20 years later, the legacies of 9/11 and the war on terror have just begun

20 years later, the legacies of 9/11 and the war on terror have just begun
© Bonnie Cash

As the United States commemorates 20 years since the terrorist attacks on 9/11, images of the Taliban returning to power in Afghanistan fill the screens. The War in Afghanistan has led to 241,000 deaths, displaced 5.9 million Afghans and cost $2.3 trillion. So much blood and treasure lost is arguably the greatest legacy of 9/11 and the “global war on terror”. But it is hardly the only one, nor the one that may be the longest lasting.   

From Brussels to Bali, the post-9/11 global war on terror has upended politics, devastated ecologies, and scarred societies. Black sitesburn pitsdrone strikes and special forces operations mar barren and urban spaces across Asia, Africa, and beyond and leave their emotional residue to linger like ash. Uncommon birth defects, infertility and other health maladies stemming from more than a decade of war contamination plague the people of Iraq. Suicide rates of U.S. active duty personnel and veterans from the global war on terror have outpaced combat deaths by more than four-to-one. The families of civilian victims of drone strikes seek redress for the death of loved ones. These are just a few ways the war on terror has infiltrated localities and destroyed families around the world. For far too many, the stakes have been far too personal and painful. 

Reminders of the prolonged U.S.-led fight against terrorism in the form of technologies, labor, and logics are now finding their way into unlikely places. While being incredibly destructive, war is also generative. It creates new norms, structures, commodities and social relations that outlive the formal conflict. 

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Signs of the global war on terror’s deep impact are all around us. Airport security, most noticeably, has changed forever. Biometric and facial recognition technologies, experimented with and perfected during the global war on terror, are now a standard arrow in the quiver of most states. Private companies and contractors that first cut their teeth during the war on terror have become indispensable for states both at home and abroad. U.S. border security, for example, is being parceled out to drone operating companies that earlier served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Similarly, military contractors have seamlessly moved from the frontiers of war to the world of trade and infrastructural development, providing logistical services to resource-extraction firms in Africa and protecting newly laid Chinese Belt-and-Road initiatives. 

The elaborate architecture of the war also mobilized a vast labor force. These soldiers, academics and bureaucrats, trained and mobilized for a multi-faceted and multi-front war, are now reapplying their skills elsewhere. Jobless veterans are turning to both illicit gangs and licit private security companies. Third-country-nationals employed for performing grunt work on U.S. military bases are finding precarious work in other parts of the world. Meanwhile, anti-terrorism experts and think tanks, once fully immersed in a war on terror paradigm and rewarded with funding, are trying to remain relevant by repackaging ideas of a threat-plagued world that demand security-centric frameworks. Likewise, bureaucrats who earlier managed the war’s expansive logistics, are retrofitting their models for the emerging great-power conflict between China and the U.S. 

But perhaps the most pernicious and visceral legacy of the war on terror is the manner it shaped the language of everyday politics to define human relations. The laws and language propagated during the global war on terror permeate the way democratic and non-democratic societies articulate differences between those who belong and those who do not. Arab states, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are using the term “terrorist” to demonize and repress the Muslim Brotherhood. The Chinese government is instrumentalizing the label as a justification to intern millions of Muslims and subject them to cultural genocide. Muslim minorities and diasporas are subjected to questions of loyalty and Islamaphobia in the United States and across Europe, condemned to a perpetual state of the “potentially dangerous” and charges as fifth columns

While the ignominious U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan may at first appear to signal a waning empire and the closing chapter on the war on terror, it must be remembered that America’s imperial power was never solely tied to an on-the-ground presence in foreign lands. As states across the globe draw on the technologies, labor and language generated for a planetary-scale conflict, the legacies of the American-initiated global war on terror continue to metastasize. These legacies resonate most prominently not in the form of soldiers, invasions and military operations, but through the manner in which people and states have come to frame and understand the world around them.

Ameem Lutfi is a research fellow at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore. Kevin L. Schwartz is a research fellow at the Oriental Institute, Czech Academy of Sciences. Together they co-founded and co-direct the 9/11 Legacies project.