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9/11 anniversary, torture, GWOT

When the World Becomes Your Battlefield

How 9/11 allowed the US to normalize torture, dehumanize Muslims, and justify empire.

Words: Maha Hilal
Pictures: Spencer Tamichi

On Sept. 20, 2001, just nine days after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush used the phrase “War on Terror” for the first time. Addressing a joint session of Congress — and the nation — Bush sketched a vision for what would become a sprawling global apparatus of state violence and warfare with myriad echoes in domestic policy. Preempting any expectations for a detailed blueprint of what exactly this new Global War on Terror (GWOT) would entail, or how long it would last, Bush merely asserted that “our war on terror begins with al-Qaida, but it does not end there.” Instead, the president warned Americans in vague, ominous terms to expect “far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes” and prepare for “a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.”  

Two days before he gave his Sept. 20, 2001 speech, Bush had already signed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) into law. Passed swiftly through Congress in the emotional aftermath of 9/11, the AUMF granted the Bush administration broad authority to use whatever force it deemed necessary and appropriate against not just al-Qaida but any actors it determined to be directly or indirectly involved in the 9/11 attacks — whether individuals, organizations, or nations. The sweeping mandate of the 2001 AUMF did much more than authorize the invasion of Afghanistan though; it essentially gave the president carte blanche to treat the world as a battlefield.


Even before the passage of the AUMF and public announcement of a GWOT, on Sept. 17, 2001, Bush signed a covert Memorandum of Notification giving the CIA director the authority to capture and detain any “persons who pose a continuing, serious threat of violence or death to US persons and interests or who are planning terrorist activities.” Prior to 9/11, the CIA had a history of direct and indirect engagement with rendition and outright kidnapping. The post-9/11 CIA extraordinary rendition program had its origins in the policies of the Clinton administration, and was designed by CIA officials leading the “Usama bin Laden Issue Station.” According to former CIA Director George Tenet, the CIA engaged in at least 80 renditions by the time of the 9/11 attacks. However, by explicitly granting the agency the authority to not only capture terror suspects but to detain them, presumably in secret and without trial, the Bush administration demonstrated just how much violence and abuse of human rights it was prepared to accept in waging its war on terror.

Taken together, these early actions — and Bush’s Sept. 20, 2001 speech to Congress — laid out a roadmap for the years to come. They sent a clear signal that the United States was fully prepared to exploit the 9/11 attacks, leveraging its hegemonic posture of victimhood as cover for unleashing horrific state violence on a global scale. The infrastructure of the GWOT that the Bush administration developed, and that has since endured and grown, was indeed as vast and as punitive as he warned — and it has almost exclusively targeted Muslims. Domestically, Muslim communities have been subject to surveillance and other programs that constantly violate their civil liberties. Abroad, this has taken the form of seemingly endless wars waged on Afghanistan and Iraq, proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, and other military interventions, involving drone warfare, in countries around the world. According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, the impact of the wars have been steep. As their recently released research shows, the post-9/11 wars have led to the deaths of at least 387,000 civilians and 38 million refugees and displaced persons. These numbers are devastating, but they only encompass one aspect of the GWOT: Militarism and warfare.

The infrastructure of the GWOT that the Bush administration developed, and that has since endured and grown, was indeed as vast and as punitive as he warned — and it has almost exclusively targeted Muslims.

In my forthcoming book, “Innocent Until Proven Muslim: Islamophobia, the War on Terror and the Muslim Experience Since 9/11,” I provide a framework through which to understand the totality of the GWOT, which encompasses five dimensions. The first is militarism and warfare, which as described above, refers to the various wars that the United States is waging all over the world in the name of counterterrorism. The second is through draconian immigration policies, such as the National Special Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which almost exclusively targeted non-citizen men from Muslim majority countries, screening them on the basis of the construction of Muslims as inherently prone to acts of violence. Though President Barack Obama dismantled the regulatory framework of the NSEERS program at the end of his term, immigration policies throughout the GWOT have been largely rooted in Islamophobia. The Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program is a good example: It’s a process by which the government excludes many applicants from Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian communities by either delaying or denying their applications with legal authority. When DonaldTrump became president, he was explicit about his Islamophobic motivations and proceeded to implement the Muslim Ban

