authoritarian Arab and Asian regimes that have significantly weakened already thin human rights and freedom of speech conditions in many countries. As the U.S.-led wars resulted in the expansion of the number, reach, and activities of terror groups, local governments used U.S. and other foreign support to fight this threat by cracking down on political and media freedoms; this only exacerbated citizen anger against their state, and drove some men and women into joining ISIS, al-Qaida, or other such violent groups. The latest examples of states moving towards more top-heavy autocracies are Lebanon, Palestine, and Tunisia — which had shown glimmers of pluralism and personal and political freedoms in recent decades.

So, most Arabs link the U.S.-led “war on terror,” and Western political, economic, and military support, to their incompetent, autocratic, and corrupt governments. This has led, al-Qaida, for example, to diversify, diffuse its membership, and expand to new lands. It also incubated in Iraq and Syria the birth of new groups around the Middle East and Asia, like ISIS and its several branches, which emerged directly from ex-al-Qaida cadres that organized in American jails in Iraq.

Thus, the American-led drive to beat back terror threats in 2001 devastated once growing economies and sparked a massive wave of pauperization across the region — which in turn has fueled the growth of the very terror groups the United States initially aimed to contain. The containment effort succeeded in reducing attacks against the U.S. mainland, but massively increased the destruction in societies and the suffering of several hundred million people in the Arab-Asian region.

The last 20 years only confirm the combination of three or four main reasons that usually prompt an otherwise nonviolent middle class citizens to join a violent group like al-Qaida: socio-economic desperation, powerlessness to improve their condition through political action due to their government’s authoritarian rule, the presence of foreign militaries in lands they consider holy to them, and the destruction of life and property by the combined forces of their governments and the foreign militaries. We have witnessed this repeatedly in Islamist-led militant movements against the Soviets and U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, and by Islamist groups’ attacks that drove the Israeli occupation troops from Southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

After the so-called Islamic State came into being in 2014-15, credible public opinion surveys showed that in some countries, seven to eight percent of the population saw these movements positively. People were not going to join these movements, but they thought they were doing something that was righteous and justified in fighting corruption and foreign occupation.

The Arab region’s 11-year-old ongoing uprisings to remove their inept and corrupt government systems are perhaps the strongest testament to how people who have been degraded and humiliated by their own governments will fight back and use any means possible to achieve a normal life. Arabs across the region have tried to do this for decades, without success, due to the military force and foreign support of their governments.

We can trace this cycle back for several decades before the 9/11 attacks, when the levels of poverty, corruption, school dropouts, informal labor, ineptitude in delivering basic services like electricity and water to people all over the region were still manageable. Now they are completely out of control, given high rates of poverty, informal labor, school dropouts, poor access to clean water, poor social insurance coverage, and other basic life needs. Much of this deterioration happened in the last 20 years. The link between the “war on terror,” deteriorating life and security conditions in Arab lands, and the ongoing mass citizen rebellions is now clear. The American-led fight against terror by military force and supporting authoritarian governments in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa has ravaged the quality of governance and the lives of ordinary people. That is the fundamental equation that needs to be addressed.

A convoy of US Marine Corps (USMC) High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMVW), assigned to D/Company, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marines Division, arrives in Northern Iraq, during a sandstorm. USMC personnel are in Iraq in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. Several vehicles are equipped with Tube-launched Optically-tracked Wire-guided (TOW) missile launchers.
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