Well I was going to turn the radio off this morning when John Humphreys was interviewing Tony Blair to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11. But I couldn’t go that far, and I caught about half of it. I’m glad I did because it has helped clarify my views on confronting terrorism.
Mr Blair’s main argument is a lot more subtle than it is often made out to be. He dismisses his critics as believing that the Islamic extremists (and I think that term is a fair one) are not a lunatic fringe who can be contained using normal security methods. They are in fact the extreme end of a much larger spectrum of people who agree with their virulent anti-western narrative. Since they have such a large hinterland of people who will support them and from whom they can recruit, they will simply grow stronger if they are not vigorously confronted. He completely rejects the idea that the West’s interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have made things worse, since he says the terrorists would have gathered strength anyway. What provoked 9/11? he asks. The Al-Qaeda threat is of much longer standing than than these Western interventions.
And he is partly right. There is a big hinterland for the terrorist groups, and an even bigger group of people who think that there are two sides to what is going on, rather than it being a simple battle between good and evil. But from the same facts I draw a different conclusion. This is not just a battle between just goodies and baddies; there is a huge neutral middle ground whose support is decisive. These are mainly Muslims, and they live all over the world. If these people come to the conclusion that the terrorists are a bad thing, who will make their aspirations more difficult to achieve, then Al-Qaeda and its like will be isolated and disappear. If, on the other hand, they accept the clash of civilizations narrative, their support, even if mostly tacit, will keep the terrorist threat going forever.
There is a security campaign against the terrorists; but there is also a hearts and minds campaign for the Muslim public. Unfortunately, if we are too uncompromising on the first campaign we will not win the second. It is important to occupy the moral high ground. The tragedy is that Tony Blair, and the American neocons, think they are occupying this higher ground. In fact they have been systematically provoking the Muslim public.
And the important thing to understand about the hearts and minds campaign is that the ground shifts. What gave Al-Qaeda real strength in its early days was the US intervention in the first Gulf War in the 1990s, which led to the stationing of US troops on Saudi soil; this seemed an insult. It probably didn’t mean a great deal to the wider Muslim public, but it was enough for a determined group of Middle East activists to get started, mainly from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Israel, Iraq and Iran didn’t really come into things. This was enough to lead to 9/11.
But the American response to 9/11 changed the game. The outrage initially gave them the precious high ground, but they made cynical use of it. Two problems stand out: the campaign in Iraq and taking sides with Israel. These may not have been all that relevant to the Al-Qaeda threat in 2001, but they became so because the the strength of the American intervention. The Muslim public became angry with America and its allies, and the extremists were able to pump up the clash of civilisations narrative. They started to draw in many more recruits from right across the world, including Britain.
But the hearts and minds battle has not been one-sided. The terrorists’ very success has exposed the weakness of their case. They now spend more energy killing other Muslims and creating civil disorder in Muslim countries than they do on attacking the west. They have no real answers to the problems that trouble so many Muslims: dis-empowerment and poverty. The west is retreating from Iraq and, ever so slowly, Afghanistan. The British coming together after 7/7 has not played to the extremist narrative. The western response to the Arab Spring has shown it to be a bit less cynical than people thought – comparing favourably with China and Russia, say. In Libya Al-Qaeda and the west turned out to be on the same side. Israel remains a running sore, of course.
Of course we need a robust security response to the terrorist threat. But it can do more harm that good. Assassinations and suspending the rule of law should not be part of it. The terrorists may not be moved by this – but they will increasingly lose the support of their hinterland.
We have to move on. Mr Bush’s and Mr Blair’s response to 9/11 was a huge mistake, and we can’t expect them to acknowledge this. But they are yesterday’s men. We’ve learnt a lot. A new generation of leaders is showing more subtlety. Slowly, we are learning how to manage the terrorist threat.