Two Decades After 9/11: How The Extremist Threat Has Evolved – Analysis

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Twenty years ago, Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked three commercial planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, USA on September 11, 2001. A fourth plane crashed in an area of ​​Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

The attack has claimed nearly 3,000 lives including 19 hijackers who have taken over the navigation of four aircraft used in the attack. It shocked the world at that time. Authorities were quick to identify Al-Qaeda as the perpetrators. Then Al-Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden initially denied any involvement in the attack but eventually claimed responsibility for masterminding it in 2004.

The implications of this attack are enormous, especially on Islam and the global Muslim community. It has caused a deep misunderstanding to the extent that Islam has been accused of being a religion that supports terrorism.


The origins of Al-Qaeda can be traced back to 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, originally from Saudi Arabia, travelled to Afghanistan to help Arab mujahideen fight the Soviet Union. 

In 1996, Osama issued his first statement urging American troops to leave Saudi Arabia. In 1998, Osama again issued another statement expressing his displeasure with American foreign policy regarding Israel and the continued presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia after the 1990 Gulf War. 

Using religious narratives and texts, Osama also urged Muslims to attack Americans wherever they were in the name of Jihad. After the attacks in America in 2001, Al-Qaeda and its followers launched many terrorist attacks, including in America, Europe, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt and even Southeast Asia. 


Osama’s call to attack America was accepted by some Muslim activists as a ‘fatwa’ or religious edict that must be followed and implemented. The statement made by Osama inflamed the spirit of struggle and became a motivation for Muslim militants to fight non-Muslims. 

Al-Qaeda considers terrorism as one of the most appropriate methods to carry out their intentions to achieve the aspirations of establishing an ‘Islamic state’. 

The propaganda of Al-Qaeda was powerful and had major impact at that time. In the name of ‘Jihad’ and ‘defending’ Islam, Osama called on upon the worldwide Muslim community to commit terror attacks no matter where they are.

Al-Qaeda exploited Islamic concepts to justify their actions. Their ideology is driven by hatred, anger and deep animosity with the US, its allies, non-Muslims in general and Muslims who do not agree with them.

They have fashioned an ideology that is capable of attracting the sympathy of many. By leveraging on radio networks, videos, publications and even the internet, Al-Qaeda is able to promote their ideology widely and effectively. The way Al-Qaeda disseminates their propaganda has become an example followed by today’s terrorist groups that emerged after Al-Qaeda.

The danger of Al-Qaeda’s ideology lies in the misconstruing Quranic verses and hadith (Prophetic Traditions). Their ideology can be categorized into three: matters pertaining to faith or belief, political and governance issues, and social behaviour. 

Matters related to faith include misunderstanding or narrowing of religious concepts such as jihad, hijrah (migration), bai’ah (pledge of allegiance) and takfir (excommunication). Those related to politics and governance includes the establishment of the Islamic system of government, the implementation of Sharia law. In terms of social behaviour, Al-Qaeda promotes hatred against nonMuslims and the Western World, obligating migration, jihad and distancing oneself from society.


The influence of Al-Qaeda’s teachings spread throughout the world and was able to influence most Muslim extremist groups. They believed Osama’s statement is somewhat like a religious edict and therefore an obligation that should be carried out by Muslims.

The Al-Qaeda brand then was growing in many countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Africa, and even Southeast Asia. Islamic militant groups such as the Al-Qaeda in Arabia, the Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabab in Somalia and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in the Southeast Asian region all have links to Al-Qaeda and have committed terror attacks in their respective places.

After the September 11 attacks, Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries faced threats from groups and individuals sympathetic to Al-Qaeda especially JI. JI was founded by Abdullah Sungkar and Abdullah Ba’asyir in Indonesia with the original purpose of establishing an Islamic state in Indonesia.

Like Al-Qaeda, JI has also used terror tactics and justified such acts in the name of ‘Jihad’. On October 12, 2002, they carried out a terror attack in Bali. The attack, which killed 202 people, was the largest since the terrorist attacks in US on September 11.


Al-Qaeda can be described as the first group to create a violent ideology based on religious teachings on a regular basis. Al-Qaeda’s ideology and religious beliefs have been communicated through various mediums including face-to-face meetings with followers as well as the internet. They have also promoted their ideology through the publication of books and magazines.

