20 years after 9/11, the terrorists have failed

Pessimism is the prevailing wisdom of the times. So it is for most commentators looking back at the terrible events of 11 September 2001. In The Times Gerard Baker’s article is headed “Awful truth about 9/11: the terrorists won“, which the editor says “has the ring of truth”. The veteran BBC correspondent John Simpson has been saying much the same thing. This is what the public wants to hear: the glass must always be half empty. But the half full case needs to be made.

The muddle starts with what you think the terrorists were trying to achieve. Messrs Simpson and Baker assume that it was really rather limited: to promote their ideology, and to take America down a peg or two in its world standing. This framing perhaps comes from America’s “War on Terror”. I would accept that this was meant to stamp out jihadism and to maintain America’s world standing. And I have no difficulty in accepting that it has failed. Jihadism rumbles on; America’s standing has taken a knock in the last couple of decades. But wouldn’t his have happened without 9/11? America’s power, or rather its power relative to the rest of the world, has clearly diminished. This is mainly because of China’s rise. That is a product of successful policy in China itself, rather than anything America did or did not do. China’s resources are massive; the curious thing is why its global standing had been so low for so long. It is slowly moving towards its rightful place. Inasmuch as this has meant many millions being lifted out of poverty, that is something to celebrate.

Jihadism also persists. But this is not as the international network whose aim is to bring down western civilisation – but more localised rebellions, building on the resentment of the left-behind against corrupt elites. This is on the rise in parts of Africa and the Middle East. It was present before 9/11, and did not need Al-Qaida to to push itself forward. and I don’t see its rise as a failure of Western policy – but the result of poor governance in many less well-off countries. It would surely have happened anyway.

But the aims of Osama bin-Laden, Al-Qaeda, and Islamic State who followed them, were and are much broader. They wanted to destroy the West by provoking a global clash of civilisations, in which force the oppressed Muslims to take sides, and would eventually bring down the decadent, materialist West, who lack of moral fibre would do for them in the end – and doubtless the decadent, materialist Russia and China too. At first things went well for them. America’s “War on Terror” played straight into their hands, especially when they decided to extend it to an attack on Iraq. This indeed provoked anger, and America and its allies found it hard to sustain their early victories. Meanwhile jihadism attracted a following among people in Western countries who felt powerless and marginalised. Their biggest success occurred more than a decade after 9/11, when the Syrian civil war created space for jihadists to become established. This was because the Syrian regime pushed anti-government forces into their arms, while the West stood back. But when they tried to exploit this space to fuel terrorism in Europe, this time by IS, the West acted and caused their collapse. But Western leaders had become cannier. Once IS has been destroyed they pulled back. They were happy to leave the jihadists to their fate in a messy but localised civil war, with Iran, Russia and the Gulf Arabs jockeying for advantage.

Meanwhile in Western countries jihadi terrorism has dropped off to a low level, with little serious organisation. It has clearly lost its cachet amongst the discontented. Security types worry that the Taliban victory in Afghanistan will change that; it’s their job to worry about that sort of thing. But jihadism does not look like a path to global victory, but an exercise in futility. Afghanistan is an exception. In North Africa, the Middle East (and not least in Palestine) and the rest of Asia Sunni Muslim militants look further than ever away from achieving their goals. And Afghanistan will doubtless start to look messy in its turn. For jihadism to maintain momentum they needed Western armies to go into Muslim countries and provoke retaliation. Now they are gone. It took time but Western leaders have finally understood what this war is all about and how to win it.

And that, rather paradoxically requires a dose of humility. It requires accepting that not everything that goes wrong in the world is a matter of policy failure in the West. Others have agency too. There can be no crusade (a word that means much the same as jihad) to promote Western values. If these values win out, it will be because of their inherent virtues, as the alternatives break down. And their the picture looks much more hopeful.

