12th May 2021


19 years after 9/11: did Osama bin Laden achieve his goal?

  • 19 years after September 11th, and the West appears to be weaker and more divided. But can the tide be turned? (Photo: wstera2)

It is 19 years ago that two planes destroyed the symbolic Twin Towers in New York, the capital of the West.

Everyone, old enough to remember, still knows exactly where they where when they heard the news.

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I was in my office in the Flemish parliament when I saw live on CNN the second plan entering the second tower. My reaction was: this is war. But then, against whom?

The man behind the attack appeared to be a man very few Westerners knew of: Osama bin Laden. Who was he and why did he commit such a hideous crime against innocent people?

Now we know. The main goal of bin Laden and his gang was to liberate the Muslim world from foreigners. That's why he joined the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in its war against Russia (1979-1989).

That's also why he was angry at the first Gulf War (1991) and why he bombed US targets in the Middle East and Africa.

However, his main target was not the United States, but the Arab leaders who – in his eyes - betrayed their Muslim population by collaborating with the West.

His main problem was that the many different small, extremist and jihadist groups had different strategies.

That is why he decided to create one enemy on which all jihadists could agree: the United States of America.

His strategy didn't work immediately. But when the US invaded Iraq, the support for bin Laden increased spectacularly and his goal to unite jihadist groups largely succeeded.

West sowed own divisions

What bin Laden most probably didn't foresee, is that the attack didn't unite the West. On the contrary, the war in Iraq based on lies about weapons of mass destruction, divided Europe and the US.

The divisions were not only between countries or governments, but also within countries, certainly in those that joined the US 'coalition of the willing'.

9/11 also created a significant rise in Islamophobia across the West.

A young Belgian Muslim tweeted last week that his teacher at school asked on 12 September 2001 if his parents were happy now.

Seeing growing infighting on Western soil must have convinced bin Laden that more terrorist attacks in Europe would probably the most efficient way to weaken the unity of the continent.

One of the results of these attacks was the rise of populism and nationalism.

These tendencies were one basis for the rejection of the European constitution in France and the Netherlands in 2005.

The reaction in the West to 9/11 appeared to be more devastating for Europe and the US than the attack itself. And that's a lesson Isis had well understood.

Isis improved on bin Laden strategy

Ten years after 9/11 revolutions in the Arab world created new hope - but also chaos.

Old comrades of bin Laden and former generals of Saddam Hussein's army met each other in US prisons in Iraq and decided to work together. The Syrian chaos was the perfect ground.

Isis continued the strategy of bin Laden in trying unite all jihadists.

At the same time – and this is clearly written in their strategic books – they wanted to weaken the West by dividing it.

Their goal was to increase Islamophobia and to convince European Muslims to leave Europe.

They learned from bin Laden that creating fear of Muslims via attacks was by far the most effective way.

The fact that these attacks then came at the same period as the so-called migration crisis – triggered by violence by Isis in Syria – was an unexpected bonus for them.

And so it happened. Anti-migration and anti-Islam forces were boosted everywhere. Europe and the US became more divided and polarised than since World War II.

Master-dividers like Donald Trump in the US, Matteo Salvini in Italy or Victor Orban in Hungary got into (or more) power through which they started to divide the West internally further.

Time to turn tide

It is obvious that more division and more polarisation is weakening not only Europe. It is also detrimental for multilateralism, democracy, human rights and the rule of law worldwide.

But not all is lost. Between this 19th sad anniversary of 9/11 and the 20th in 2020, there lies 12 months in which the tide can be turned.

There is obviously the US presidential elections of November. Changing president is a fundamental condition to bring the US back to normality.

For Europe too, the following year will be crucial.

The EU not only has to fight Covid-19, climate change and a coming economic crisis.

Europe will have to fight to reinstall democracy and the rule of law on its own continent. It has to rediscover its values, and treat refugees and migrants in a human way, not in the Moria way.

It also has to convince its citizens that Islamophobia, not Islam, is destroying Europe. And it has to prove that only a more united Europe will be able to face the challenges ahead.

This – it seems – is the only way to make sure that we will be able to say one year from now, on 11 September 2021, that the destructive strategy of Osama bin Laden eventually failed.

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