On September 11, 2001, the U.S. saw the biggest attack on its homeland ever. The al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden launched coordinated attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. 2,753 people lost their lives that day, including those on a commercial aircraft that was forced to crash in rural Pennsylvania.
The attacks gave birth to the U.S.’ war on terror, which initially focused on the al-Qaeda, and the Taliban that had sheltered bin laden in Afghanistan. It has evolved into a long-drawn-out conflict with multiple battlefields, many allies and myriad enemies. Fifteen years later, its initial enemies are but shadows of themselves. However, new enemies such as the Islamic State (IS) were spawned. The 15 years also saw the rise of the home-grown terrorist, the biggest worry for security establishments. It has been exacerbated by technology, which has helped terror organisations break down physical barriers such as borders by taking their ideology online.
The 9/11 attack, the jihadi ideology behind it and the wars that ensued also altered the political climate in many countries, leading to revolutions and coups. It also put millions adrift, creating a refugee population that the world has probably never seen before.
Here we attempt to chart this evolution of terrorism and the war on it over the last 15 years, recounting the key incidents that drove it.
1. October, 2001-present, Afghanistan
The U.S.-led invasion successfully forced the al-Qaeda leadership to flee to Pakistan. It also ousted Taliban from power. However, the battle is far from over. The U.S trained Afghan forces are in a tug of war with the Taliban, each claiming and reclaiming territory.
Since the international combat troops pulled out of Afghanistan at the end of 2014, leaving behind only a largely training and advising contingent, insurgency had intensified.
Akhtar Mansour, who took over command of the Taliban after its founder Mullah Omar’s death was announced in July 2015, was killed during a U.S. drone strike in May.
Last month, President Barack Obama said that the U.S. had decided to keep a large number of American troops in Afghanistan wipe out the IS in the country.
2. Oct 2002, Indonesia
Jemaah Islamiyah, an al-Qaeda affiliate, killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, in a bomb attack in Bali. The episode of violence, on a scale of unprecedented proportions in South-East Asia since the 9/11 attack, firmly turned the spotlight on Indonesia. Prior to the attack, there were domestic rumblings over its decision to extend a general but firm support to the U.S. in its “global campaign” against terrorism.
Police officers and emergency workers gather around the ruins of a nightclub in Denpasar, Bali.
3. March, 2003-present, Iraq
On March 20, 2003, the United States invaded Iraq. The then President, George Bush, said that the military invasion was to bring that country, suffering from brutal dictatorship, to democratic governance. Moreover, the United States took upon itself the task to wipe out weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein had allegedly kept in his possession, which later turned out to be smoke with no fire.
The invasion led to a quagmire as the country descended into sectarian strife. President Barack Obama pulled out the U.S. troops, leaving the country in the hands of a shaky government and nascent military. The period of the U.S.-led invasion also saw the rise of Al Qaeda-backed extremists. It also created the governance and security vacuum that was filled by the violent Islamic State, which announced a caliphate in northern Iraq and Syria. In 2014, the IS seized control of Fallujah and Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city. The Iraqi forces are slowly gaining ground but the country is a shell of its former self, contsntly facing suicide attacks and car bombings.
4. March 2004, Spain
Madrid train bombings by an al-Qaeda cell killed 192 people and injured around 2,000. One of Morocco’s leading anti-terrorist experts, Mohamed Darif, told the Guardian that he believed two groups were involved in the attacks: one based in Morocco and one founded by Al-Qaeda’s reputed head of operations in Spain, Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, a Syrian also known as Abu Dahdah.
5. July 2005, U.K.
Coordinated suicide bomb attacks in central London killed 52 people and injured over 700. The police announced that three of the four “suicide bombers” behind the deadly attacks on the London underground network were young men of Pakistani origin, all born and brought up in Britain.
The four allegedly blew themselves up while carrying out what the police called Western Europe’s first terrorist attack involving a British “suicide” squad. They were described as “clean-skins” — men who did not appear on the “security radar” because they had no previous record of involvement in a terrorist activity.
A copy of the birth certificate of Shehzad Tanweer, a `suicide bomber’ in the London attacks.
6. 2006-present. The emergence of social media
Facebook and Twitter were open for public use. The year marked the start of a new way of communication. Social media and encryption become new tools for militant radicalisation. Over the next decade, over 300 brutal beheadings and crucifixions were posted on the internet.
The IS, in particular, has been able to differentiate itself from other terror organisations, in terms of being tech-savvy. M.K. Narayanan, a former National Security Advisor, in one of his articles for The Hindu, described how the IS uses social media to ‘groom and recruit’ people.