The third is surveillance. In 2013, Muslim civil rights organizations sued the New York Police Department on the discovery that Muslim communities were being tracked, mapped, targeted by informants, and included in intelligence databases. A recent article in PBS News Hour chronicled what local Muslim communities have endured since 9/11. In addition, the Obama administration developed the Countering Violent Extremism program as a form of soft counterterrorism, which legitimized the surveillance of Muslim communities. The fourth dimension is federal terrorism prosecutions, the government’s preemptive approach to countering terrorists post-9/11 that has resulted in the criminalization of protected speech. Prosecutions under the much expanded doctrine of material support for terrorism do not rely on the actual commission of a violent crime or even a demonstrated intent to commit violence, merely some connection with an entity that has been designated as a terrorist organization. The final dimension is illegal detention and torture. There is no better example of institutionalized Islamophobia than the Guantanamo Bay prison, which has held 780 Muslim men and subjected them to the most egregious torture, mostly on the construction of Muslims as inherently violent and terroristic. To date, 39 prisoners remain, many of whom have been held without charge for over a decade. 

The importance of conceiving the GWOT through this framework is to reject the idea that the war has only encompassed militarism and warfare. Instead, the goal is to connect the domestic and foreign aspects of the war more intimately, to recognize the centrality of Islamophobia to the whole apparatus, and to provide deeper understanding of what it would actually take to dismantle the GWOT both globally and domestically.     


A signature outgrowth of the earliest days of GWOT and one of the most emblematic examples of the extent to which the US government has dehumanized Muslims is the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation program, which ran from 2002–2009. Under the auspices of this clandestine program that was authorized by secret memorandum, at least 119 Muslims were subject to torture and indefinite detention

Spanish philosopher George Santayana famously said, “only the dead have seen the end of the war.” The story of an Afghan man named Gul Rahman, who was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 on suspicions of terrorism and detained by the CIA, provides a haunting illustration of how, in the GWOT, even this may not be true. While in CIA custody, Rahman was subjected to a relentles program of torture that included tactics such as sleep deprivation, isolation, total darkness, and icy cold showers. Less than a month after his capture, he died of hypothermia after being shackled to a concrete floor partially nude in freezing temperatures. That, however, was not the end of the violence. Rahman’s family was not officially informed of his death for more than a decade and a half, and then only because, as part of a settlement in the lawsuit Salim v Mitchell, against the psychologists who were the architects of the CIA’s torture program. As a result of the suit, they received a statement acknowledging that “Gul Rahman was subjected to abuses in the CIA program that resulted in his death and pain and suffering to his family.” In 2018 the ACLU filed another FOIA suit in Ullah et. al v CIA that sought the release of the still classified information, including the disposition of Rahman’s body (Ullah was the rep for Rahman’s estate). Unsurprisingly, this case was dismissed on summary judgement in 2020 on the court’s finding that the level of information previously released was sufficient in light of the government/CIA’s national security interest. To this day, the family has received no information about the disposition and location of his body. 


Two decades after the GWOT was launched, there appears to be no end in sight. This is not only because of the blueprint for the war that Bush set out, but also because the United States has continued to categorically reject any explanation for violence that holds its own to account. The boundless parameters of the violence and abuse of Muslims that would be justified in the name of the GWOT have never been clearer. Neither has the US’ goal of preserving, protecting, and promoting the US empire, accomplished by deepening its violence and cementing its presence in countries across the globe. 

But wars can only last as long as empires do.  

Dr. Maha Hilal is a researcher, writer, and organizer working to dismantle and abolish the Global War on Terror. She is the author “Innocent Until Proven Muslim: Islamophobia, the War on Terror and the Muslim Experience Since 9/11” (forthcoming in October 2021).

“The Long Tunnel” is a series of articles reflecting on the impact of Sept. 11 and how it has shaped the world we live in today. You can read more in the series here.

Maha Hilal

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