The Unsettling Links Between September 11 and Islamic State

Two wars and 13 years after the 9/11 attacks, we find ourselves with the Islamic State. Did the U.S. invasion of Iraq lay the groundwork for the rise of the Islamic State?

Ilene Prusher
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A government building burns during the 'Shock and Awe' heavy bombardment campaign of Baghdad, Iraq, by U.S.-led forces, March 21, 2003.Credit: AP
Ilene Prusher

Nearly everyone remembers where they were when they heard that first one, then two planes had hit the World Trade Center. As someone who was born and raised in New York, I have friends and family who didn’t just hear about the attack or see it on TV – they escaped with their lives and watched in horror as the towers came down before their eyes. Some didn’t survive. A wedding usher with whom I’d walked down the aisle as a bridesmaid a year before was gone; a friend’s brother from down the block had vanished.

This day 13 years ago changed many lives, including my own. I was living in Tokyo when 9/11 happened, and for the first time felt homesick for New York. Within weeks, my editors proposed a new assignment to me: cover Afghanistan, where America was now going to war with plans to oust the Taliban and the international organization that had so generously been allowed to operate freely on their soil – Al-Qaida.

Two wars and 13 years later, we find ourselves with the Islamic State, an organization so radical and murderous even towards other Muslims that Al-Qaida has distanced itself from it. The war in Afghanistan seemed justifiable, and given the utter destruction that years of civil war and the 1979 Soviet invasion wreaked on that country’s devastated landscape, one can hardly argue that the Afghans would be better off today had the U.S. left it alone.

Iraq, however, is different. It had no direct connection to 9/11 – not one of the 19 hijackers was Iraqi, nor were the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon planned with Baghdad’s help. Rather, George W. Bush and his team decided to seize the moment to come back to Iraq and put an end to the regime of a despised despot. Though Saddam Hussein was guilty of a litany of horrors against his own people, these in itself are rarely reason enough for America to execute a full-on invasion and toppling of a dictator – witness Washington’s reluctance thus far to do more in Syria than put its foot down when it comes to chemical weapons. In the end, a case had to made that Saddam had chemical weapons threatening the world, a case that was built on patently false evidence – a fact that became more apparent as the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq turned up empty.

The invasion was well-executed; the occupation, disastrous. Nowhere was the frustration and outrage more palpable than in Sunni areas I visited at the time, places like Fallujah and Ramadi and Tikrit, where people eyed the American tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles rolling through and saw disenfranchisement and dispossession. It is in those areas where the heart of the anti-U.S. insurgency took hold, those areas where Al-Qaida in Iraq found succor and support, and those areas which, somewhat unsurprisingly, are today in Islamic State hands.

On Wednesday night, President Barack Obama said he would “eradicate the cancer” of the Islamic State. An interesting analogy, because the Islamic State is like a gene mutation that might have not have manifested if the U.S. had not overthrown Saddam. But the Islamic State's agenda is about so much more than Iraq or Syria, about more than American policy in the Middle East. It is about a reactionary dream of some Muslims to pick up where Islamic history left off at the time of the Prophet Mohammed. It is about erasing what they view as artificial, national borders drawn up by Western powers a century ago. The very flag of the Islamic State – bearing a copy Seal of Mohammed, which the prophet is reputed to have used to stamp his letters – is an icon that serves as a battle cry for the creation of a Caliphate.

Whether it is legitimate to blame the U.S. invasion of Iraq as one reason for the ascendancy of the Islamic State depends on whether one believes that the Arab uprisings of 2011 were at any rate inevitable, leading to the war in Syria, and eventually, a war-torn atmosphere that enabled the Islamic State to carve out a home-base for itself.

It is scant coincidence that Obama officially announced the war on the Islamic State on the eve of September 11, a date when Americans remember where they were – and wonder where in the world we are now. Yes, it took some time to build a new coalition of the willing. And yes, Obama was waiting for a new, more inclusive government to take power in Baghdad, in the hope that it would avoid the hyper-sectarianism of the Maliki regime. But it’s difficult to see how any government in Baghdad – or the U.S. trained Iraqi-forces who shrank from the Islamic State in cities like Mosul – will take on an ruthless, well-armed and financially flush organization that seems determined to erase the country’s borders.

And it remains uncertain whether air strikes alone – Obama said Wednesday that he won’t send in ground troops – can eradicate Islamic State. America is back in its familiar damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t place. By not doing enough, it has let the Islamic State flourish and let rebels be slaughtered by Assad’s government forces in Syria. By doing too much, it stands to gain more enemies in the Muslim world, and be dragged into yet another war in the Middle East with uncertain rewards.