It is not easy to forget that terrible day, and even after 20 years it is still disturbing and frightening that it can happen again anywhere in the world, and dreadfully replicable.
Two decades later, the number of al-Qaeda fighters has increased, their areas of deployment have expanded, recruitment continues, and their weapons have evolved. They are in training camps in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Europe. Their network has expanded: al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, Ansar al-Sharia, al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, Tahrir al-Sham, the Guardians of Religion Organization, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Turkistan Islamic Party, Lashkar-e-Taiba, The Caucasus Emirate, the Haqqani network, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and Jaish-e-Mohammed in southeastern Asia.
During 20 years of wars against al-Qaeda, and after the killing of its leader bin Laden, thousands of his soldiers, and the pursuit of the remnants, why has their number doubled and their danger increased around the world?
This is because the war was limited to military force. Al-Qaeda is an idea, not a force. It can thrive in any desert or ghetto, and among any group of people. Eliminating Hitler was not only with weapons, but the Western governments waged intellectual wars against Nazism and enacted laws to limit its expansion. If allowed to be active, it will be dangerous again, finding popularity among the frustrated and angry in Europe and America.
With a regime like Iran that feeds ideas of extremism and fighting, promotes its rhetoric and builds militias to serve its activities, terrorism will continue to thrive. Confronting Iran is a confrontation with the extremist religious ideology that emerged in 1979 with Khomeini’s arrival in power.
The descendants of those who committed the 9/11 crime are still digitally active, especially on social media. They have weapons, sources of funding, media, advocates, and sympathizers. Through these live networks, we feel that the danger exists, and 11 September 2001 may be repeated in some way, as the efforts to eliminate them completely are neither serious enough nor comprehensive.
There are no limits to al-Qaeda’s movements and threat. The attacks on New York and Washington were sudden at the time. We didn’t expect al-Qaeda to cross the Atlantic into US territory, nor did we expect the attacks to happen in this manner and volume. But when we ponder these events, we realize that al-Qaeda was growing before our eyes.
Al-Qaeda as an idea remained alive, active, and dangerous following the killing of bin Laden, al-Baghdadi, and the rest of its leaders. After being prevented from preaching in mosques, its followers turned to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube platforms. Like all evil ideas, they do not die as long as there is at least one person willing to defend them.
Unless we fight and restrict extremist ideas, and on their platforms, they will become more widespread and dangerous. In short, a terrorist group will not exist without an extremist ideology that precedes it, and there is no extremist ideology without an environment that allows it to exist and spread.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat