Today
Fri 17 September 2021

From the disaster of Iraq, the creation of the ‘Islamophobia industry’, to defeat in Afghanistan, America has fallen into the trap set by the leader of al-Qaeda

If the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan represents the end of the ‘War on Terror’ – a global counter-terrorism operation carried out in a dozen countries – then we can declare Osama bin Laden the sole victor, exactly 20 years after he orchestrated the 9/11 attacks.

While it was not the victory the al-Qaeda leader had envisaged – given that his mission was to vanquish the US from the Middle East and unite Muslims to overthrow autocratic Arab regimes – he succeeded in dragging the world’s number one superpower towards ignominious self-defeat.

Two weeks after the attacks on New York City and Washington D.C., which left 3,000 Americans dead, bin Laden delivered the following ultimatum to America: “I swear by God almighty, who raised the heavens without effort, that neither America nor anyone who lives there will enjoy safety until safety becomes a reality for us living in Palestine and before all the infidel armies leave the land of Muhammad.”

But Bin Laden is now dead and more than 600 US military bases and roughly 80,000 US soldiers remain in the Middle East, with Israel maintaining a death grip on the occupied Palestinian people. Today, Americans are more fearful of the Coronavirus than they are towards violent jihadist groups, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. So, how does this translate as a win for bin Laden?

In successfully anticipating that the 9/11 attacks would encourage the US to embrace the ‘dark side’ – which then Vice President Dick Cheney vowed to do when promising that the George W Bush administration would “fight in the shadows” and use “all means at its disposal” – the Saudi-born terrorist would unleash the country’s worst impulses; including arrogance, ignorance, hubris, recklessness, racism, xenophobia, and brutality.

In the execution of counter-terrorism policy and actions, these impulses metastasized into the use of “black sites”, extraordinary rendition, secret kidnappings, torture, targeted assassinations, extra-judicial murder, mercenaries, bounties, “kill teams”, commando raids, and secretive drone programmes.

If human rights and the rule of law is what separates us from terrorists, then we were now behaving like the terrorist group we had vowed to vanquish.

Then came the decision to invade Iraq – a country that had zero to do with al-Qaeda, bin Laden or the 9/11 attacks. The occupation not only unleashed and sowed violence, chaos and suffering across the Middle East, but also divided the American public, who until that moment were unified in the ‘War on Terror’.

As US troops became bogged down in a bloody sectarian civil war, critics and opponents of the Bush administration were branded ‘traitors’ and ‘terrorist sympathisers’, as the all-girl country-pop group the Dixie Chicks learnt after being blacklisted by thousands of radio channels for saying “we do not want this war, this violence and we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas”.

The sectarian civil war also introduced American households to the differences between Sunni and Shiite Islam. But, at the same time, television networks beamed footage of suicide and car bombing attacks, which together cemented in the minds of many that terrorism and Islam were indistinguishable.

In the year after 9/11, fewer than 25% of the Americans surveyed believed that Islam encourages more violence than other religions – a figure that would climb to 46% at the peak of the bloodshed in Iraq a few years later, according to the Pew Research Centre.

These changing attitudes towards Islam launched a ‘cottage industry’ of Islam-hating books and the political careers of Muslim-hating individuals. It spawned what Nathan Lean has dubbed the “Islamophobia industry”.

“Muslims became receptacles for societal anxiety, and the right-wing, knowing full well the power of fear, used the uncertain time to their advantage,” he observed.

Suddenly, 1.6 billion Muslims were made objects of suspicion and national security discourse. In the name of counter-terrorism, “security is politicised, savagery legalised and patriotism weaponised,” noted Carlos Lazoda in The Washington Post.

Mosques became targets of protests, vandals and violent attacks, as the Republican Party enacted laws to protect states from online conspiracies that accused Muslims of secretly plotting to implement Sharia law. The emergence of ISIS – a by-product of the US occupation of Iraq – reaffirmed suspicions held in the minds of tens of millions of Americans that Islam is anti-American.

This growing animus towards Muslims would not only rip the country apart by exacerbating the cultural divide between cosmopolitan urbanites and nativist rural populations, but would also launch the political career of Donald Trump, thus putting the US on a path towards fascism.

As President, Trump said that “Islam hates us”. He banned people from certain Muslim-majority countries from entering the country. He offered no condemnation of China for its Uyghur Muslim concentration camps. He filled his administration with individuals tied to the Islamophobia industry, such as Seb Gorka; Frank Gaffney; Mike Pompeo; and Mike Flynn, who likened Islam to a “cancer”.

The country experienced a surge in hate crimes against Muslims and a rapid expansion of far-right, white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, which have leveraged anti-Muslim animus to recruit, radicalise, and mobilise. Trump’s presidency started with a white nationalist rally held in Charlottesville in 2017, which killed one person and injured dozens more; and ended with the far-right terrorist attack on the US Capitol on 6 January.

In the past 20 years, more Americans have been killed on US soil by far-right extremists than Islamic terrorists. Today, both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security regard far-right terror a far greater threat to America than Islamic extremism. In other words, white domestic terrorists are the most likely to bring the US to its knees – a threat elevated by the probability that Trump will run again for the presidency in 2024; and the willingness of his followers to die or spend the rest of their lives in prison for him, even as he dismantles the Constitution they proclaim to adore. 

Donald Trump’s 70 million voters don’t wish for democracy or freedom – they wish only for their perceived and imagined political and cultural enemies to be humiliated, defeated, and annihilated.

“The combination of huge standing armies, almost continuous wars, military Keynesianism and ruinous military expenses have destroyed our republican structure in favour of an imperial presidency,” observed Chalmers Johnson, author of Nemesis: The Last Days of American Empire.

Today, American empire and American democracy stand on their last weary legs. And America’s enemies give Osama bin Laden credit for that.

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