Marking the 21st anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the onset of the War on Terror shortly afterwards, CAGE Research Director Asim Qureshi charts its legacy, including the many ways that the War on Terror has spilled out across multiples threatres of war, and through the securitisation of Muslim populations worldwide in the decades since. 

This article is published as part of CAGE’s new series of expert essays ‘Perspectives on the War On Terror‘.


Anniversaries often give us the opportunity to reflect and look back at past events. Though we now speak in past tense, the 21 years that have passed since September 11th 2001 carry consequences that are just as alive, malignant and harmful for the rights of global citizens now as they were at the inception of the US War on Terror.

In public discourse, the impact of the US global War on Terror is often reduced to obvious symbols of US military activity such as the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. These theaters of violence played host to the open use of torture and arbitrary detention by Americans. Though we are all familiar with the photos of kneeling Guantanamo Bay detainees in hoods and orange overalls, theseimages show only a scant face of the global War on Terror. While the War has led to multiple injustices that have spilled from US actions, it has actively spread its malignancy throughout the world, providing authoritarian regimes and liberal democracies alike with the means to take advantage of a global backsliding of due process rights.

The logic and rhetoric of the global War on Terror have become key resources for countless actors and commentators justifying unlawful actions of the state. Among these is, Aung San Suu Kyi, the former de-facto leader of Myanmar who refused to defend her Muslim Rohingya population during their ethnic cleansing by Buddhist militants, instead choosing to blame ‘terrorists’ for any perception that such violence might be taking place (Safi, 2017). While the War on Terror has spread across the world in a shape-shifting fashion, it remains connected to the central body of harm initiated by the US.

Bosnia – ground zero of the response to 9/11

George W. Bush’s binary threat of a world that was either “with America or with the terrorists” heralded an unprecedented international cooperation between states keen to support their US ally.

Among these was the unlikely country of Bosnia, where the future of  the global War on Terror was being laid in place in real time. The first detentions of Muslim citizens took place there, when a group of ethnically Algerian men who would be denied legal status in and were placed on rendition flights to Guantanamo Bay. The US emphasis on their response requiring a “gloves off” approach crept into the practices of the Bosnian state, as Muslim men were systematically denied their rights, even when judicial judgements demanded their release.

The presence of Arab former-mujahideen in Bosnia ultimately resulted in the citizenship deprivation of a large group of Arab men, heralding the use of its practice across Europe, but particularly in the UK where hundreds of individuals would find themselves denied the protection of legal status.

Syria – America’s friendly enemy

Despite not being a natural US ally, the War on Terror redefined the relationship between Syria-US relations. Once being described as being part of the infamous ‘Axis of Evil’, Syria emerged to profit handsomely from the new discourse of ‘Islamist threats’ instituted by the War on Terror.

Working together, the US and Syria moved swiftly to detain and transport Canadian-Syrian citizens on rendition flights back to Syria, all of whom were subject to harsh interrogation and torture at the notorious Fara’ Falastin prison in Syria. Abusive practices at this prison and others like it would later motivate Syrians to take to the streets to demonstrate against the regime of Bashar al-Assad almost a decade later. By 2018, al-Assad was regularly using words such as ‘terrorists’ in order to describe demonstrators and rebels (Graber, 2020).

Until this point, Stop the War movements across the western world were largely supportive of the idea that ‘terrorism’ as a discourse was being exploited in order to justify US aggression abroad. In many ways, Syria marks a rupture, after which the narrative of the War on Terror came to be adopted by many segments of the political left.

Somalia – the African front of the War on Terror

With ‘hot wars’ taking place in Afghanistan and Iraq, less attention has been paid to the US’ role in establishing a military presence in East Africa. This is an important oversight, especially as the US base of Camp Lemonier was established in Djibouti one year after the 11th September attacks. The US military sponsored, trained and equipped Ethiopian troops, even going as far as to provide tactical support when Ethiopia invaded Somalia in the last days of 2006.

Following the invasion, hundreds of individuals across East Africa were detained in operations conducted by US, British and Israeli security agencies, with a large number of refugees being put on rendition flights to Ethiopia. On arrival, Ethiopian officials explained that a determination was being made on whether or not to treat the group – which included men, women and children – as ‘enemy combatants.’ This legal anomaly, which had been invented by the US in order to deny detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay their due process rights, had now found its way into the parlance of an Ethiopian court (Qureshi, 2009, p.51).

These international incidents were creating a new profile of risk. After Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia, security agencies around the world began to suspect their own Somali populations as being potentially subversive and thus placed them under mass surveillance.

In the UK, a group of Somali men began to be harassed by MI5. While in the US, Somali communities in Minnesota began to be securitised through Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programmes. In these examples we can observe US-led wars abroad spilling well beyond actual conflict zones, resulting in the mass surveillance and suspicion of communities and the transformation of these communities into phantom threats requiring surveilling and disciplining.