The private war of the jihadi terrorists

Last week’s bombing of the Boston marathon received blanket coverage here in the UK. In a world where there is still plenty of death and destruction, it seemed to be particularly shocking. But the strangest aspect of the episode to me was that nobody claimed responsibility. We were left to speculate as to whether it was Islamic jihadis, right wing extremists or some tortured loner. What’s the point if nobody knows why you did it? It turns out that it was the jihadis: but this still leaves us with the question of what their cause is all about.

Describing the jihadist enterprise as a war, as in “war on terror”, is controversial on the part of the western states that seem to be the main targets. Be that as it may, the jihadists themselves see it as a war. “I am a soldier,” said one of the London terrorists of July 2005 in the video released to publicise his suicide attack. But it is a strange sort of war.

Following the 19th Century philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz very loosely, we can see war in terms of three elements: purpose (the political, rational element), strategy (the way the two sides try to outwit each other, which resolves to a game of chance), and will (the primordial hatred and drive to violence). The will is evident, and there is quite a bit of strategy too, as the jihadis spend quite a bit of time plotting their acts, while the authorities try to catch them. The problem comes with the political purpose. What is all this designed to achieve?

It did seem a bit clearer in September 2001. The scale of the attacks on New York and Washington was breathtaking, and there seemed to be a strategic driving force, based in Afghanistan. The Western media focused on the personality of Osama Bin-Laden, though what his personal role was in all of this I find it difficult to say; he was a convenient focus for the attacked nations. But if not him, there were other strategists and leaders in a global enterprise. We could make out some kind of purpose. There was something about establishing a global caliphate, and pushing the Western countries towards enlightenment and the Islamic path. The terrorist attacks would so disrupt western civilisation, whose foundations they believed to be very weak, that its economy would collapse and they would then be forced to consider their ways. With talk of escalating the violence towards nuclear and biological weapons and “dirty bombs”, you could just about see this as being rational, if deluded.

But those delusions became pretty obvious pretty quickly, and the jihadist campaign resolved to a few nasty pinpricks that could do little to undermine the fabric of western society itself. The Al-Qaeda leadership, so far as it exists, is focusing on maore local issues, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and expanding elsewhere in the Middle east and Africa. It is an armed part of a puritanical, fundamentalist Islamic political movement, operating in countries that are  predominantly Muslim. They have no real interest in pursuing terrorist campaigns in the West, which might even harm their cause by getting Western securities services involved. Western countries don’t want to get themselves bogged down in messy wars in countries they don’t understand. The foreign jihadists might see some use in recruiting sympathetic residents of Western countries to act as foot soldiers in their wars, but that is probably the limit.

But terrorism in the West lives on. Not only are there the occasional successful attacks, like that in Boston, but many more plots that come to light before they are executed – such as a Canadian plot in the news today. But these are local affairs carried out by citizens or residents of the countries concerned, with little outside involvement. The plot of the US TV series Homeland is a fantasy. Does that mean that the US military effort against the terrorists, drone strikes and all, is purely a geopolitical game? Or is it successfully suppressing outside terrorism? It is impossible for us ordinary members of the public to know.

What we have is a very private war, carried out by isolated and frustrated members of minority communities, who feel excluded and alienated. Terrorism is some kind of release, but serves no wider goal. As one character in the BBC TV series The Village set in the First World War says in another context (I paraphrase from memory): “He thinks that by going to war and getting killed he will impress her; he forgets that the problem with being killed is that you are dead.” This was quite striking with the 7/7 bombings in London. It was perpetrated by a well-organised cell (compare their attacks with the ham-fisted ones that took place a week later), but it was a one shot weapon. Any military virtues died with them. The silence that followed the Boston bombings has something of the same disconnection with any wider objectives.

So what to we do to protect ourselves? The police and intelligence effort has to go on, even if we suspect those that lead it are playing the threat up, and hiding behind national security. But we also need to carry on the slow, awkward process of outreach and integration of minority communities: multiculturalism. We need at least to try to drain the hatred that drives these very private wars.