With Osama’s death in 2011, Al-Qaeda can be said to have been paralysed and defeated. Several other senior Al-Qaeda leaders such as Abu Mus’ab Al-Zarqawi and also senior JI leaders such as Azahari Hussin and Noordin Mohd Top were shot dead by the authorities.

Although the era of Al-Qaeda and JI has passed, the violent ideology championed by Al-Qaeda still continues to flourish. After Al-Qaeda, the evolution of the ideology of terrorism took place with the emergence of two phenomena.

First, there is a group of individuals who have no direct connection with Al-Qaeda but are influenced by violent and hardline ideology through the internet. This phenomenon is known as self-radicalisation.

Singapore traced the first case of this self -radicalisation phenomenon as early as 2007, in which a Singaporean was arrested for planning to take up arms abroad on the pretext of fighting for oppressed Muslims as well as ‘defending’ Islam.

Since then, several other individuals have been detained for being radicalised. Their radicalisation process takes place usually through the internet and social media.

The second phenomenon originally began in 2011 where some Singaporeans were called to fight and get involved with the conflict and civil war in Syria. They are influenced by narratives that claim that the conflict in Syria is a Jihad that requires the involvement of Muslims.

The conflict in Syria in 2011 has led to the emergence of today’s leading terrorist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS which established the Islamic Caliphate in 2014. Like Al-Qaeda, ISIS also justifies its acts of terror and murder using religious concepts.

Since 2014, ISIS has successfully conquered several provinces in Syria. They have also managed to attract many young Muslims from many countries including from the Middle East, Europe, US and also from the Southeast Asian region.

Since 2018, ISIS has begun to lose the territories that it has conquered before. ISIS’ military strength also began to wane. However, today we find that the strength of ISIS no longer lies in the military strength and also the territory it once conquered. In fact, it lies in the ideology and propaganda they have spread through the internet and social media.

This is the strength of ISIS where it relies on the power of propaganda and the use of the internet and social media that can target many people no matter where they are.


Osama and Abdullah Azzam, another fighter who once opposed the Soviet Union, founded Al-Qaeda in the late 1990s in Afghanistan. There, Al-Qaeda supports the Taliban militant group, which also possesses a hardline Islamic ideology. 

Following 9/11, American troops invaded Afghanistan, where the Taliban protected Osama and Al-Qaeda. For two decades, American troops have been in Afghanistan on missions to fight terrorism and protect the country. 

On August 31, American troops withdrew completely from Afghanistan. Before that, the Taliban gradually took control of the region in Afghanistan until it managed to conquer the capital Kabul on 15 August. 

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had fled the country before the Taliban took control of the Presidential Palace. The return of the Taliban to control of Afghanistan today came as a shock to the world and provoked a different reaction. 

One of the main questions on the minds of many is whether the return of the Taliban to the pinnacle of power means the resurgence of the hardcore, aggressive and violent Taliban, as in their first time in power from 1996 to 2001. 

The Taliban is known for its approach to limiting women’s rights in society and applying strict sharia law. Although the Taliban today claims they are now a new generation of more inclusive and accommodating Taliban, this claim has not yet been tested. Many feel it is still too early to conclude that this generation of Taliban is not the same as before.


Two decades have passed since 9/11. Since then, the threat of terrorism has never stopped. In fact it continues to change with new patterns and continues to this day. Thousands of lives were lost as a result of their irresponsible violent acts.

It should always be remembered that the threat of terrorism in the name of religion does not only come from those who are Muslims. Before the emergence of Al-Qaeda there were also groups and individuals who committed acts of terror in the name of other religions such as Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and so on.

In recent times, we have found that dangerous ideologies and orientations exist and have the potential to divide the world community and even crack the harmonious relationship between the followers of different religions.

For example, orientations such as racism, exclusivist mentality, extremist mindset and even anti-religious sentiments may motivate someone to cause disruption in communities.

Therefore, more serious and effective continuous efforts should be made to fortify our society from the dangerous ideologies that may lead to violent acts.

*Mohamed Bin Ali is Assistant Professor and Ahmad Saiful Rijal Bin Hassan is an Associate Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Both studies Islamic law at Al-Azhar University, Cairo and are counsellors with the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG).

Ahmad Saiful Rijal Bin Hassan

Ahmad Saiful Rijal Bin Hassan is an Associate Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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