Ground Zero - the Global War on Terror and the Fight for Liberal Values

Das zweite Flugzeug von United Airlines, Flug 175 von Boston, steuert auf den noch unversehrten Turm des World Trade Centers in New York zu © picture-alliance/ dpa | epa afp Seth Mcallister  

Twenty years after 9/11, the images of the terrorist attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon are still fresh in everyone’s memories. The most lethal attack on American soil since Pearl Harbour struck the economic and military heart of the country and has changed the international security landscape ever since.

In the immediate aftermath, then-U.S. President George W. Bush declared a global war on terror, which would not end until “every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated”. Within less than a month after 11 September, a US-led multinational coalition invaded Afghanistan with the aim to destroy Al-Qaeda, the terrorist group that was thought to be behind the 9/11 attacks. This was the start of a series of interventions that brought coalition forces to Iraq, Libya, Mali and Syria.

Many of current military missions of the Alliance and ongoing conflicts today can be traced back to the events of 2001. Counterterrorism efforts have taken the centre stage in international affairs and to this day, they are still on top of the agenda. In response to terrorist threats, Western countries have dedicated massive resources to deal with non-traditional security threats. The fight against terrorism has not only changed foreign policy in international relations, but affected our liberal societies and domestic politics as well.   

New Wave of Terrorism

Terrorism is not a new phenomenon. Characterized by unpredictability and the use of extreme violence targeting civilians (or non-combatants) for political, or societal or religious reasons, terrorism has kept governments and societies on their toes for at least two hundred years. As a means of asymmetric warfare, terrorist attacks today are most commonly conducted via explosives (bombings of critical infrastructure, suicide attacks in crowded areas) and mass shootings. 9/11 was the most lethal terrorist attack in history; the hijacking of commercial airplanes as a means of terrorism has not been successful again.

What has changed drastically over the course of the last thirty years are the motives, tactics and targets of terrorism. Today, religious claims for terrorism and revenge for Western interventions seems to be at the forefront. Culminating in the unforeseen and devastating attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11 in 2001, this current “wave” of terrorism has produced a vast number of terrorist attacks across Europe as well: The Madrid and London bombings of 2004 and 2005, the Paris attacks in 2015 and 2016, the Brussels bombings in 2016 and the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017 to name just a few.

Twenty years after 9/11, and with the recent withdrawal of all Western troops from Afghanistan, we again are at a crossroads of international politics: we urgently need to revise our security strategy. With the apparent change in power dynamics, the EU and Germany need to finally pick up their end of the bargain in promoting liberal values and fighting for freedom. Germany needs to get ahead of the question: What comes next?  

Liberal Values at risk?

In a response to the spreading of terrorist attacks on European soil and the US, there has been a trend towards the increasing securitisation of society. As an immediate consequence of 9/11, airport security was drastically adapted: Enhanced luggage screenings, body scanners, shoe removal, pat-downs, restrictions on liquids and other potentially risky items (…). Along these lines, Western governments have put in place a wide range of new surveillance measures and networks for information sharing. One of the results thereof is an almost permanent state of alertness and the ubiquitous use of the term security.

Undoubtedly, many of these measures are necessary and have successfully prevented attacks and increased security. However, all measures need regular reconsideration. Surveillance and securitisation can be at odds with fundamental rights and freedoms, but will often have an upper hand in political decision-making. The citizen-state relationship has changed by giving the state far-reaching competences to monitor citizens. Liberals have been critical of this new relationship and should continue to scrutinise new and existing measures that (further) expand state competences to secure society.

Terrorism and liberal democracy - the new normal?

The twenty year anniversary of the horrific attacks on 9/11 is a good moment to reflect on the security situation that we find ourselves in. As terrorists continue to target liberal democracies abroad and suppress their own, the Global War on Terror has arguably not been victorious. On the other hand: we need to be aware that threats like these need endurance to be fought back. With terrorist threats being around in the foreseeable future, we would do best to focus on strengthening liberal values at home and abroad.

After the dramatic retreat from Afghanistan, Western (and particularly European) powers need to critically reflect on their engagement abroad. The international credibility of the coalition countries has suffered a dramatic blow and it will take years to build to build this up again. Any lessons learned should already be applied to the EU missions in Mali, Somalia and the Central African Republic, and there should be rethink of the EU’s ability to intervene in crisis situations.

At the same time, we should be careful to maintain liberal values at home. When terrorists try to sow fear and division, liberals should stand up to for a free and open society. Going along with fear and distrust will only feed into the divisive narrative that terrorist groups are trying to push for. 

And security-driven policy making is not only on top of security and defence politics as such. Even with regard to human rights and free trade, just to name these two, the world seems to be in a retreat and restriction mode. Liberal must stay strong as advocates for promoting the case of freedom and openness.

The two decades since 9/11 have given us a glimpse of what the future could hold in store. For the next twenty years, we should critically reflect on our approach to beat global terrorism and see how to balance this with other liberal goals. This will be a crucial factor in ending the Global War on Terror in the years to come.