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Geopolitics & Security

Reframing the Middle East’s Future, 20 Years on From 9/11

Commentary11th January 2021

This coming September, it will have been exactly 20 years since the 9/11 attacks, an event that changed the world and is said to have defined a generation. It is a prime moment then to reflect on what has been learned from two eventful decades in international security. As we prepare to mark the anniversary, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change calls for a chance to recalibrate, and we base this on a simple premise: What do we know now that we did not know then? Can a more progressive and effective approach emerge from the understanding we have gained?

Twenty years on from 9/11, we should recognise the following: that the developments – political, religious and cultural – which gave rise to the attacks stretch back many years; that the struggle against them is ongoing, but the mistakes of previous policies and the ways to change them are now easier to discern; and that the hope of a new and better Middle East can, even amid conflict and inevitable challenge, be identified with some optimism if we understand the history and frame the future correctly.

The relationship between 9/11 and the Arab-Muslim world is fundamental, but it can so often be overlooked in our day-to-day of mitigating threats and conflict. Failing to see the connection carries the risk of missing the opportunities to reformulate a political framework to capture new opportunities and truly advance them, so that the history that binds the region to the terrorism of the last 20 years gives way to a better and brighter future.

And so, we also mark this year as a chance to reset the doctrine on the Middle East and re-engage. Our two tracks of work in 2021, both fundamentally connected but exclusive in their own right, look therefore to:

  1. Define a future framework for counterterrorism and extremism that responds to the evolving threat and harness new capabilities and new opportunities;

  2. Present the evidence that a new way is possible in the Middle East, and to show that, through social and economic reform, innovation, technology and a refreshed social contract, the region can realise its full potential. 

In this series for 2021, we therefore remember the tragic attacks of September 11th as a chance to reset and reinvest in a new way forward.

The Middle East is undergoing fast and dramatic changes that give us reason to be hopeful, yet we also feel the magnitude and weight of what is to be achieved. As with the rest of the world in 2020, the Middle East last year was marked by the Covid-19 pandemic. Economically the region averaged a 5 per cent contraction which means that it will feel the socio-economic toll in 2021, as more people will be driven to poverty and face unemployment. The demands for economic reforms towards diversification have long been rising in the region, and the impact of Covid-19 will raise the pressure further still, and at greater speed than predicted. The breakthrough agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in 2020 open up brand new opportunities for joint economic enterprise that will assist an effort to kickstart economies and drive new technologies to accelerate development. The peace between Israel and the Arab states cannot be underestimated; there is more than a glimmer of hope that a new generation of leaders is emerging with goals to overcome the struggles that have defined and held back the Arab-Muslim world for decades and what bound it so closely to the atrocities of 9/11. But the region’s leaders do so amid mounting instability, with the pandemic exacerbating pre-existing pressure points from unresolved regional conflicts, ongoing public discontent and economic hardship, now with plummeting revenues from oil and tourism.  

Few might look to the Middle East as a source of hope or inspiration; so versed are we to talk of the turmoil, not the opportunity, that emanates from within the region. Fewer still will understandably want to remember the tragedy of 9/11. However, this year is of symbolic significance.

That there is a link between the tragedy of 9/11 and that which has afflicted the people of the Middle East for decades is an incontrovertible fact, but it is not always fully explained. Most simply put, the attacks 20 years ago were orchestrated by Islamist extremists whose ideology earned support because of decades of chronically contested political order in the Middle East. If we come to appreciate this basic connection, then it depends on whether we decide to see the course of events that binds them as having been avoidable, and whether we now believe there is hope for a better future for the region and its relationship with the West.

Twenty years on we have learned that security measures alone cannot eliminate terrorism and extremism. The latter is a social, political and ideological problem before it becomes a violent one. What many have come to realise is that the solution to extremism lies in our politics, and the way that we govern. Many political leaders in the aftermath of a terrorist attack have in the last 20 years talked of extremists and terrorists attempting to attack a “way of life”. We have come to understand extremists – their characteristics, their behaviour and objectives – far better than before. The purpose of terrorism lies not just in the violent act itself, as we now know. It is in instilling fear. It sets out to inflame, to divide, to produce the conditions which they then use to justify yet more terror. And the cycle repeats. They work to sow the seeds of doubt that modern institutions of government and the values that underpin them are corrupt, ineffective and inherently unequal; a system rigged against a downtrodden minority. 

