9/11 Trials Will Shape Global Terrorism Commentary
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9/11 Trials Will Shape Global Terrorism
Edited by: Jessica Lasky

The 2021 trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the “architect of 9/11,” and the other accused will write an important page in the legal chapter of dealing with terrorism. What is not clear is if this page will solve issues, sustain them, or even create more. Ultimately, these trials will be essential not only for the U.S. and its war against terrorism but for counter-terrorism globally.

Courts should judge criminal terror attacks because they are the only responsible authority in civilized countries to decide upon the issues of guilt or innocence. People demand justice to be delivered, not only as recognition of the hurt endured but also to deter future terrorists from their deadly plans.

Mohammed and the others are accused of the World Trade Center attacks. The 9/11 terror operations changed the U.S. and the rest of the world.  Counter-terrorism measures taken by many countries have raised concerns regarding civil liberties and human rights. Discussions about torture (“enhanced interrogation methods”) made it evident that human rights are not a given. Anything can be accepted as necessary (hence considered and promoted as legal) by those who fear. And terrorism produces fear.

The trial will grapple with some purely legal issues. For instance, how fair can this trial be? After all, 18 years have passed since some of the crimes attributed to these defendants. Also, is it just they were incarcerated and underwent “enhanced interrogation methods” (which before 9/11, would most probably constitute torture)? It is not like there was a U.S. manhunt to arrest them, which is why the trial is taking place only after such a long period.

Whatever legal name we give to their detention, the accused were imprisoned and (it seems) tortured in Guantanamo. It should not be accepted that any state can hold people until it feels it has a case against them. No matter how serious the charges, holding the accused for such a long time without a trial is shameful.

Another legal issue the courts will face is determining if the court should accept the testimonies derived from the abusive treatment of the accused persons. Thus, the fairness of the trial is in question. The legal arguments behind why the testimonies should not be accepted range. From the presumption of innocence every defendant should enjoy (even those accused of the most horrible crimes), to the ethical and legal standards of the western legal civilization. Although it may be difficult to accept that every accused deserves rights, all trials ought to be carried out with all safeguards prescribed by the law.

Even those not concerned about protecting the human rights of these defendants should still care about security.  The Islamist extremist network can use these trials as propaganda, painting the defendants are martyrs. Any ill-treatment of the defendants or miscarriage of justice will be used to sustain Muslims’ collective trauma and sense of injustice. Islamists cultivate those feeling through their propaganda to create pools of recruits and sympathizers. Radicalization to extremist violence and terrorism is a process that feeds from conflict, trauma, and grievances (real or perceived). If this trial creates “martyrs,” then the fight against terror will undergo a communication defeat, regardless of if the trial convicts those behind the horrendous attacks.

We must also not forget that there is a new generation out there. Young people were not born when the World Trade or even the 9/11 attacks took place. The fear, the tragedy, the loss of lives, the pain, and the agony were narrated to them, but they have not lived it. So, these young people see just the response, the reaction of the system, and not what caused it. These young people are targeted by the Islamist extremist network to find new members and sympathizers. If they can use these trials to inflame the younger generations, it will just help their terror organizations survive and be ready to strike again.

The trial in question is not only a U.S. issue that will only affect Americans. Islamist terrorism threats are of international concern, and counter-terrorism is a global effort. So, these trials will not just stay in the U.S. These trials will affect the world. Some countries with lower security capacity to prevent and thwart terrorist attacks can be the next targets that the Islamists will choose to launch their revenge campaign. No solution is without problems and consequences. With such a delay in carrying out the trials, as well as the treatment of defendants, much of the damage has already been done.

It is hard to think of a way that everyone can be satisfied. On one side the victims and the world want to address terrorism legally, and on the other side, people fight for the principles of law and fear the repercussions of a trial that does not meet high legal standards. It is probably a lose-lose situation. At least we can learn for the future that successful counter-terrorism requires the delicate skills of a surgeon, not just the power of a bulldozer.


Dr. Maria Chr. Alvanou is a criminologist and CVE expert. She is also a lecturer at the Greek National Security School.


Suggested citation: Maria Chr. Alvanou, 9/11 Trials Will Shape Global Terrorism, JURIST – Academic Commentary, Sept. 17, 2019, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2019/Maria-Alvanou-global-terrorism


This article was prepared for publication by Jess Lasky, an Associate Editor for JURIST Commentary. Please direct any questions or comments to her at commentary@jurist.org


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