Reflecting on September 11 has become a sort of tradition over the past 10 years, an opportunity to consider how American policy and society has transformed since this shocking event which has become a sort of landmark in U.S. history.  I suggest that, on this 10-year anniversary and in light of the so-called Arab Spring, we shift the prevailing understanding of the nature of the threat to U.S. security represented by September 11 and examine how our poor understanding of this threat encouraged problematic foreign policy.

September 11 was, both according to common perception and the paradigm adopted by the Bush administration, the mark of a new threat and enemy for America. It was supposedly evidence of a non-state, religious/ideological enemy that is amorphous and irrational. And so it ushered in the “War on Terror.” To many, September 11 was this generation’s Pearl Harbor and thus required the power and priority of a wartime response.  The problem is that September 11 was not the coordinated, powerful attack of a sustained war. It was a single act by a small, disparate group that took advantage of a weakness in U.S. security. In addition, the idea of a war on ”terror” is inherently problematic and dangerous because we lack an unambiguous, widely accepted definition of this term in the first place, making our enemy doubly unidentifiable.

Given this interpretation of the threat posed by September 11, it is not surprising that the U.S. government prioritized fighting terrorism above almost all other goals in its foreign policy. This meant encouraging – financially and diplomatically – leaders in the Middle East and North Africa to assume broad powers to suppress any “terrorist” activity.  In general, it meant supporting existing, strong, stable regimes in the region for fear that instability could allow increased terrorist activity. Given the ambiguous, easy-to-manipulate understanding of "terrorism," this gave a carte blanche to many leaders in the area, legitimizing major violations of human and political rights.

Morocco provides a good example of the consequences of U.S. counterterrorism policy in the region. Individual Moroccans have had ties to various violent attacks throughout the world; one was even tried in relation to September 11. In 2003, Morocco itself suffered a terrorist attack. The authorities reacted with sweeping, indiscriminate arrests, torture, and other human rights violations. Despite these violations, the United States provided – and still provides – strong support for Morocco’s counterterrorism efforts, offering the government full use of its military and intelligence resources. Morocco had actually taken important, positive steps in the domain of human rights since 2000, and this “counterterrorism” campaign marked a major reversal for human rights policy, the lingering effects of which remain today.  Given the priority of fighting terrorism, few international actors were ready to criticize this reversal, particularly not the United States. Tangible evidence of success in Morocco’s counterterrorism efforts is harder to identify than the human rights violations that have taken place in its name. It is not even clear that such policy effectively combats terrorist activity. In a recent study, Dr. Navin Bapat of the University of North Carolina found that governments receiving counterterrorism aid from the United States have no incentive to actually eliminate terrorist groups, because then the United States would cut off aid.  In Morocco, as in many countries in the region, U.S. counterterrorism efforts post-September 11 provided governments with the financial and diplomatic support to resist reform.

The consequence of this policy is especially relevant now, as Morocco and many other countries across the region face popular protest and reform movements of varying strength, taking advantage of the momentum inspired by Tunisia and Egypt’s historic revolutions to resist those same sweeping powers and corruption that America’s anti-terrorism strategy helped support. America was afraid of popular trends in the Middle East and North Africa that could foster terrorist movements.  The Arab Spring suggests that the more powerful popular movement in many parts of the region is not terrorism – this always has and likely always will be a highly marginal trend that most Muslims see as a horrible violation of the most important principles of the religion. Instead, the prevailing movement is one struggling against the structural and day-to-day humiliation and oppression that the population suffers in corrupt regimes. The force of these movements substantiates the conclusion that supporting existing powerful, oppressive or corrupt regimes does not improve a country’s stability. And it underlines the fact that, at some point, the U.S. will need to answer for the problematic policies it has adopted in the name of a war without definition.