Others have argued the same before, but we have focused our attention far too often on the symptoms of extremism and terrorism and not enough on the underlying causes. Perhaps it is because we are afraid to open a Pandora’s box and come face to face with the plethora of social-economic-political problems that we’ll uncover, unable to fit the lid back on. Yet the danger of continuing to focus our efforts in this way is that we may find ourselves whacking the moles away for another 20 years, while the demand and justifications for terrorism grow, deepen and become ever more entrenched. Meanwhile the underlying hardship and disenchantment that terrorists so readily feed upon unrelentingly festers.

The need to militarily confront and defeat the terrorists that threaten security and stability remains, and that will be best achieved through regional alliances and the global coalitions that we have been building for the last 20 years. That is one great achievement of the past two decades: We are more aligned than ever before on issues of counterterrorism. But if we hope to finally reset the wheels in motion that began long before 2001, we will need a strategy that addresses the source of demand; one that reconciles openness with security, stability with genuine progress and reform. We will need to finally crack the code that can reverse a climate of fear, into one of genuine opportunities for progress. The project then is one of vision-setting and ensuring that we use our resources to deliver against it.

Before 9/11 there had been signs that America and the West’s policies in the region were becoming a target. Even before the attacks in 2001, Americans were concerned about the dangers of terrorism, and all eyes were on the Middle East. In the summer of 2001, months before the attacks on US soil, Americans were glued to the news channels as the United States stationed its troops on the highest state of alert in the Persian Gulf, in response to threats of terrorism. The year before, a suicide attack had targeted the USS Cole, and three years before that, bombs targeted US embassies across Africa. In 1996, the Khobar Towers explosions in the Saudi Kingdom primarily targeted US soldiers deployed as part of Operation Southern Watch, policing airspace in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War. This sequence of terrorist attacks against US assets in recent memory ensured that in the months before 9/11, Americans had already chosen to rank terrorism as the biggest threat facing the United States, ahead of threats from China, North Korea and Russia.[_] 

But not all the West’s engagement before 9/11 in the Middle East can be reduced to stoking tensions and feeding conditions for terrorism. In fact, a proper look at the trends could suggest the opposite was true. A temporary respite in Middle East terrorism occurred in the mid-to-late 1990s. It was in part what spurred Osama bin Laden on to issue his mobilising fatwas in 1996 and later in 1998. The reduction of terrorist incidents compared with previous years was correlated with a hopeful Arab-Israel peace process that many believed was likely to end in agreements between Israel and the Arab states. These were the Oslo Accords. Since the collapse of those negotiations, and the struggle to achieve real progress for new ones, a dramatic upsurge in terrorist incidents within the region happened. Yet it’s often masked because we also correlate the upsurge with the attack of 9/11 and the war on terror that followed.

“The Middle East has been the life-source of these divisive beliefs, and if we cut them off there (and if we get it right) then they can be overcome anywhere.”

Emman El-Badawy

Head of Research, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

The supposed link between hope for a resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and terrorism was broadly acknowledged in a global survey in 2001, shortly following the 9/11 attacks. In the Pew Research Center survey, an overall majority in 2001 believed that a political resolution would reduce global terrorism.[_] And yet, throughout the last 20 years, the West’s focus has ostensibly been on suppressing the supply side of terrorism rather than confronting the deeper source(s) of the demand. Terrorists of the Islamist persuasion have long hijacked the Palestinian cause for their own ends, as did Arab nationalism once before, and as do Iran and Turkey today. However, this does not erase the fact that the terrorists’ appeal and their ability to recruit members and raise funds relies almost entirely on notions of betrayal and feelings of political or social injustice.[_] 

Of course, in the last 20 years, recognition has been reached that there is a system of coherent ideas to be challenged if we hope to disarm the extremists. For at least a decade now we have sought to counter narratives and deploy religious scholars to refute the fanatic interpretations of Islamist extremists. We now have non-government organisations and not-for-profits entirely focused on applying a strategic communications effort to disrupt the propaganda of the extremists. And yet, at least in the West, we have chosen to bury our heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge what history has shown us long before: The Middle East has been the life-source of these divisive beliefs, and if we cut them off there (and if we get it right) then they can be overcome anywhere.

