Has the war on international terrorism been lost? Have the US and its allies dropped out of the war on terror that they declared two decades ago? These are some of the questions raised by commentators across the globe last week as the US marked the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Pictured: Newspapers announcing the killing of al Qaeda terrorist chief Osama bin Laden at a newsstand outside the World Trade Center site May 2, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Has the war on international terrorism been lost? Have the US and its allies dropped out of the war on terror that they declared two decades ago? These are some of the questions raised by commentators across the globe last week as the US marked the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Many commentators answered both questions in the affirmative.
Yes, they said, terror groups are still operating in no fewer than 20 countries, while start-up terror outfits have been able to carry out attacks in a number of Western countries, including the United States. At the same time, the US has reduced its footprint in a number of countries that continue to shelter terrorist groups.
In some cases, the "yes" answer came from professional America-bashers who miss no opportunity to portray the "Great Satan" either as an earth-devouring monster or a wet mouse looking for shelter from a hailstorm of unpopularity.
A closer look, however, may offer a different picture.
To start with, the war on terror has made almost all nations better aware of the threat to their security from non-state foes. This awareness is not confined to Western democracies that are by nature more vulnerable to such attacks.
The creation and/or strengthening of national security apparatus, the training of counter-terrorism personnel, the weaving of a global network of cooperation to hamper the funding and arming of terrorist organizations and closer cooperation on sharing intelligence have all helped turn the time and space factors against terror groups.
Almost all Western countries report success in preventing hundreds of planned attacks big and small. To be sure, not all plots were nipped in the bud. Over the past two decades many countries, among them almost all Western democracies, have suffered a number of terror attacks. But although some did claim many victims, none came close to the 9/11 tragedy. More importantly, perhaps, most of the attacks were home-grown or the work of lone wolves hiding in immigrant communities.
According to the Global Index of Terrorism, more than 57% of terrorism in the first 15 years of the Global War on Terror happened in four countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. In Syria, since 2011, most of the deaths in that category were the work of state terrorism.
With few exceptions, notably Libya, almost all Arab countries have succeeded in taming terrorism both by crushing terror groups and by reducing their scope for new recruits. Other Muslim majority countries have also done well in curbing terrorism. Indonesia, once home to several large terror groups, could now boast of being terror-free. India, the country with the largest number of Muslim citizens, has also succeeded in doing the same, despite a number of spectacular attacks a decade ago.
Despite the use of its label by several dubious franchisees, al-Qaeda, the author of 9/11, has been reduced to the pale shadow of a ghost, leaving behind a bad smell. Two decades ago, Pakistan was home to 22 terror groups acting against the Islamabad government, fighting India over Kashmir or linked to the power struggle in Kabul. Today many of those groups have either faded or have redefined themselves as political groups seeking a share of power through classical means.
Most of the active terror groups are located in what is known as ungoverned territories. These include Syria, part of Iraq beyond the control of Baghdad, the Sahel region, parts of Horn of Africa and parts of Yemen. In some cases, as in the Philippines and Thailand, the imposition of tighter central control has succeeded in eliminating several Islamist terror groups.
The top brand of terrorism, ISIS, has all but been driven out of Iraq and much of the territory it controlled in Syria. Today, best estimates put ISIS's strength at around 8,000 fighters, compared to over 30,000 a decade ago. In Somalia, al-Shabab has been reduced to a few isolated enclaves and lost more than half of its fighters either in combat or through defection.
Some groups labelled by the US and some European Union countries as terrorist, for example Hamas and Islamic Jihad, focused on the "jihad" against Israel, have also failed to weaken "the Zionist foe," as Israel has strengthened its counter-terror dispositions. Also labelled "terrorist," the various branches of Hezbollah, created by the Islamic Republic in Tehran, have been used as instruments of exerting pressure on Iraq and Lebanon rather than terror attacks outside the Middle East. The last terror attacks by Hezbollah in Western Europe and the seizing of Western hostages took place in the 1980s. Even occasional action taken against Israel comes at the behest of Tehran in the form of state-sponsored terrorism.
The Houthis of Yemen are also closely linked with Tehran.
All in all, global terrorism in its various forms is on the decline. The leftist groups have all but disappeared along with Third World-style "national liberation" outfits. Today, only the Kurdistan Workers' Party is waging a "liberation war" from the left against the Turkish Republic.
There are no final figures for the losses sustained by terrorists during the past decade. However, the figure may run into tens of thousands, including at least 12,000 in drone attacks on terror bases in Afghanistan, Yemen, the Horn of Africa, Pakistan and the Sahel.
The worst setback for terrorists has come in the form of a growing rejection in Muslim countries of the ideological pretensions that seek to legitimize terror in the name of religion. Some of us remember the pre-9/11 times, when quite a few well-known Arab poets committed odes in praise of suicide-bombers while theologians, some even given respectability by the European Union, justified the killing of innocent civilians in the name of the faith.
Today, such messages find little resonance in the intended audiences. The crushing defeats suffered by Islamist parties, most recently in Morocco, indicate the end of an era in which reference to faith could justify the worst postures.
Arab and other Muslim intellectuals have played a crucial part in changing the template of public discourse and redirect it to real issues of developing societies rather than misunderstood shibboleths.
The war on terror is by no means ended and total victory may never be achieved. Nevertheless, it would be unfair not to acknowledge the many battles that humanity has won against the terror hydra.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.