Ten reasons why terrorism still haunts us 20 years after 9/11

Ten reasons why terrorism still haunts us 20 years after 9/11

Ten reasons why terrorism still haunts us 20 years after 9/11

By Dr Christina Schori Liang, Head of Terrorism and PVE, Geneva Centre for Security Policy

Since the United Nations bolstered its fight against terrorism by adopting resolution 1373 (2001) in the aftermath of 9/11, the threat of terrorism has persisted, transformed and modernized.  

There are 10 key reasons why terrorism will persist into the foreseeable future. 

  1. Terrorist groups have expanded four-fold since 9/11. A recent report from the United Nations points to al-Qaeda’s unimpeded growth in Africa, entrenchment in Syria, and presence in over 15 Afghan provinces with strong ties with the Taliban Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have forged alliances with local jihadist groups in Africa in recent years and have established new strongholds in West, North and Central Africa, with recent inroads into Southern Africa. IS still has a significant presence in Syria and Iraq and holds a war chest of $100 million, as well as a network of cells from the Philippines to Afghanistan.


  1. Great power rivals are using terrorists as proxies. Great power competition is growing and using terrorism to carry out proxy wars. For example, Iranian-sponsored proxy groups such as Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthi in Yemen, Hamas in Palestine and Shi’a militias in Iraq are a growing destabilization factor in the Middle East. These terrorists, insurgents or militias are using weapons and technology supplied by state actors.


  1. Policy remains uninformed. Counter-terror policy continues to be marked by political short-termism and strategic illiteracy. Government leaders and policy makers fail to consult their own military cadre, intelligence agencies and academics before taking strategically important decisions. The disastrous exit of the US in Afghanistan points to persistent intelligence failures in understanding the dynamics of terror groups.


  1. Human rights are not respected. The US must grapple with its moral, legal and human rights abuses committed during the “war on terrorism,” including its “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The US Armed Services Report and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report have highlighted how this has affected US reputation worldwide and has helped terrorists recruit.


  1. Democracies are declining and have their own terror problem. Democratic states are suffering from a crisis of legitimacy, which in turn is feeding domestic terrorism. Democratic decline is caused by the weakening of political institutions that sustain the democratic system, such as the peaceful transition of power or electoral systems. The global preoccupation with 9/11 may have blinded us to the fact that terrorism can start at home. Focus is not only needed on religious inspired extremists but also other groups based on ideology regarding gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation.


  1. Social media has become a powerful terrorist weapon. Internet and social media have become a powerful weapon for terrorists to recruit, fund, train and plan attacks and to spread disinformation and ideology. Most counter-terrorism efforts have largely focused on the “tangible” capabilities of terror groups, including territorial control, manpower, finances, and equipment. These approaches have not addressed the “intangible soft power” of terrorist groups and have ignored the battle of ideas and the narratives that terrorists are using to recruit.


  1. New hardware is also available to terrorists. Terrorists are not only gaining power through digital tools. New technologies such as drones, satellites, mobile secure communications and other “dual-use” technologies are available to terror groups and augment their asymmetrical military power. Besides facilitating the spread of terrorist ideology, mass communications and the internet are allowing groups to connect, share intelligence and tactics, and conduct business and strategize in the dark web.


  1. The nexus of crime and terror is growing: Terrorists’ ability to cooperate with criminal groups has giving them the opportunity to gain enormous wealth through kidnapping for ransom, human trafficking, drugs, environmental crime and illicit trade in precious minerals. Crime has enabled terrorists to exploit already corrupt governments, which in turn supply extremists with military grade equipment and weapons. A member of the transnational criminal Haqqani network is now part of the Taliban government. The Taliban are trafficking opiates and methamphetamine and are sitting on a trillion dollars’ worth of minerals the world desperately needs.


  1. Covid-19 has increased instability: Since Covid-19 began, the condition of democracy and human rights has grown worse in 80 countries. The pandemic has unleashed a feeling of collective anxiety about public health and an uncertain future. Governments are not seen as performing well in response to the virus, and the economic fall-out, social exclusion and the ongoing uncertainties are fostering division and turmoil. Covid-19 is also slowing down conflict resolution efforts and transitional justice at a time when it is most needed.


  1. The climate crisis underpins all: Climate change acts as a threat multiplier that can worsen existing social vulnerability if adaptation and/or mitigation measures are not put in place.  Social vulnerability has been linked to the spread of terrorism and can help increase the likelihood that an individual may be recruited. Terrorists and criminals recruit destitute, poverty-stricken young men and women who have been impoverished due to climate change.  


Ten years ago, the US outlined its Afghanistan strategy as "we want to fight, talk and build all at the same time." Some academics have described this as “a bit like conducting the strategic bombing campaign against Germany from the air, whilst implementing the Marshall Plan on the ground.” It clearly became untenable to conduct counter-terrorism, stabilization and reconstruction and counter-narcotics campaigns simultaneously.

The failed US exit from Afghanistan 20 years after 9/11 therefore marks the end of a paradigm to combat terrorism. Traditional war-fighting methods and hard power have been largely counterproductive. In the last few years, Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) and PVE training has gained interest as an approach by governments, multinational organizations and non-state actors. PVE is intended to address structural causes and aggravating factors that create grievances and thereby help promote violent extremism. It seeks to identify vulnerable groups and address early signs of radicalization and mitigate the risks through education and counter-narratives. The approach focuses on community engagement, the role of civil society organizations, and partnerships between state and non-state actors.


In order to combat modern terrorism, there must be a real understanding of the root causes of extremism and their links to climate change, poor governance, corruption and the fact that many young people simply have no opportunities to find a job or lead a meaningful life. Equally meaningful narratives need to be developed to counter terrorists that promise young people jobs, families and a future. The growing consensus that ‘ideology cannot be defeated by guns but by better ideas’ promises to be a more productive approach to terrorism. 20 years after 9/11, greater invest in such strategies to address the factors listed above is needed to ensure that terrorism does not continue to grow as a threat.

Dr. Christina Schori Liang is Head of Terrorism and PVE at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP). She is the Director of the New Issues in Security Course (NISC) and contributes to GCSP’s Track Two diplomacy, dialogue events and research. She is a Professor at the Paris School of International Affairs, Sciences Po, Paris.