It has been over two decades since the 9/11 attacks, which formally marked the start of the long War on Terror. The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq by the US-led Western coalition has left a long-lasting legacy, not just in the form of continued regional destabilisation but in a vast, sprawling set of structures, policies, and interests that uphold a burgeoning counterterror industry across the globe. Despite the massive upheaval wrought on both the international political order and local communities under the auspices of countering terrorism and the on-going ruptures this has caused on local levels, the language of the War on Terror has changed and disappeared from contemporary political parlance. Furthermore, the military operations that characterised the opening stages of the War on Terror have long since finished or been lost. However, has the long War on Terror ended? If so, what marked its end? If not, what would such an ending look like in practise? And where do we stand with regards to the term War on Terror?
While the military operations of the War on Terror have ended, the logic that underpinned them has not. Rather, they have become both embedded and normalised, both within Western societies and globally. As such, the same processes continue in the self-sustaining logic of counterterrorism, deradicalisation, and counter-extremism programmes. Such counter-terror and counter-extremism policies have impacted significantly on Muslim minorities, who have found themselves cast as ‘suspect communities’, problematised as a threat to European security, and subjected to invasive surveillance and deradicalisation measures. And whilst the use of the terminology surrounding the War on Terror has changed or fallen out of use, many of the same logics remain.
The opening lines of the War on Terror centred on the development of a new ‘terrorist threat’ within mainstream governmental and social discourse and the creation of new modes of modern statecraft. Within the post-9/11 context, terrorism became reframed as a unique, unpredictable, irrational, and existential threat—a ‘different’ or ‘new’ form of violence, particularly savage and relentless in its aims and articulation. These underpinnings create the conditions for another key feature: that of terrorism constituting an existential harm to every free society, creating a bifurcation, in the words of then US President George W. Bush, whereby ‘you are either with us, or against us’—either for the so-called Western values of democracy, liberty, and justice, or in direct opposition to them. It is upon such Manichaean conceptualisations that the paradigm of the long ‘War on Terror’ rests.