The 9/11 Attacks, Two Decades On with The Rt Hon Tony Blair

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To mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the prime minister who led the United Kingdom at that time will reflect on the enormity of these events and on the roots of the Islamist extremism that the West was forced to confront by 2001.

Given the latest tragic developments in Afghanistan, Mr Blair provides his views on the ‘endless wars’ narrative, the consequences of the Afghanistan withdrawal, the current forces of change in the Middle East and the UK role in a values-based Western foreign and security policy.

After his initial presentation, Mr Blair engaged in a conversation on these topics with Dr Jonathan Eyal, RUSI’s Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships, and took questions from RUSI members.

Watch the recording

  • The context for this speech - originally a reflection on the 20 years since 9/11 - has dramatically changed as a result of the events of the past 20 days.


    I will not repeat what I have said about the fact and manner of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. I will focus instead on the policy issues raised by it.


    The Taliban are part of the global movement of Radical Islam. The movement contains many different groups, but they share the same basic ideology.


    In simple terms, this holds that there is only one true faith, only one true view of that faith and that society, politics and culture should be governed only by that view.


    Radical Islam believes not only in Islamism – the turning of the religion into a political doctrine – but in the justification of struggle if necessary armed struggle to achieve it.


    Other Islamists agree with the ends but eschew violence.


    But the ideology is in inevitable conflict with open, modern, culturally tolerant societies.


    Nearly everything about 9/11 and its aftermath, particularly now, is mired in controversy.


    What cannot be seriously disputed however, is that since 9/11, though thankfully there has been no further terrorist attack of that scale, Radical Islam has not declined in force. What is disputed is why.


    Is Radical Islam a coherent ideology which represents a first order threat to our security? Or are we facing, despite some common themes, a series of disconnected security challenges each of which require handling on its own terms, based on local circumstances? Is Islamism a problem or only its manifestation in violent extremism? Is it akin as I say to Revolutionary Communism and must be countered by a combination of security and ideological measures over the long term; or is that to over-state it, over-estimate it and thus perversely, as some would argue by the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, to elevate its appeal rather than diminish its appeal?


    This is a fundamental strategic question. And it needs a clear answer.


    In my view, Islamism, both the ideology and the violence, is a first order security threat; and, unchecked, it will come to us, even if centred far from us, as 9/11 demonstrated.


    The analysis published recently by Dr El-Baddawy from my Institute shows how the roots of Islamism stretch back over many decades, grew in strength long before 9/11 and examines the links between the ideology and the violence. This is supplemented by the excellent analysis of the Ulema-State concept by Ahmet Kuru and by the annual report we publish of Jihadist groups which shows that this is a global challenge, and one that is getting worse.


    This ideology – whether Shia, promulgated by the Islamic Republic of Iran or Sunni promoted by groups on a spectrum from the Muslim Brotherhood through to Al-Qa’ida, ISIS Boko Haram and many others – has been the principal cause of de-stabilisation across the Middle East, and beyond and today in Africa.


    Like Revolutionary Communism, it operates in many different arenas and dimensions; and like it, its defeat will come ultimately through confronting both the violence and the ideology, by a combination of hard and soft power.


    If this is a correct analysis, then especially after the fall of Afghanistan, the leading powers must unite to develop an agreed strategy. And even if initial discussions centre around Western nations, China and Russia also have an interest in countering this ideology; and our best allies are to be found in the many Muslim countries, including in the Middle East, desperate to re-take their religion from extremism.


    We need also to assess our vulnerability.


    Covid-19 has taught us about deadly pathogens. Bio-terror possibilities may seem like the realm of science fiction; but we would be wise now to prepare for their potential use by non-State actors.


    If this analysis is rejected, the alternative is, in effect, to say this is a second order problem; where we are directly threatened, we retaliate through Counter Terrorism measures – drone strikes, surveillance, Special Forces. But otherwise we leave alone.


    But if this is where policy is heading, it too has limitations.


    We need to work out what we mean by not ‘remaking’ countries from which terrorist threats can arise. I understand it means that we do not attempt what we tried in Afghanistan. Though one thing should be understood. Our ‘remaking’ didn't fail because the people didn't want the country ‘remade’. For sure, we could have ‘remade’ better, but Afghans did not choose the Taliban takeover. The last opinion poll in 2019 showed the Taliban with 4% support amongst the Afghan people. They conquered the country by violence not persuasion. The barrier to ‘nation-building’ is usually not the people, but poor institutional capacity and governance, including corruption, over many years; and most of all the challenge of trying to build whilst internal elements combined with external support are trying to destroy.


    But Counter Terrorism on its own won't remove an entrenched threat.


    We could seek a middle course. For example, in The Sahel, we could adopt a strategy of assisting countries with security but also supporting the Governments’ own attempts to develop their nations, because poverty and under-development undoubtedly facilitate the extremists. In a way this is what we did in Afghanistan post 2014 when NATO’s mission went to ‘train, advise and assist.’


    But even here, this will likely encompass more than conventional Counter Terrorism. We need some ‘boots on the ground’. Naturally our preference is for the boots to be local. But that will not always be possible.


    Western societies and their political leaders have become quite understandably, deeply averse to casualties amongst our Armed Forces. This is not a problem of the Armed Forces themselves, who are brave and extraordinary people. But it is now an overwhelming political constraint to any commitment to Western boots on the ground, except for Special Forces.


    Yet the problem this gives rise to, is obvious: if the enemy we're fighting knows that the more casualties they inflict, the more our political will erodes, then the incentive structure is plain.


    There is an additional challenge for Europe and NATO. It is clear now – if it wasn't before – that America has decided that for the foreseeable future, it has a very limited appetite for military engagement. After Kosovo, I initiated European Defence with France. I did this precisely because I realised that without the United States, and President Clinton’s commitment, we could never have resolved the crisis. And today the Balkans, relative to its history, can aspire to a peaceful future hopefully within Europe. Yet the crisis was on Europe’s doorstep not America’s.


    It’s Europe that faces the immediate challenge from the de-stabilisation of The Sahel. Europe is already facing the fallout from Libya, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.  And for these purposes Britain is part of Europe like it or not.


    How do Europe and NATO develop the capability to act when America is unwilling?


    Answering these questions or at least confronting them, would also reinvigorate Western policy-makers capacity to think strategically. For me, one of the most alarming developments of recent times, has been the sense the West lacks the capacity to formulate strategy. That its short-term political imperatives have simply squeezed the space for long-term thinking.


    It is this sense more than anything else, in my judgement, which gives our allies anxiety and our opponents a belief our time is over.


    Finally, one of the most depressing things I have heard regularly articulated over the past weeks is the idea that we are foolish in believing that Western notions of Liberal Democracy and freedom are exportable or will ever take root except in the somewhat decadent terrain of Western society.


    Maybe my generation of leaders were naïve in thinking countries could be ‘remade’. Or maybe the ‘remaking’ needed to last longer. But we should never forget as we see the women of Afghanistan in the media, culture and civic society now flee in fear of their lives, that our values are still those which free people choose. Recovering confidence in those values and in their universal application is a necessary part of ensuring we stand up for them and are prepared to defend them.


    Thank you very much.

Speaker's Biography

  • Tony Blair

    Tony Blair served as UK Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007 and is the only British Labour leader in the party’s century-old history to win three consecutive terms. He was a passionate advocate of an interventionist foreign policy, created the Department for International Development, tripled the UK’s foreign aid to Africa, and introduced landmark legislation to tackle climate change. Since leaving office and among various other activities, Mr Blair established the Institute for Global Change to work on some of the most difficult challenges in the world today.

    View the Institute for Global Change


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