The merciless al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington 10 years ago started a cycle of warfare that seemed, for a time, to establish international jihadism as an enemy on a par with the Soviet Union during the cold war – another generational crusade in which the west had to prevail. That was always far-fetched and part of a pattern of category errors through which western powers have repeatedly misdiagnosed the nature and potency of the jihadi phenomenon. But so, too, have the jihadis overestimated their reach.
In retrospect, 9/11 was probably the high watermark of jihadi success. Certainly, the unprovoked Anglo-American invasion of Iraq opened up a rich and bloody new arena in which Islamist extremists managed to dig themselves in at the heart of the country. They failed to consolidate their position but their defeats were mainly of their own making. In confronting al-Qaeda after its apocalyptic Twin Towers triumph, the US has been lucky in the uneven quality of its enemies.
Prior to and beyond 9/11, the US and its allies found it hard to get their heads round terrorism divorced from state sponsorship. Despite the accumulating evidence that itinerant bands of holy warriors, battle-hardened in the US-backed jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, were fanning out during the 1990s to wage war in Algeria and Egypt, Chechnya and Bosnia, many intelligence professionals were stuck with the model of, say, the Abu Nidal group, guns-for-hire by Libya or Syria.
The “global war on terror” misconceived by the administration of George W Bush turned this on its head, as Jason Burke writes in his densely documented and diligently reported The 9/11 Wars. Just “as the emphasis on states as sponsors of terrorism lessened, so a new stress on the uniformity and unity of the non-state groups who constituted the enemy emerged”. This overstated the cohesion of the enemy, just as the cold war comparisons inflated it as a threat.
The “they-hate-us-for-our-freedoms” crowd that started braying after 9/11 did not help either. Burke, a British journalist and authority on al-Qaeda, points out that whereas “around 1,000 English-language books with ‘terrorism’ in the title had existed in 1995”, a decade later “there were nearly eleven times as many, with most of the new additions focusing on Islamic militancy”. While the “al-Qaeda industry that sprang up post-9/11 had attracted more than its fair share of frauds, fantasists and ideologues”, Burke writes, substantial research and learning also started to filter through to policymakers and the public.
Until then, though, what had been missed was that 9/11, Osama bin Laden’s stunning success that so seared itself into the consciousness of America and the world, was born of serial jihadi failure. The veterans of Afghanistan who returned home to launch insurgencies in Algeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia all failed. Their triumphalist view, that if religious zeal allied to western rocketry could humble the Soviet superpower in Afghanistan, then surely they could bring down infidel tyrants at home, underestimated the strengths and failed to identify the weaknesses of the Arab security state.
That is why they turned to bin Laden and his global strategy, to strike “the far enemy” in America as well as subsequent attacks in the west, from Madrid to Istanbul to London. The tactic only works if these outrages provoke western reprisals ferocious enough to trigger Islamist uprisings to sweep away Arab rulers, “the near enemy” at home. Burke’s explanation of al-Qaeda’s policy – “a series of spectacular and violent actions which would radicalise and mobilise all those who had hitherto shunned the call to arms, eventually provoking a mass uprising that would lead to a new era for the world’s Muslims” – insufficiently captures the precision of the jihadis’ dialectic. Their real target was western-backed despots at home but they were banking on the perception of a western war on Islam inflaming the Muslim masses.
Though things look quite different in Afghanistan 10 years on, with a big allied army struggling against a resurgent Taliban, the jihadis were initially disappointed. Even the New York atrocity failed to lure enough infidel troops into bin Laden’s Afghan lair. President Bush and his British ally, Tony Blair, were soon to remedy that, however, both by abandoning Afghanistan for a second time (the first was when the west dropped the Afghans soon after the Soviets withdrew), and by invading Iraq.
That opened the door to what began as a remarkably successful insurgency against the Americans in Iraq’s Sunni heartland. But triumph quickly turned into disaster as the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, the sanguinary totalitarian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, slipped bin Laden’s reins and prioritised the slaughter of the idolatrous Shia, Iraq’s majority sect. The Sunni tribes of central Iraq turned on the Sunni supremacists of al-Qaeda, and became the real success of the US “surge” of 2007-2008 – an episode Burke analyses with meticulous fairness.
Burke also captures the paradox behind both the US and al-Qaeda’s failure in Iraq. Both saw the struggle as global, shorn of particularity, context, local identity and dynamics. He is withering and detailed about the ignorance and ineptitude of western policies on the ground. His tale of a draft edict of the second American viceroy in Iraq, the ineffable Paul Bremer, announcing that “the only currencies that will be used shall be dollars and Reichsmarks”, indicates Iraq’s occupiers were not just stuck in the cold war but in the post-war occupation of Germany – a mindset that can deal with monoliths such as Stalinism and Nazism but not the messed-up ways of the Middle East.
Particularity and context, by contrast, are two things Burke, with an eye for detail and an ear for cant, renders superlatively. From the streets of Peshawar in northern Pakistan in the 1980s, where a jumble of Arab jihadi groups “all co-existed in a constant stew of petty jealousies, temporary alliances and noisy boasting”, to the American officers in Iraq who had never met an Iraqi not in handcuffs, the reporting, the anecdotes and the cameos are absorbing and informative – a welcome change from reporters who simply unload their notebooks.
