The term “War on Terror” first came into use in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, when members of the terrorist organization al-Qaeda flew planes into the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, resulting in the deaths of almost 3000 people. On September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush declared that “our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there.” When the government decided to invade not only Iraq but Afghanistan as well, it became clear that this was not simply retaliation against the actions of al-Qaeda; this was an all-out declaration of war on the Middle East, a region with which the United States has always had a tempestuous relationship.
The War on Terror’s wide reach beyond individual militant organizations and into entire countries made it difficult to determine who the enemy truly was: terrorism or the Islamic world? On October 26, 2001, Bush signed the Patriot Act, a piece of legislation that allows the US government to use controversial methods (such as wiretapping private phone lines) whenever a situation is deemed a matter of “national security.” While the Patriot Act was billed as an anti-terrorism measure, it enabled law enforcement officials to pursue other criminal activity freely. Many Americans protested, insisting that this was an infringement upon civil liberties and privacy.
The United States became subject to worldwide disapproval and criticism as a result of the war. Leaders across the globe, including former South African President and humanitarian Nelson Mandela, spoke out against Bush’s actions and leadership. Initially, Jewish leaders were supportive of retaliation against the perpetrators of 9/11, but urged caution, skeptical that the war was taking the right approach. Many have noted the contradictory nature of the term, and suggested that to declare “war on terror” is to fight fire with fire, and that peace is not an attainable endgame with this mentality. Despite an outcry from millions of Americans who opposed the War on Terror, Bush continued to escalate military involvement in the Middle East throughout his 8 years in office.
With the election of President Barack Obama came a promise to end American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama ceased to use the term “War on Terror” in regard to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, distancing himself from the unpopular Bush-era approach. On May 2, 2011, after a decade-long manhunt, Osama bin Laden—al Qaeda leader and architect of the 9/11 attacks—was killed in a covert operation orchestrated by the CIA. By the end of the year, all US troops had been withdrawn from Iraq with plans to exit Afghanistan gradually (any US troops remaining after 2014 would exist solely in a counter-terrorism capacity). Despite the Obama administration’s ambitious goals of ending the War on Terror, fury over the US’s intervention in the Middle East has reverberated throughout the region, inciting violence against Americans and instability in relations between the Western and Muslim worlds.