Another anniversary of September 11 and another round of assessments: who’s winning the war on terrorism? The answer is nobody. Neither George W. Bush nor Osama bin Laden is doing well. But the real response is that the nature of the struggle has metamorphosed to the point that the question is redundant.
Let us first look at it from al-Qaeda’s perspective. Bin Laden knitted together an otherwise motley crew of militant Islamic movements, each focused on overthrowing some specific Arab regime. He told them: hey, the country behind all these regimes is the US, so let’s join together against this common enemy. He, or more likely al-Qaeda’s ideologue Ayman al Zawahiri, argued that a spectacular terrorist attack would expose US weakness and, to use Jason Burke’s words, “radicalise and mobilise” the Muslim masses against the likes of the House of Saud, Hosni Mubarak and, over time, Hugh Hefner.
Initially, 9/11 had a spectacular effect on the Arab Muslims. Newspaper surveys said 94 per cent of Saudis and two-thirds of Egyptians had put bin Laden on their personal pedestals. But things went downhill rapidly after that. The US speedily over-ran Afghanistan and disrupted al-Qaeda’s global network in the immediate post-9/11 years. By 2003, militant webchats were asking whether the network had bitten off more than it could chew in taking on the US.
Bin Laden moved on to the internet. Wannabe al-Qaeda groups have continued to mushroom, taking inspiration from bin Laden tapes and bomb-making websites. However, the loss of even a modicum of central control has meant that bin Laden’s overall attempt to lift Islamic militancy to a new level — go for the spectacular terrorist attack, the type that can arouse the ummah — has been lost. Islamic terror is back to what it was in 9/11: random, local, so amateurish that most plots are foiled and most victims are fellow Muslims.
Several surveys have shown that admiration for bin Laden has fallen rapidly in the Islamic world in the past few years. In Pakistan, says a Pew Global Survey, confidence in bin Laden fell from 51 per cent in 2005 to 38 per cent in 2006. Jordan saw a decline from 60 per cent to 24 per cent. Large parts of the Islamic world have been turned off suicide bombing and terrorism in general. What residual support there exists for such tactics is because of its use in Palestinian, Chechen or Kashmiri militancy rather than al-Qaeda’s endorsement.
In December 2001, bin Laden had exulted, “My life or death does not matter. The awakening has started.” Fat chance.
The decline of al-Qaeda tracks a similar decline in approval and trust of the US among Muslims. Post 9/11, the Bush administration concluded, in a curious echo of al-Qaeda, that the present Arab Muslim polity had to be changed. The rottenness of the Islamic State was the reason why middle-class, educated Arabs were flying aircraft into skyscrapers.
Unfortunately, for lack of any other blueprint, Bush accepted one put forward by the so-called neoconservatives. They argued the solution lay in conquering a bit of the Arab world, paving it over with liberal democracy and having it serve as an example to the rest of the Muslim world. For a number of reasons, including oil and Saddam Hussein’s proclivity for weapons of mass destruction, Iraq was the guinea pig. However, the guinea pig is on its back, bloody and bloated, thanks to a US post-war Iraq policy that consisted of a long string of wildly wrong decisions.
Those who argue that the Iraq war has made al-Qaeda stronger are, simply, wrong. Islamic terror groups have never had any problems in local recruitment. Before Iraq, young Muslims bought one-way dynamite tickets because of Palestine, Chechnya or Kashmir. After the US leaves Iraq, they will sign up for the same old reasons. The two Lebanese would-be terrorists caught in Germany wanted revenge for the Danish cartoons of the Prophet. Members of a wounded civilisation find grievances in every MTV video.
Which is why healing that civilisation remains the overall US strategy and, to be fair, the solution advocated by most thinking Arabs. No one really has an alternative. The real debate is over tactics. What is dawning on the world is that the most likely solution, democratisation, will primarily benefit
Islamist political movements. Some scholars call them neo-traditional rather than fundamentalist, but the various subspecies include Khomeiniism, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah. They want to create conservative but modern Islamic States, yet have no interest in al-Qaeda’s talk of mythological caliphates. They also have a broad measure of popular support and, if allowed, would probably win elections in a stretch of the Arab world running from Egypt to Iraq.
But the Arab polity they would seek to create would be, in Western or even Indian eyes, illiberal. It would be regressive about the rights of women, gays and minorities. It would not be secular in any sense of the word. But it would be wealth-creating and welfare-oriented, representative and legitimate, but uninterested in terrorism and reconquering Moorish Spain. Willy-nilly, a neo-traditionalist Islam is going to be the dominant political discourse in a large swathe of the Arab Muslim world. But this discourse is not the one bin Laden wants. Note how Hezbollah and Hamas make it clear they have no taste for 9/11, al-Qaeda and its works.
So where does this leave the war on terrorism?
Crudely speaking, the last five years have seen the collapse of two radical solutions to the Arab world’s discontent. Al-Qaeda has lost its way, its message reduced to decapitation videos and ghetto youngsters attacking commuters. The Bush agenda is similarly lost in the woods. ‘Amnesty International with bombers’ is no longer taken as a serious option when it comes to changing the Arab world. And the terrorist-in-the-neighbourhood fear that provided the domestic support for a pre-emptive foreign policy is waning. This month’s Foreign Affairs magazine asks: “Is There Still a Terrorist Threat?”
The two principal antagonists of the war on terrorism have disarmed themselves, at least in the struggle for hearts and minds. Ironically, the damage that each has suffered has been largely self-inflicted. But it has left the door open to plenty of other contenders, each interested in providing the template for 21st century Islam.
The leading contender right now is Iran, experiencing a sort of Khomeiniist revival under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and thanks to fat oil revenues. It is a sign of the vacuum in Islamic polity that almost anyone can fill the leadership void. Islamic media in Pakistan, for instance, has suddenly taken to hero-worshipping Hezbollah’s Sheikh Nasrullah. The Europeans, led by the French, are trying to position themselves as the West’s guide for the Arab world.
The point is that no one can claim a sure-shot solution to Arabic angst. Whether it is neocons, Ahmadinejad or Indonesian Sufi singers — they are all experiments in civilisational therapy.
This is the new war on terrorism. It is no longer about stopping bombs and paper-cutters. That is still there. But that was there even before 9/11 and was largely a law-enforcement business. The new struggle is about changing the Arab world. It is a search for the means to spark off and spread an Islamic renaissance. And it will be such a protracted and titanic effort that many decades from now, the annual commentative frenzy on 9/11 will be seen as little more than a comical footnote to history.