It is true that the image of the Middle East and the Muslim world has become marred by terrorism and sporadic violence. Centuries of vibrant political, economic, intellectual and cultural contributions have been largely overshadowed by the more recent decades of violence, political turmoil, authoritarianism and economic underdevelopment. It is no wonder why a narrative of violent Islam has become synonymous with the Arab-Muslim world when the 19 hijackers of 9/11 were said to be citizens of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Egypt; when the masterminds of al-Qaeda and ISIS from the 1980s onwards have been Saudis, Egyptians, Iraqis, Syrians and Jordanians; and when foreign tourists were gunned down in Egypt’s Luxor and Tunisia’s Sousse, and journalists were captured and murdered in Syria and Iraq. All apparently in the name of Islam. If there had already been links drawn between Muslims, the Middle East and barbaric violence, it was carved in stone by September 2001, and then nailed to the wall by 2015 as ISIS began its bloody rampage from Raqqa to Mosul.

Yet the same Middle East that has exported these terrorists, and the same Islam that apparently justifies their actions, not so long ago exported philosophers, merchants and polymaths with solutions and ideas for the modern world that would enhance Europe. From vital translations of Greek philosophers that would stimulate the debates and enrich the ideas towards a European Renaissance,[_] to inspiring fundamental tenets of international laws on war and peace through the legal writings of Islamic jurisprudence.[_] Arabs and Muslims for centuries had codified, systematised, examined, critiqued and modified ideas in science, medicine, astrology and mathematics. It was the Arabs’ tradition of trade and commerce, and their superiority in navigation, shipbuilding, paper production, astronomy and scientific measuring tools, that enabled the spread of these advances to Europe and beyond.[_]

Even with regards to the violence, up until the 1980s, Muslim societies generally experienced less state violence domestically in comparison to several communist and fascist regimes in the Soviet Union, China, Southeast Asia and Latin America.[_] From the 1940s to the 1980s, the most notorious terrorist organisations were socialists, not Islamists. It is only in the last three decades where Muslims and the Middle East have been so disproportionately and heavily involved in political violence.[_] So what happened?

There had been the beginnings of an Arab cultural and political renaissance between the 19th and early 20th centuries. Cairo and Beirut had once been buzzing with ideas and reforms of Arab luminaries (of all faiths and backgrounds) who could have carried forward a diverse political and cultural maturing. Instead this glimpse of a journey towards an Arab enlightenment faltered. The al-Nahda (or, the awakening) had produced an endless stream of poetry and literature, music and cinema now relegated to nostalgia. Secular and religious modernist thinkers, like Mohammad Abduh and Muhammad Rashid Rida, were exploring the benefits of a marriage of two seemingly opposing civilisations – the West and the modern Muslim world.

How was hope lost, and how did the Middle East become such fertile ground for divisive, destructive ideas? To understand the events of September 11th and the roots of Islamist terrorism, we will need first to understand what happened in the region before it.

The Backstory

The origins of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network are well documented. The jihad against the Soviets – supported by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and America in 1980s Afghanistan – became the catalyst that fused thousands of volunteers from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and across the Levant and North Africa into a formidable fighting force that would eventually regroup and set about plans to target the United States in 2001. The links between the Arab Mujahideen forces in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and 9/11 were so well known that it was the very basis for the US decision to zero in on Afghanistan days after the attacks.  

