September 11, 2001, is one of those dates that mark a transformation in world politics. Just as the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, signified the Cold War’s end, al-Qaeda’s attack on the United States opened a new epoch. A non-governmental group killed more Americans that day than the government of Japan did with its surprise attack on another transformative date, December 7, 1941. While the jihadi terrorist movement had been growing for a decade, 9/11 was the turning point. Five years into this new era, how should we characterize it?
Some believe that 9/11 ushered in a “clash of civilizations” between Islam vs. the West. Indeed, that is probably what Osama bin Laden had in mind. Terrorism is a form of theater. Extremists kill innocent people in order to dramatize their message in a way that shocks and horrifies their intended audience. They also rely on what Clark McCauley and others have called “jujitsu politics,” in which a smaller fighter uses the strength of the larger opponent to defeat him.
In that sense, bin Laden hoped that the US would be lured into a bloody war in Afghanistan, similar to the Soviet intervention two decades earlier, which had created such a fertile recruiting ground for jihadists. But the Americans used a modest amount of force to remove the Taliban government, avoided disproportionate civilian casualties, and were able to create an indigenous political framework.
While far from perfect, the first round in the fight went to the US. Al-Qaeda lost the sanctuaries from which it planned its attacks; many of its leaders were killed or captured; and its central communications were severely disrupted.