“In the battle for the jihadi mind-space, the IS clearly has gained the upper hand at the moment. Using social media and other Internet-linked methodologies, it has been able to lure recruits in sizeable numbers from across the world. It has sought to portray itself as a “way of life” and has glamourised its movement as one seeking spiritual purity. Thousands of educated Muslims, including women, have thus been inveigled into joining the IS.”
This undated image shows a frame from a video released Friday, Oct. 3, 2014, by Islamic State militants that purports to show the killing of journalist Alan Henning by the militant group.
7. 2007-present, North Africa:
al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) began operations in Algeria, Mali and Mauritaniaa.
8. November 2008, India
Lashkar-e-Toiba and militants based in Pakistan carried out coordinated attacks across Mumbai, killing 164 people and wounding at least 308. Three blasts between 6.54 p.m. and 7.05 p.m. rocked the crowded areas of Mumbai. The most powerful one, occurred at Zaveri Bazaar in south Mumbai, a congested part of the city, the second at Kabutarkhana near the Dadar suburban railway station in central Mumbai and the third at Opera House, also in south Mumbai.
Smoke is seen billowing out of the ground and first floor of the Taj Hotel in south Mumbai during security personnel’s operation, following the terror attacks.
9. 2009-present, Yemen
The al-Qaeda groups in Yemen and Saudi Arabia merged and became the al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). There have been more than 250 U.S. drone strikes against the AQAP to date.
10. 2010, Arab Spring; 2012, Syrian civil war and how it lead to the formation of Islamic State
With an act of self-immolation, a 26-year-old fruit-seller in Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia unleashed a year of turmoil that toppled at least three autocrats in a region once thought to be immune to democracy.
By the end of February 2012, rulers had been forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.
Supporters of Egypt’s ousted President Mohammed Morsi chant slogans against Egyptian Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi before clashes with Egyptian security forces in Ramses Square, in Cairo.
In the same year, a major civil war in Syria erupted, pitting President Bashar al-Assad’s government forces, backed by Russia and Iran, against alliance of rebel groups supported by the West and Turkey.
Brahma Challaney author of Water, Peace, and War, noted that, “it is beyond dispute that the Islamic State — formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — emerged from the Syrian civil war, which began indigenously as a localised revolt against state brutality under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before being fuelled with externally supplied funds and weapons.”
After losing territories in Iraq and feeling the heat of American and Russian air strikes in Syria, the IS soon expanded its presence in civil war-stricken Libya. The country had no central authority and a military command.
The refugee crisis
Nearly 1.3 million refugees travelled across Mediterranean or through Southeast Europe to EU to seek asylum. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad blamed Europe’s refugee crisis on Western support for “terrorists”, as people fleeing his country’s civil war streamed towards the EU.
Two pictures — of children at the receiving end of the barbarism — went viral on social media. The first one was an image of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, sitting alone in the back seat of an ambulance, with his face bloodied and covered with dust. The second on was that of a Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, who had fled the civil war with his parents, found lying dead on a Turkish beach, provoking strong reactions from around the world.
12. May 2011, Pakistan:
Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was killed in Pakistan in a Special Forces operation by the United States.
13. July, 2011, Norway
Anders Behring Breivik, a self-styled anti-Muslim militant, planted a bomb outside the Prime Minister’s office in Oslo which killed eight people. Following that, dressed as a policemen he headed for Utoya Island where he killed another 69 persons, members of a youth camp organised by the Labour Party.
13. 2012, Somalia:
Terror group Al Shabaab pledges allegiance to Al Qaeda. In 2015 , 148 people, mostly students, were mercilessly mowed down by the group’s militants on the Garissa University campus in eastern Kenya, not far from the border with Somalia. The UN-approved African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) which included military forces from Kenya, helped take on al-Shabaab in 2012, but the latter has since then again turned into a guerrilla group engaged in indiscriminate violence both within and outside Somalia.
14. April 2013, U.S.:
Boston Marathon bombing killed three civilians and injured at least 264. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was sentenced to death by lethal injection for the bomb attack. The incident brought the focus on homegrown terrorists and ‘lone wolves’.
15. April 2014, Nigeria:
Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from Chibok in Nigeria. The group later pledged its allegiance to IS. in August, 2016, the group released a video showing some of the schoolgirls. Throughout 2015, the Nigerian military announced the rescue of hundreds of people, most of them women and children, who have been kidnapped by Boko Haram.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has said that the group is “technically defeated.” But the group continues to be an embarrasment for the government.
