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.