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Ten years after 9/11, the true threat is not a super-villain skulking in the desert, says Laurie Penny

We have been starved of the meaning and context of global disaster.

In answer to the obvious question, I was in double biology, cutting up potatoes for my GCSE coursework. There was a television in the school science labs, and in students rushed, in ones and twos and in hushed astonishment, as the twin towers burned and then fell. One boy rushed to call his father in New York. The normal hierarchies of age and status were suspended temporarily as sixth-form footballers and geeky kids in Year Ten shared a packet of biscuits someone had produced. We all munched away silently, watching the world change for ever.

Memory is a funny thing, particularly collective memory. Once or twice in a generation come events so seismically significant that they seem to resist analysis, and all we can do is remind each other what we were doing when we found out. The baby boomers remember where they were when Kennedy was shot; my parents remember where they were when the Berlin Wall fell; today, we remember where we were a decade ago when Islamist terrorists attacked the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. As the footage of human beings jumping to their deaths from the blazing towers rolled and re-rolled, a tacit understanding grew that to attach meaning or context to these attacks would be unthinkable, impossible.

Amorphous war

Unfortunately, meaning and context were precisely what we were starved of over the next ten years, as western leaders appeared to deem this atrocity so numbing to debate that anything could be done in its name. Even language became warped in the wreckage of the towers: tens of thousands of Iraqi children became "collateral damage", outsourced torture became "extraordinary rendition", and the bombing of nation states became an amorphous war on "terror". The legitimate grief and shock of those who lived through the 2001 attacks were co-opted to sanction a decade of cruelty, misinformation and war, and, in the west, a generation grew up understanding that politicians cannot be trusted.

Even ten years on, we refer to the events of that day in superstitious shorthand. When we say 9/11, everyone knows that we don't mean the mediocre mid-1990s boy band. Fear of a name, as Dumbledore teaches us, increases fear of the thing itself, and fear is just what leaders on both sides of the war on terror were counting on.

There are some political realities so ponderous that only fiction can understand them. In Ken MacLeod's 2008 novel The Night Sessions, the race to stop a religious terrorist cell from blowing up two skyscrapers and killing millions is thwarted when it is discovered that everyone has been looking in the wrong place. Instead of the planned attack, the fundamentalists destroy a major piece of economic infrastructure, causing a global downturn.

Caught and interrogated, one terrorist coldly explains that even though no one has died, millions of lives will be shortened and made materially harder as a result of the coming recession - and hence the human cost of this piece of global sabotage will be far higher than any one dramatic act of mass murder.

The remarkable prescience of this chilling little book, published a month before the toppling of Lehman Brothers, has stayed with me since. Because it turns out, ten years after history appeared to be rewritten in plumes of smoke across the Manhattan skyline, that we have all been looking in the wrong place. It turns out that the grand story of the early part of the 21st century is not the clash of civilisations, of Islamist terrorism versus western democracy, but the struggle of the financial and political elite against their own people as the free market buckles under its own weight, a new bankruptcy hastened by two desert wars and years of cheap post-9/11 credit. The greatest threat to democracy is not external attack, but internal collapse.

Ten years after 9/11, the world has moved on. Realisation is dawning that the great danger to western democracy was never a shadowy super-villain skulking in the desert, but inequality, alienation and economic collapse. The main threat to our collective way of life is not sudden and brutal, but gradual and callous: it's the wearing away of everything that made ordinary life decent and bearable, the slow erosion of civil society into something mean and desperate. And that truth is far more terrifying than any dirty bomb.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, 9/11

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Battle for Mosul: will this be the end of Islamic State?

The militant group's grip on power is slipping but it has proved resilient in the past.

The battle for Mosul is the latest stage in the long struggle to defeat Islamic State. The group has been around since the late 1990s in one form or another, constantly mutating in response to its environment. Undoubtedly its ejection from Mosul will be a significant moment in the group’s history, but it is unlikely to be its final chapter. The destruction of the group will only be complete when some fundamental changes occur within Iraq and the war in Syria comes to an end.

IS’s roots go back to a training camp established by the militant Islamist Abu Musab al Zarqawi in the late 1990s in Herat, Afghanistan. Founded as an army to overthrow the apostate regimes of the Levant, it fled to northern Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11 where it re-established itself as a force alongside Ansar al Shariah, a hardline Salafi jihadi organisation.

As American attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, the group was ideally placed to become one of the leading lights in the post-Saddam Iraqi insurgency. Brutally announcing itself to the world in August 2003 with successive attacks on the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, the UN headquarters and a Shia shrine in Najaf — the latter being the deadliest attack in Iraq that year with a death toll of 95 — the group grew to assume the mantle of al-Qaeda in Iraq. By 2006 this brand had become somewhat damaged through the brutal sectarian campaign the group waged, and when its founder, Zarqawi, died it sought to reinvent itself as the Mujahedeen Shura Council. This incarnation did not last long either, and eventually it assumed the title of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), alongside a more Iraqi leadership.

This was the start of a diffcult period in the group's history. Its excesses in Iraq (including indiscriminate slaughter of Shia Muslims to stir sectarian hatred and filmed decapitations of prisoners) lost it local support and led to the tribes in Sunni Iraq rising up and supporting the government in Baghdad's fight back against the group. By 2009, when the west abruptly stopped paying attention and withdrew from Iraq the group was largely perceived as in decline, with the Shia Muslim-led Iraqi government appearing to slowly assert itself more effectively across the country.

The terrorist attacks by the group continued. And the new government started to advance an increasingly sectarian agenda. These two played off each other in a downward spiral that was given a fresh boost of blood when the civil war in Syria erupted in 2011. Drawing on its existing networks (that were leftovers from when Syria was used as a staging point by the organisation to launch attacks into Iraq), the leadership sent a cell to Syria to explore what opportunities existed within the emerging fight there. This cell became the seed that grew into Jabhat al Nusrah and ultimately IS – a label the group adopted when in June 2013 IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided it was time to reveal this link between his Iraqi group and Jabhat al Nusrah. This led to divisions and the breaking up of the two organisations.

For IS, however, it was the beginning of an upward trajectory, building on this division to grow itself substantially in Syria (with Raqqa as its capital) and in 2014 taking over Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul. We then reach the apex of IS’s success and the biggest expansion of the group yet.

It now seems that this growth had a shelf life of just two-and-a-half years. As the group appears to be losing Mosul, it is likely that we will see the beginning of a period of retraction. But this will not be its end – rather, it will flee back to the hills and the ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria from where it will continue a persistent terrorist strategy in both countries. Here it will bide its time until the moment presents itself to rise up. Waiting until the governance in Iraq and Syria fails its people again, the group can paint itself as the protector of Sunnis and once more build on that group's disenfranchisement to win supporters and occupy a space vacated by local governments.

IS's grip on power might currently be slipping but as history has shown, it has waxed and waned depending on the context it is operating in. We are now going to see a period of withdrawal, but unless attention is paid by the global community, it will expand again in the future.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Visit his website at