A still image from a video posted by Boko Haram on social media, shows a masked man talking to dozens of girls the group said are school girls kidnapped in the town of Chibok in 2014.
16. 2014-present, Bangladesh
Bangladesh in recent times has seen a spate of attacks on secular and liberal thought. Bloggers, journalists and students have been brutally hacked to death by fundamentalist elements in the country.
This thread of violence by radical Islamists runs from the most recent murder of an English professor at Rajshahi University.
A look at recent attacks on secular bloggers in Bangladesh.
17. January 7, 2015, France:
Two gunmen attacked satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, killing 12 people. The AQAP claimed responsibility for the attack. Ten staff members at the satirical weekly, including four of its top cartoonists, were gunned down by masked men who entered the building and targeted the editorial meeting in what seemed to be a well-planned and professional operation.
They left shouting Allahu-Akbar, killing two policemen on the street outside before driving off in a getaway car. Since 2006, when it first published the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammed, Charlie Hebdo had been under threat of violent attacks by Islamist groups.
18. 2015-present, Turkey:
Between July 2015 and June 2016, almost 200 people were killed in attacks. The biggest outrage, in October 2015, killed 103 people in capital Ankara.
The explosions occurred minutes apart outside Ankara’s main train station as hundreds of people were gathering for the rally, organised by the country’s public sector workers’ trade union and other civic society groups. The rally aimed to call for increased democracy and an end to the renewed violence between Kurdish rebels and the Turkish security forces.
19. January 7, 2016, U.S.:
Five people killed in shooting at two military facilities in Chattanooga, Tennessee. U.S. Attorney Bill Killian said officials were treating the attacks as an “act of domestic terrorism.”
20. Mar 22, 2016, Belgium:
Bombs exploded at the Brussels airport and one of the city’s metro stations, killing 34 people and wounding dozens. Claiming responsibility, the IS said its members detonated suicide vests both at the airport and in the subway. In police raids across Brussels, authorities later found a nail-filled bomb, chemical products and an Islamic State flag in a house in the Schaerbeek neighbourhood.
European security officials had been bracing for a major attack for weeks and warned that IS was actively preparing to strike.
21. June 12, 2016, U.S.:
In the worst mass shooting incident in the U.S., at least 50 people were killed and 53 injured by a gunman at a night club in Orlando, Florida. The shooter, Omar Mateen, an American citizen of Afghan origin, was killed in the police operation that followed.
The 29-year-old may have been a radicalised Islamist and the investigation will probe that angle too, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Mateen apparently went on Facebook to measure the shockwaves his attackwas generating. According to news agency Associated Press, Mateen made a series of Facebook posts and searches before and during the attack. “America and Russia stop bombing the Islamic state,” Mateen allegedly posted on Facebook.
22. July 14, 2016, France:
An attacker killed up to 80 people and injured scores after he drove a heavy truck at high speed into a crowd watching Bastille Day fireworks in the French Riviera city of Nice. The attack, which came eight months and a day after IS gunmen and suicide bombers killed 130 people in Paris, appeared to be a work of a lone assailant.
The driver, identified as a French national of Tunisian origin, was shot dead by the police.
The incident brought the focus back on ‘lone wolf’ attacks. The first is the tactical question of how to deal with the “lone wolf”, the solitary potential terrorist motivated by everything from bigotry and mental illness to a genuine belief in the ultra-violent, nihilistic philosophy of the IS.
A forensic officer stands near a van with its windscreen riddled with bullets.
France in the crosshairs of terror, said “two broad lines of analysis” are needed.
“The first is the tactical question of how to deal with the “lone wolf”, the solitary potential terrorist motivated by everything from bigotry and mental illness to a genuine belief in the ultra-violent, nihilistic philosophy of the IS. Lone wolves are committed to carrying out suicide missions and taking as many innocent lives as possible, sometimes drawing direct inspiration from the words of IS leaders. A case in point here is of IS spokesman Muhammad al-Adnani who has called upon the faithful to ‘run over [American and French disbelievers] with your car’. How can they be stopped in any part of the world?…Secondly, a question that countries such as France must ask themselves is a strategic one. For instance, how could the French leadership do more to re-examine the roots of the social alienation and economic misery that engulf so many among its almost five million Muslims and leave them vulnerable to radicalisation? Such introspection could potentially reset deep-seated ethno-religious dissonance and, over the longer term, take the edge off the recruitment drives of extremists lurking in the shadows of Syria, Iraq, and the Internet.”