To fully comprehend the attack in 2001 and the reactions to it, we have to trace the steps of a longer history; from colonialism, the Sykes-Picot agreement (really the San Remo and Cairo Conferences that formalised the new borders), the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Ibn Saud and Abd al-Wahhab alliance, the Palestinian al-Nakba, the military coup in Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser and the sweeping current of pan-Arab socialist nationalism as the dominant political expression, the Islamic revolution in Iran and its shattering impact on the region and on the Palestinian cause, Saddam’s Iraq, the Lebanese Civil War, the Saudi Kingdom’s Islamic revivalist project, and Sadat’s assassination. Only by this point can we begin to understand how 9/11 was a culmination of the political misuse of Islam, why Muslims around the world today wrestle with Islamists to reclaim their faith, and how this struggle began in the Middle East.

“As regimes politicised and evoked the traditions of Islam for the sake of social solidarity and political legitimacy, they unleashed a new set of rules that their opponents could use with deadly consequences against them and their allies.”

Emman El-Badawy

Head of Research, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

If we acknowledge the history above, then we see how the Middle East and the Arab-Muslim world became hostages to two competing but limiting political ideologies and models. The first was Arab nationalist militarism; secular and broadly speaking religiously tolerant, but corrupt and incapable of modernisation because of vested interests and socialist economics. It survived for a time, and gained capital, because it offered the people a sense of social justice, seeming to correct years of exploitation by outside forces. 

Eventually, the jingoism and slogans of Arab nationalism dried out, no longer carrying the mobilising weight or meaning it once had. It might still have had its place in conjuring outrage against Israel, but even its most vocal advocates questioned its ability to transcend all communal conflicts, and in time the nationalist elites had proved corrupt, self-serving and authoritarian. The devastating defeat for the Arabs in 1967 against Israel was a stark reminder of the limits of Arabism. The existence of the state of Israel had become the ultimate crutch for the ongoing legitimacy of nationalism but it wasn’t just the nationalists exploiting the wars against Israel to drum up popular support. Adherents to both nationalist militarism and Islamist militarism competed with one another over who was more fiercely anti-Israel.

The second option, Islamism, was comparatively speaking not corrupt, but Islamists had manipulated a religion into a political ideology and by necessity Islam had become exclusionary and extreme, based on the insistence that there is only one way to live and be governed and that anything else is heresy. Again, Islamists offered no compelling economic model for progress or deep reform, instead resorting to vague slogans that “Islam is the solution” against all the failings of Arabs and Muslims in the modern world. Yet, especially when potently combined with a spirit of social justice, Islam carried a magnitude of meaning far greater than any government or institution wielding it could hope to contain. As regimes politicised and evoked the traditions of Islam for the sake of social solidarity and political legitimacy, they unleashed a new set of rules that their opponents could use with deadly consequences against them and their allies.

Perhaps it is a cliché today, but the post-war order imposed by Allied victors of World War I established the conditions that set about a series of events that would through time trap the region into this ideological deadlock. For it was at this point where the quest for self-determination, dignity and legitimacy to rule became too tightly woven to intolerant expressions of faith or identity, and where a rejection of the West emerged and became embedded into the psyche of the region. The borders that divided the spoils of the “war to end all wars” had created a conveyor belt of turmoil and instability from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. The redrawing of the Ottoman Empire into European spheres of influence had unleashed a blind fury. For the next 100 years this fury buried itself deep within every meaningful political expression for liberation and self-determination, if more to correct betrayals of the past than to forge a stronger future.

Later, the geopolitics of the Cold War had a profound impact on the Middle East too. Stability and survival rested on Arab and Middle East political leaders combining in perfect balance the language of all three ideologies: nationalism, social justice and Islam.[_] The latter was particularly valuable for Arab governments in fighting off communist opposition, and became an essential instrument after the Islamic revolution in Iran had forcibly taken hold, directly challenging the authenticity of Arab-Muslim regimes.

Neither of the models from the 20th century, though, could have sustained any sense of hope and progress for the people of the region in the 21st century – those generations who did not live through and remember the events that fed the early fury. Crucially, the very ideas that were once used to secure stability and legitimacy post-independence have proved now to be a source of great destabilisation and instability.

The region has been in need of new options for decades.

