On September 11, 2001 the United States of America was hit by one of the worst terrorist attacks ever to occur in recorded history, when nineteen hijackers forcibly took control of four commercial planes and smashed them into prominent buildings throughout the US. The attacks killed nearly 3,000 Americans as well as causing massive property damage. More than that they scarred the psyche of the US which vowed to hunt down the terrorists and destroy any regimes that had given them support. An enraged America also named Osama bin Laden as the main culprit of the attacks and asked the Taliban government in Afghanistan to hand him over. When the Taliban refused, the United States declared a war on terror and sent over an invasion fleet. The rest is known to everybody.
Flash forward 16 years and the present war on terror paints a miserable picture to anyone who looks at it. The fire of radicalization that the United States tried to stamp out under a military boot has not only grown but has spread throughout the world. In Afghanistan the Taliban now hold more than 40% of the country while disdainfully ignoring the Afghan government’s pleadings to talk. In Iraq and Syria the Islamic State fights with a desperate ferocity to retain the last remaining remnants of its short lived caliphate even as it encourages supporters across the world to carry out attacks on its behalf. In Europe young western Muslims angered by Islamophobia and desperate due to worsening economic conditions increasingly turn towards jihadist ideologies. Across the Middle East and Africa states engage in civil wars while terrorists plan increasingly sophisticated attacks from the lawless ungoverned areas left in the wake of the Arab Winter.
Where did the war go wrong? Was the response of the United States too strong or was it not strong enough? Or perhaps as mentioned in the Clash of Civilizations hypothesis the rise of Islamic extremism was inevitable. The sad simple truth is that no amount of military force could ever have won the war on terror because its roots lie less in religious ideology and more in economic inequality, poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and hopelessness. A large part of the Muslim world is, to put it bluntly, a mess. Many states in it are technologically backward and economically weak. Even those that are economically strong (like to some extent Saudi Arabia) have economies that are highly dependent upon the selling of natural resources rather than the production of products. Another issue is governance. Too many Islamic countries are ruled by princes, kings, dictators and other illegitimate tyrants rather than by democratically elected rulers. Numerous Muslim states that even have democratic governments are indirectly controlled by the military (such as to a certain extent our own country). Illiteracy is another contributing reason with a recent poll showing that a vast percentage of Muslims throughout the Islamic world are unable to read or write.
To be sure each of these factors has little direct link with terrorism. However, together they constitute an environment in which jihadist ideology takes root and spreads with alarming quickness. Terrorism will continue to be a worldwide problem as long as poverty, political instability, economic backwardness and illiteracy remain in the Muslim world. To win we need to find viable long term solutions for these root problems otherwise no amount of bombings or drone strikes will ever end the war on terror.