“We can observe US-led wars abroad spilling well beyond actual conflict zones, resulting in the mass surveillance and suspicion of communities and the transformation of these communities into phantom threats requiring surveilling and disciplining.”

Kashmir, Palestine and East Turkestan – occupations cemented by the War on Terror

Although the Indian occupation of Kashmir, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the Chinese occupation of East Turkestan predate the global War on Terror by decades, the dominant discourse surrounding these sites of dispossession has been cemented by the global War on Terror – masking the terror of settler-colonial violence.

In the 1990s, the Indian government instrumentalized fears of Muslim terrorists, but nowhere to the extent that they have done so in relation to Kashmir after 11th September 2001. The Kashmir conflict was essentially reframed as a fight against terrorists, stoking identity politics amongst the BJP government, ethno-nationalists and far right political leaders.

The unbridled Hindu ethno-nationalism used to dominate Kashmir mirrors political Zionism. India and Israel’s increasingly close cooperation makes this all the more striking.

The construction of this threat, however, has become rooted in the vocabulary of the War on Terror, which reconfigures reactions to settler-colonialism as terrorism, rather than resistance to an occupying power. Although neither of these occupations have a historical link to 11th September and the War on Terror, Kashmir and Palestine have been actively reframed through the logic of the War on Terror as a means of India and Israel evading censure for their brutality.

Similarly in East Turkestan, we observe how the perception of the Uyghur shifted from being considered an outside threat to Chinese Han supremacy, to a terrorist threat.

The US gave the green light to the Chinese to present the Uyghurs as terrorists by incorporating China’s antagonism within the War on Terror, and thus became complicit in the designation of the Uyghur as terrorists, furthering their repression.

With 22 Uyghur Muslims being detained unlawfully at Guantanamo Bay, the US government chose the political expediency of securing international support for the continued use of the detention camps, over any consequences that acquiescing to China’s repression of the Uyghur might have.

All of this has helped produce our contemporary moment. The Uyghur are structurally denied the ability to practise their religion. The notion that somehow their cultural and religious life is a marker of their ‘extremism’ shows us how the logic of the War on Terror, taken to its extremity, results in the complete pathologisation, criminalisation and ultimately evisceration of Muslim belief and behaviour.


The global War on Terror has clearly exceeded the aim of ending al-Qa’eda and the Taliban, as the original Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) by the US set out to accomplish. Rather, as indicated by the use of ‘War on Terror’ as a proper noun, this piece has sought to show how the global manifestations of this conflict are inextricably linked in all the ways they have spread across the world. Like a malignant tumour, its tendrils have extended to almost every single part of the world, where states have taken it upon themselves to adopt rhetoric and policymaking set by the US, even when those states are ostensibly opponents of the US.

The “forever war” remains ongoing, though the ‘shock and awe’ with which the US global war began has since faded. In the two decades since, Muslim citizens around the world have paid a heavy price for falling in the viewfinder of a narrative framing anything from their existence to resistance as an imminent security threat.

With the vast majority of the Al Qaeda leadership dead and the war in Afghanistan over, now is the time we must urgently call for the revoking of powers given to the security state in response to the 9/11 attacks. The political spoils garnered in the last 21 years continue to pay dividends for governments around the world who- in absence of any other unifying call- co-opt the War on Terror as their justification for gross abuse of state power. We must continue to recognise and resist the mechanisms which the global War on Terror has put into place and understand that despite the passing of time, the dust has never settled.

Image in this article used courtesy of Wikimedia/Sander Lamme

Works cited

Center for Constitutional Rights (2008) Foreign Interrogators in Guantanamo Bay,

Gaber S. (2020) Political discourse of President Bashar Al-Assad after the Syrian revolution (analytical vision), Journal of Humanities and Applied Social Sciences

Osuri G. (2016) Kashmir and Palestine: The story of two occupations, Al Jazeera,

Pandit I. (2019) India is escalating Kashmir conflict by painting it as terrorism, Open Democracy,

Qureshi A. (2009) Rules of the Game: Detention, Deportation, Disappearance, Hurst & Co

Roberts S.R. (2020) The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Campaign Against Xinjiang’s Muslims, Manchester University Press

Safi M. (2017) Aung San Suu Kyi says ‘terrorists’ are misinforming world about Myanmar violence, The Guardian,

Silverstein R. (2021) Israel, India and the Islamophobic Alliance, TRT World,

Image in this article used courtesy of  United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Dr Asim Qureshi
Dr Asim QureshiCAGE Research Director
Asim is Research Director at CAGE, specialises in investigations into the impact of counter-terrorism practices worldwide and has been advising legal teams involved in trials in the US and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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