Redefining the Options

There are those who are sceptics about the Middle East today. They look to the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the civil wars in Syria and Libya now, and the pressure cooker that is Lebanon, and they see only the failed attempts to influence change, as terrorism and extremism have continued to proliferate. There are those who call for America and the West to disengage with the region altogether: to end (military) interventions towards stability and reform, and instead focus efforts on uprooting insurgents through intelligence and covert operations. Less costly and far less “skin in the game”. However, some failed, maybe naive, policies of the past should not obscure our judgement today.

The West’s “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” approach and the marriages of conveniences that led to supporting the proto-Taliban against the Soviets, Saddam’s Iraq against Khomeini’s Iran, and the turning of a blind eye in pursuit of security allies, as the Gulf monarchies continued to politicise Islam to assert authority over the global Muslim community, may have all felt necessary for short-term containment, but they came at a price; a price that eventually hit the West directly, first in the US but later across other European cities – Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005.

Short-term containment can be no match for long-term strategic reform. Yet the West of course tried that too, deciding to engage in reformulating the Middle East by removing dictators, and then giving the people a chance for democracy. It was, in hindsight, an underestimation of the extent to which Islamists had a stranglehold on political and social life. No matter how abhorrent the dictatorship, the danger of regime change in any country where Islamism is a likely alternative is that once dictatorship is removed, the elements of extremism will move in to fill the void. The challenge then becomes not one of rebuilding a nation, but instead of security. This is the bitter lesson of past policies.

“With the habit of viewing the Middle East through the lens of intractable conflict, it is easy to miss the opportunities for constructing a new doctrine for Western engagement.”

Emman El-Badawy

Head of Research, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

The Arab Spring in 2011 barely shifted the politics of the Middle East, but it profoundly impacted European politics, and it cemented the notion that there is a choice to be made in the Middle East between stability or reform. This is a flawed conclusion, but the instability that was hijacked by violent Islamists in Syria, Libya and Yemen, and the uncertainty and polarisation that came with the ascent of Islamist government in Egypt and Tunisia, had appeared to confirm the lessons of previous interventions, and it gave truth to the fallacy that only stabilised dictatorship will be the reliable bulwark against mass immigration to Europe and with it, extremism. But the protests of 2011 and then again in 2019 showed instead that there is a desire for change and, though amorphous, that the liberal and progressive elements in today’s Arab-Muslim world is neither irrelevant nor insignificant in number. 

Beneath the surface events, and since the Arab Spring, a new wave of change is building momentum. The population of the Middle East is vibrant and young, and there is now a post-Arab Spring generation. There is also the start of a new courageous generation of leaders rising up the ranks; a body of leadership that view the sectarianism and politicisation of Islam as regressive, and who are acutely aware that they govern populations that are modern and impatient for new opportunities, tired of the baseless rhetoric of old ideologies. 

With the habit of viewing the Middle East through the lens of intractable conflict, it is easy to miss the opportunities for constructing a new doctrine for Western engagement within this changing tide. There is hope for a radical and positive path forwards. Twenty years on from 9/11 and ten years since the Arab Spring, it is time to regain our spirit of optimism to forge a brighter future, this time with the right alliances within the West and within the reforming Muslim world and Middle East. 


  1. 1.

    Pew Research, July 2001.

  2. 2.

    Pew Research, December 2001.

  3. 3.

    Shibley Telhami, “Put Middle East Terror in Global Perspective”, Brookings, 2002.

  4. 4.

    Kurt Debeuf, “How Godless Arabs Changed Europe”, Newlines Magazine, 18 October 2020.

  5. 5.

    Early legal writings of Muslim scholars such al-Shaybani formed the basis of the writings of the legal canonists of the 15th and 16th centuries on international law, war and peace. See Middle East Institute

  6. 6.


  7. 7.

    Ahmet T. Kuru,


    Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison

    , Cambridge University Press: 2019, p.15.

  8. 8.

    Kuru, 2019, p.16. See also as referenced in Kuru 2019: Fox, 2004; Toft, 2007; Cavanaugh, 2009

  9. 9.

    Albert Hourani,

    A History of the Arab Peoples

    , Faber & Faber: 1991, p. 451.

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