With the horrific Easter attacks in Sri Lanka back in the spotlight following a recent TV program, my mind raced back to the one event that redefined the very barbaric nature of terrorism – the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre (WTC) Twin Towers in New York.
Twenty-two years later, I can still remember it as if it happened yesterday. People often ask “where were you on 9/11?” and my answer is the Daily News newsroom, doing the night shift, with the television tuned into CNN as usual.
I was horrified by what I saw – two hijacked passenger planes hitting the Twin Towers of the WTC in New York. Although initially there was some confusion as to whether a “stray” passenger plane may have hit the WTC, CNN and the wire services such as Reuters and AFP later confirmed our worst fears – it was the biggest terrorist attack ever on US soil and indeed, anywhere in the world.
The horrific attack naturally became the lead story in every newspaper around the world the next day, with France’s Le Monde (The World), even editorially commenting that “we are all Americans now”. I knew that feeling – New York was the first city in the US I visited and I had been to the WTC just the year before the terror attack, which is now known simply as 9/11. Moreover, Sri Lankans had witnessed a terror attack on their main airport just a couple of months previously. We could immediately sympathise with Americans – we had been there before.
More than 3,000 people perished when 19 terrorists crashed airliners into the WTC and into the Pentagon. A fourth airliner, now famously known as United 93 (watch the Paul Greengrass movie of the same name to get a better understanding of what went on), crashed after passengers overpowered the hijackers and thwarted their plan, apparently to attack the White House in Washington, DC.
Reports indicate nearly 10,000 people have developed cancer from breathing toxic dust caused by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It spurred a chain of events, some good, some bad, but the overall effect was a heightened awareness that terrorism everywhere should be dealt with effectively.
There have always been fears that terrorists could use hijacked planes as a weapon. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the soccer governing body FIFA have always done their security assessments on the basis that terrorists could slam a plane into a stadium Kamikaze-style. But this was the first time that it actually happened away from a war theatre per se.
Governments, airports and airlines realised immediately how vulnerable planes are to hijackings after 9/11. Although there have been plenty of hijackings before this, 9/11 was the catalyst that prompted swift action to counter the threats posed by terror groups. Accordingly, tighter security measures were introduced by regulators, airports and airlines, including installing secure doors on cockpits and better body/baggage scanners at airports, banning metal cutlery, preventing passengers from carrying liquids in carry-on bags and better intelligence sharing on terrorist movements by Governments. With technological advancements, some restrictions such as the “no liquids in carry-on” are being phased out.
‘War on Terror’
The immediate reaction of the US after 9/11 was to declare a ‘War on Terror’. Though this was aimed mainly at al-Qaeda, it gave impetus to campaigns by other countries to crush terrorism. Sri Lanka was one of the beneficiaries of this approach as many countries banned the LTTE too after 9/11. It also became evident that terrorist groups learn from, and collaborate with, each other.
The events of 9/11 propelled the world to cooperate to fighting terrorism within and beyond their borders. Suddenly, terrorism in one country could not be treated as an isolated chain of events. The world community realised that all countries could be affected and the UN has passed several resolutions to contain acts of terrorism, including the restriction of fund raising activities and the enhancement of overall security measures.
Indeed, since 9/11 there have been only a few plane hijackings and attacks using planes. However, there is every possibility that lone-wolf terrorists could use a plane to carry out an attack. In fact, just a week before the 21st anniversary of 9/11, a semi-skilled pilot (he knew how to take off but did not know how to land) who stole a Beechcraft King Air plane from a remote airfield in the US threatened to crash it into his neighbourhood Wal-Mart. Fortunately, another pilot coached him on landing the plane and he was arrested immediately upon doing so.
But now, terrorists do not even have to hijack a plane to cause death and destruction. They have access to high quality commercially-available unmanned drones that can be bought off the shelf for less than US$ 20,000 and arm them with explosives or crude missiles. There is also the possibility of terror groups getting their hands on even more advanced military-grade drones to wreak havoc. Drones are being used extensively in the Ukraine War as well.
Drones are rapidly evolving and changing the way conflicts are conducted. It is also an emerging trend in terrorist attacks, with groups such as IS, Boko Haram and Houthi rebels using the technology for attacks. Current estimates suggest that 65 non-state actors are now able to deploy drones, which can be easily accessible in public marketplaces. They can travel up to 1,500 kilometres, be deployed in swarms, be used in targeted assassinations, hold biological weapons, require little training, and are highly accessible. Additionally, advances in AI will provide the crafts with launch-and-forget capabilities. At the time of writing, counter-measures to the use of drones by terrorists have not been sufficiently considered and will be an emerging area of concern in the near future.
Governments and militaries have used drones and drone-borne missiles to take out terrorists and terror cells, though some of these attacks have gone awry and resulted in civilian deaths, which is often dismissed as “Collateral Damage”
Indeed, civilian deaths seem to the central theme of most terrorist attacks, even if they are originally aimed at military/ Government installations or military personnel.
