Terrorism and Challenges Related To It

Two decades of 9/11


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much

Mains level : US and the global war on terror

Twenty years later, the 9/11 terror attacks look a lot less epochal than they seemed in the heat of the moment.

Why was 9-11 a major breakthrough?

  • One major inference in the wake of 9/11 was about the power of non-state actors — demonstrated by al Qaeda’s massive surprise attack on the world’s lone superpower at its zenith.
  • Al Qaeda’s rise seemed to fit in with the age of economic globalization and the internet, which heralded the weakening of the state system and the arrival of a borderless world.
  • Two decades later, though, the system of nation-states looks quite robust after enduring the challenge from international terrorism.

Implications of the attack

  • The state system adapted quickly to the disruptions created by 9/11.
  • There was much anxiety about terror groups gaining access to weapons of mass destruction or leveraging new digital technologies to increase their power over states.
  • The state system has succeeded in keeping nuclear weapons and material away from terrorists.
  • It has also become adept at using digital tools to counter extremism.
  • If 9/11 made air travel risky, the states quickly developed protocols to de-risk it.

Humiliating end for the US everywhere

  • Marking the 20th anniversary of 9/11 days after the humiliating US retreat from Kabul and domestic turmoil might suggest that Al-Qaeda and its associates did succeed in ending America’s unipolar moment.
  • The choice of targets in the 9/11 attacks — the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — was not accidental.
  • They were designed to strike at the very heart of American capitalism and its famed military power.
  • American capitalism met its greatest threat not in 2001 but in the 2008 financial crisis that was triggered by the reckless ideology of deregulation.
  • America lost in Afghanistan and the Middle East because it over-determined the terror threat and put security approaches above political common sense.

Today’s agenda for terror

  • And the ambition of the jihadists — who organized the 9/11 attacks, to destroy America has risen to a higher extent:
  1. To overthrow the Arab regimes
  2. Unleash a war with Israel
  3. Pit the believers against the infidels
  • To be sure, terrorist organizations and the religious extremism that inspires them to continue to be of concern.

Age of ideological warfare

  • Sectarian schisms, ideological cleavages, internecine warfare, and the messiness of the real world have cooled the revolutionary ardor that the world was so afraid of after 9/11.
  • In the battle between states and non-states, the former have accumulated extraordinary powers in the name of fighting the latter.
  • All nations, including liberal democracies, have curtailed individual liberty by offering greater security against terrorism.
  • Abuse of state power has inevitably followed.

Security narratives by the US since then

  • After 9/11, President George W Bush turned his attention to confronting an imagined “global axis of evil” — Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.
  • None of the three countries was involved in 9/11.
  • And the US rewarded Pakistan with billions of dollars in military and economic assistance that actively nurtured the Taliban and succeeded in bleeding and defeating the US in Afghanistan.

Threats earned by the US

  • This blinded the US to an emerging challenger — China — on the horizon. Washington’s obsession with the Middle East gave Beijing two valuable decades to consolidate its rise without any hindrance.
  • Although America’s unipolar moment may have ended, the US will continue to remain the most powerful nation in the world, with the greatest capacity to shape the international system.

What about the jihadist agenda for the Middle East?

  • The Islamist effort to destroy the Gulf kingdoms spluttered quite quickly as the Arab monarchs cracked down hard on the jihadi groups.
  • Many Arab states do not see al Qaeda and its offshoots as existential threats.
  • They worry more about other Muslim states like Turkey, Qatar, and Iran that seek to leverage Islam for geopolitical purposes.
  • These fears have pushed smaller Gulf kingdoms towards Israel and shattered the jihadi hope to trigger the final Islamic assault on the Jewish state.
  • Developments in China and Pakistan reinforce the proposition that politics among nation-states is more significant than the power of the transcendental religious forces.

How did India Respond?

  • India has been facing the problem of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism since 1989.  Unfortunately, the USA and the UK sided with Pakistan during this time.
  • However, this changed after India’s 2nd nuclear test and the 9/11 attack in the USA. Though the USA continued to rely on Pakistan, it considered Pakistan as an unreliable partner. This was further proved when Osama bin Laden was found hiding in Pakistan.
  • Indian response to terror attacks had been that of “strategic restraint”.
  • It was limited to diplomatic actions. This was evident in attacks on the Indian Parliament (December 2001) and the Kaluchak massacre (May 2002).
  • However, now we witness that India has adopted a policy of imposing costs on Pakistan by striking across the border, e.g. Balalkot airstrikes.
  • This capacity of India has been built over its strong economy and strong global linkages. Despite the economic disaster of 1991, India emerged stronger after LPG reforms.


  • The trans-national nature of the new terror groups is now countered by better border controls and greater international cooperation on law enforcement.
  • However, in the subcontinent, as elsewhere, violent religious extremism thrives only under state patronage.
  • The answers to the challenges presented by the return of the Taliban and the likely resurgence of jihadi terrorism are not in the religious domain but in changing the geopolitical calculus of Pakistan’s deep state.


Violent Non-state actors

  • In international relations, violent non-state actors (VNSA), also known as non-state armed actors or non-state armed groups (NSAGs), are individuals and groups that are wholly or partly independent of governments and which threaten or use violence to achieve their goals.
  • VNSAs vary widely in their goals, size, and methods. They may include narcotics cartels, popular liberation movements, religious and ideological organizations, corporations (e.g. private military contractors), self-defence militia, and paramilitary groups established by state governments to further their interests.

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