The two decades since the September 11 terror attacks on the United States have been marked by disastrous military occupations, the erosion of civil liberties in the US and a weakening of relationships between Muslims and the West, according to experts in international affairs.

The world stood still 20 years ago today as four airplanes were hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists, who crashed them into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon in the United States, killing almost 3,000 people, in one of the most shocking events in modern history.  

The incident resulted in the United States’ declaration of a general global ‘war on terror’ as well as specific wars against numerous Middle East countries they accused of harbouring terrorists or presenting a threat to the West. It ignited 20-years of conflict in the Middle East, that left thousands of American soldiers dead, dozens of Australians and estimates of hundreds of thousands to over a million dead across Afghanistan and Iraq alone.

9/11 changed America’s conception of terrorism from small acts of violence to the big terrorism events that are currently happening.

At the same time, arguably, the 9/11 attacks themselves inspired further terrorist attacks on the west, most notably in France and the UK, as well as the only deadly terror attack on Australia’s soil.   

The US also set-up their military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as a detention centre for militant fighters, where they had none of the legal rights the US mainland would have afforded them. Torture was mandated by the US government and waterboarding became synonymous with the treatment of prisoners.

For someone who witnessed the attacks as a young child Nancy Schneider, from the Australian Institute of International Affairs, believes 9/11 will be remembered as a monumental turning point in history that transformed America’s view of terrorism.  

“I think 9/11 changed America’s conception of terrorism from small acts of violence to the big terrorism events that are currently happening,” she tells Central News. “Terrorism is now synonymous with huge mass atrocities, as opposed to being a kind of war of attrition type of event.”

Audio editing by Soofia Tariq.

She adds the attacks radically changed the United States’ from a foreign policy focus to a shared domestic and foreign anti-terror approach. 

“The public sentiment towards what Bush did in response to 9/11 was very positive,” Ms Schneider says. “I think they were confident in what Bush had announced in terms of the war on terrorism, the invasion of Afghanistan, and his demeanour in response to 9/11 meant that America was going to be better off and safer.

“The rhetoric of us versus them was very strong at the time, and I think that’s really only flourished, perpetuated and grown. I think the United States had a really hard time at this stage with solidarity, even among like-minded countries, which limited their ability to be dynamic during the war on terror.” 

They were on a mission to remake the Middle East.. They wanted to carry on this adventurous push for regional change which has proven disastrous.

Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh, a research professor of Middle East and Central Asian Politics at Deakin University, says the United States’ new more aggressive foreign policy was designed to extinguish Islamic extremism in the Middle East.    

President George Bush’s declaration of war against Afghanistan and Iraq reshaped America’s relationship with the Middle East.  

“It wasn’t enough to punish the Taliban and destroy al-Qaeda,” he says. “They were on a mission to remake the Middle East, which meant they would pour money into the invasion of Iraq and war against Iran. They wanted to carry on this adventurous push for regional change which has proven disastrous.

“The fact that the United States has been so gung-ho in the way it looks at the Middle East, ignoring their partner’s advice in Europe regarding the attack on Iraq and their consequent involvement in Afghanistan meant that the United States lost the confidence of the elite leaders in the Middle East.”  

As part of their new foreign policy, the United States created the Department of Homeland Security, a government body combining domestic intelligence and law enforcement to pre-emptively prevent terrorist attacks and strengthen counter-terrorism programs.  

Ms Schneider said the Department’s sudden growth and pressure to lead multiple projects resulted in their failure to prevent further terrorist attacks in the United States, of which she includes this year’s January 6 protests on Capitol Hill.   

“If the primary objective of an organisation is to protect the American homeland and it can’t do that, it says a lot about its capacity to prevent terrorist attacks,” she says.  

A month after the 9/11 attacks the Patriot Act was introduced, drastically transforming the government’s national surveillance powers by giving them the ability to monitor and review any information from American citizens suspected of working with terrorist organisations.  

Despite the Act being highly supported, Ms Schneider believes the American people still don’t realise how much information the government has gathered about their personal lives.  

[September 11] changed the perception of Islamic communities as being stigmatised for having a culture that wasn’t compatible to a population that was considered potentially politically disloyal.

“I think it was particularly effective in creating a false choice between security and privacy,” she says. “This allowed the government to be able to survey people’s phone records, then request records of businesses about people’s purchases. I don’t know that the effect is quite as understood as I hope it would be.” 

University of Sydney professor Michael Humphrey, an expert on Islamic perceptions in Western countries, says Islamic immigrants were heavily marginalised and discriminated against in the United States.  

“[September 11] changed the perception of Islamic communities as being stigmatised for having a culture that wasn’t compatible to a population that was considered potentially politically disloyal,” he says. “Instead of being an ethnic minority community in a country to being a kind of a threat to global identity.”  

In the war against the Middle East, Australia chose to support the United States and joined their international military alliance to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. Out of the 30,000 Australian soldiers who served in Afghanistan, 41 were killed and 261 were wounded.  

According to Professor Akbarzadeh, Australia’s involvement in the war against Afghanistan exacerbated the government’s relationship with the Muslim community here in Australia.  

“It had turned the spotlight on Australian Muslims as somewhat questionable Australian citizens harbouring extremist ideologies that could jeopardise Australian security,” he says. “At any moment, they believed a Muslim could transform into a terrorist.”  

September 11 has had lasting impacts on the world today, he adds, including the US’s recent departure from Afghanistan.  

“The US went into Afghanistan with the promise of rebuilding, restructuring and reviving Afghanistan after years of conflict, but the US basically lost its nerve and patience,” he says. “All they [the US] wanted to do was pack up and take its soldiers out, with no consideration for the consequences it would have on Afghanistan.”    

Ms Schneider says the United States policymakers viewed the war in Afghanistan as a warning to not intervene in the domestic affairs of other countries.  

“They had this belief that they could leave the place better off than it was before,” she says. “But it was a colossal waste of resources, money, and lives lost with intangible gains for the US. They were unwilling to become an interventionist power unless they absolutely have to be.”   

Two decades have passed since the horrific bombings of the September 11 attacks, but the event is still impacting the political landscape of the modern world.

Professor Humphries says: “It is interesting to see whether the Taliban is a national movement, if it’s only simply interested in producing an Islamic society in Afghanistan or whether its ambitions either directly or indirectly result in transforming the countries around it, in particular Pakistan.” 

Main image graphic by Charlie McLean.