In 2022, deaths from terrorism fell by nine per cent to 6,701 deaths and is now 38 per cent lower than at its peak in 2015. The fall in deaths was mirrored by a reduction in the number of incidents, with attacks declining by almost 28 per cent from 5,463 in 2021 to 3,955 in 2022. However, if Afghanistan was removed from the index, terrorism deaths would have increased by four per cent. Afghanistan remained the country most impacted by terrorism for the fourth consecutive year, despite attacks and deaths falling by 75 percent and 58 per cent respectively. The deadliest terrorist groups in the world in 2022 were Islamic State (IS) and its affiliates, followed by al-Shabaab, Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and Jamaat Nusrat Al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM).
ISIS remained the deadliest terror group globally for the eighth consecutive year, recording the most attacks and deaths of any group in 2022. Despite this, terrorism deaths attributed to IS and its affiliate groups, Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISK), Islamic State – Sinai Province (ISS) and Islamic State West Africa (ISWA), declined by 16 percent.
Divese forms of terrorism
Terrorism takes many forms, but at its core, the goal is nearly always the same. Terrorism subverts our liberties, our values and our way of life. What exactly is terrorism ? There is no single accepted definition of terrorism.
There are more than 100 definitions of the word, the first use of which was recorded in 1795 in The Times (UK). The US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a Government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives”.
The world lacked a collective will to fight terrorism in all its manifestations until 22 years ago, when, in one defining moment, it became clear that it must be fought firmly and decisively. That moment (9/11) is forever etched in history – and our minds.
Justifiably, September 11 was an intensification of the battle against al-Qaeda and its chief Osama bin Laden, who was killed in a US Navy Seal operation in 2011. Despite a worldwide effort to crack down on terror, there had been many tragedies that could have been prevented if more intelligence was available.
The biggest threat to world peace that has emerged in recent times is the terror network known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ISIS is an extremely barbaric terror group that should have no place in the modern world and modern civilisation. Confronting the ISIS has become an urgent challenge for the world community and it has since been contained in many areas. No country is safe from their brand of extremism and terrorism. Their ideology, if it can be called as such, is diametrically opposite to that of Islam and Islamic clerics the world over have condemned the group unequivocally.
The media, both traditional and new (Internet based), too must act with caution and restraint at this hour. All terrorists seek an outlet to get publicity for their activities and causes and the ISIS is no different. Fears have been expressed that certain videos released to the Internet on the horrific exploits of ISIS may have served to glorify the group in the eyes of certain vulnerable and gullible youth.
No matter what happens, it is important not to give in to terrorism. The Americans were resilient following 9/11 and resolved not to let their nation be haunted by the tragedy, although it was an unspeakable horror. Sri Lankans too, had always stood up to terrorism as one through countless killings and bombings. Indians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Iraqis and Indonesians, among others, are showing the world that terrorism cannot take their freedoms away, even if lives can be snuffed out. The world must help those nations and peoples who have been affected by the scars of terrorism.
This is why it is important to remember 9/11 every year. It is a site that reminds us that no matter how gruesome terrorists can become, they cannot hold us to ransom. It is a site that pays homage not only to the memories of 3,000 people, but also to the hopes of people the world over.
The site still resonates with the embers of the last moments of life of those who were on the planes and those in the buildings, even as a new ‘Freedom Tower’ arose from the ashes. It tells of the courage of firefighters and volunteers who risked their lives to save others. It is testimony to the determination of New Yorkers to stand up to terror. Terrorism can destroy lives and buildings, but not the collective will of a people to fight terror. It is a place worth visiting, if only to reflect on the futility of terror.
One inevitable fallout of 9/11 has been a restriction of personal liberties which had been taken for granted. Yes, these measures can sometimes be humiliating, but they are also necessary. It might not always be possible to balance security and liberty concerns while battling terrorism.
There is also a raging debate as to whether global terrorism can be defeated in its entirety. One school of thought is that constructive engagement or negotiations must be the basis for resolving terrorism. Post 9/11, there are instances where terrorist groups have given up arms and entered the democratic mainstream. Aceh and Nepal are two examples. But what if a terrorist group spurns talks and literally sticks to its guns? That was the case in Sri Lanka.
Separatism still seems to be the cause célèbre of many terrorist groups, as it was in the case of the LTTE. But there are other causes espoused through violent means. Groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS have distorted religious edicts to wage a ‘war’ against the West and Western interests. It is also difficult to battle elusive terror groups who have no ‘territory’ so to speak.
Terrorism has also gained new dimensions, as seen by the emergence of hacking and cyberterrorism. The cyberattack (ransomware) on the Colonial oil pipeline in the US (May 7, 2021) is a prime example. Anyone with good hacking skills can engage in such attacks, but even more alarmingly, terrorists can cripple critical computer-driven infrastructure such as air travel, rail transport and power plants using such software.
Terrorism remains a huge threat to our collective civilisation. As often mentioned, Governments have to be lucky all the time and terrorists have to be lucky only once. Eternal vigilance is the only answer if we are to avoid more 9/11s.