A long-term Delhi resident with an intimate knowledge of south Asia, Burke is especially compelling on the political texture and social detail of the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and especially the tribal areas between them. The chapter on this lawless region, so little known and so often romanticised by outsiders, is arguably the best in the book. He writes that the fragmented Pakistani Taliban often seem to have few “aims that went beyond dominating a particular valley, road or racket”. If you want to know about the tensions inside Lashkar-e-Taiba – “arguably the biggest violent Islamic extremist organisation in the world”, a Frankenstein’s monster that is escaping the control of its creator, Pakistan’s military intelligence service – Burke is your man. The deadly dalliance of Pakistan’s generals and spies with jihadis they presumptuously believe they can use and control as proxies in the great regional contest with India is now a bigger threat to international stability than al-Qaeda itself.
The death of bin Laden is almost a postscript. The purported “universalism” of the al-Qaeda leader’s Islamist creed was ground into dust by Zarqawi’s bloodthirsty fanaticism and absolutist brand of monotheism in Iraq, just as Muslims’ revulsion and repudiation of al-Qaeda’s methods, from Egypt to Algeria, and from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, has been fatal to its attraction. Further afield, and despite occasional atrocities by home-grown and self-radicalising terrorists wanting to spark a “leaderless jihad” in the west, dark predictions of European intifadas, mini-Fallujahs, and a Eurabia in the heart of Christendom, popular with jihadi theorists and rightwing commentators after rioting in the French banlieues in 2005, were unreal then and are unreal now.
What is real, and which mercilessly exposes the bankruptcy of armed jihadism, is the tide of revolution roaring through Arab lands. As Jean-Pierre Filiu writes in The Arab Revolution, the Manichean messiahs of al-Qaeda have been struck dumb. No wonder. The jihadis managed to divide the people they presumed to redeem through blood and fire, while leaving in place the security regimes they purported to overthrow. The new, youth-led and inclusive mass democratic movements that toppled Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the rebels who stormed into Muammer Gaddafi’s Tripoli, the civic uprising in Syria menacing the gangster regime of Bashar al-Assad, have done in months what neither decades of Islamist activism nor dozens of jihadi insurgencies could do. It was Arab youth, numerous, educated and globalised but made to feel like outsiders in their own looted and prostrate countries, that upended a despotic order that incubated the most virulent forms of political Islam as its mirror image, engendering jihadism in its perverse embrace.
Filiu, professor of Middle East Studies at Sciences Po in Paris, has distilled a great deal of knowledge and sensitive and well-written analysis into this first take on the new Arab awakening.
He sees these upheavals as a call for “dignity, pride, honour”, and “a struggle for self-determination, for liberation from a corrupt clique, for regaining control and power over a nation’s and the individual’s destiny”. The ability of these movements to remain inclusive across religion, sect and class, in the face of provocative attempts to divide and rule, will be critical to preventing roll-back and restoration by the anciens régimes, and the return of jihadism. The revolutions, Filiu well says, show that “al-Qaeda is just a parenthesis, a most dispensable one in the history of Islam and the Arab world. Not a culmination, but an aberration.”
Alaa al-Aswany would largely concur. His novel The Yacoubian Building captured the frustration and corruption, the stifling mediocrity and the terror of Mubarak’s Egypt with plastic and precise psychological pitch; in On the State of Egypt, a collection of columns written in the months leading to Tahrir Square, he is a pamphleteer for freedom. It is hard for a writer of fiction to outdo reality in a place such as Egypt, no doubt why ordinary Egyptians resort to wit and humour as both shield and solace. Aswany’s columns are full of great stories on the pathology of despotism and its need to discourage talent and induce failure. Thus, for example, Ahmed Zewail, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist who went to advise Barack Obama, was thwarted in setting up a technology university in Egypt once Mubarak’s regime found out he was popular among the young.
“Egypt has millions of educated people and thousands of honest people with rare talents who, if given a chance, are quite capable of bringing about a major renaissance within a few years. But despotism is the fundamental reason why Egypt and Egyptians are falling behind,” Aswany wrote 18 months ago. Ending this, and every column thereafter until the revolution, he added: “Democracy is the solution” – a conscious echo and repudiation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s facile mantra that “Islam is the solution”. The grid created by the symbiosis of despotism and Islamism has been broken.
The west did not win the 9/11 wars. But nor, as Jason Burke points out, did it lose. It had the limits to its military might and political reach mercilessly exposed. Yet, at the end of this tumultuous decade, it is the hollowness of the tyrannies the west often supported that is even more exposed. That is a victory for the west, insofar as the universal values it claims to defend are staging a revival.
The clash of civilisations has failed to materialise, despite the best efforts of jihadi zealots in the Muslim world and blinkered Islamophobes in the west. The Arab masses have started moving decisively towards democracy and accountability, even though western countries in the post-9/11 decade have trampled on freedom and the rule of law through practices such as rendition and torture. The radical pessimists on both sides should look on these upheavals and despair. Because the idea of freedom, even when those who claim to be its custodians lose confidence in it, and however much enraged millenarians denounce it, can still carry all before it.
David Gardner is the FT’s international affairs editor and author of ‘Last Chance: The Middle East in the Balance’ (IB Tauris)
The 9/11 Wars, by Jason Burke, Allen Lane, RRP£30, 736 pages
The Arab Revolution: Ten Lessons From the Democratic Uprising, by Jean-Pierre Filiu, Hurst, RRP£12.95, 208 pages
On the State of Egypt: What Caused the Revolution, by Alaa al-Aswany, Canongate, RRP£12.99, 192 pages