Sunday marks the 10th anniversary of the triple terrorist raids against the United States, dramatically symbolized by the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York.
Ten years after the event, people are still debating its ideological provenance. To those who have made a career of blaming every evil on Islam, the 9/11 tragedy was the inevitable fruit of its’ authors’ faith. To others, the raids might appear more Nietzschean than Islamic: the fruit of hubris and the cult of action.
The best one could do is to assess the consequences of the attack in terms of the aims claimed by its authors.
At the time, al-Qaeda presented 9/11 as the second stage of a strategy that, so it claimed, had destroyed one of the two “superpowers” of the modern world, the Soviet Union. In that second stage, it was the turn of the United States, the remaining “superpower,” to collapse.
That has not happened and looks unlikely to happen anytime soon.
If anything, 9/11 boosted the sense of patriotism among most Americans in the same way that the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor did six decades earlier. In other words, what does not kill me makes me stronger.
Like other nations, America is sustained by common memories, both joyful and tragic. For most Americans, the 9/11 tragedy remains a deep wound. But it is also a powerful addition to the common memories of American nationhood.
More specifically, the terrorists cited five objectives.
The first was to trigger a series of attacks in “Infidel” countries, to keep the flames of “global jihad” alive. That didn’t happen. Despite attacks in Bali, Madrid, Mumbai and London, the promised “endless explosions” did not materialize.
The second was to terminate the United States’ military presence in Muslim countries.
That didn’t happen either. In 2001, there were around 5,000 American military personnel in the Greater Middle East, an arc of instability spanning from North Africa to south-west Asia. Ten years later, and despite massive troop withdrawals from Iraq, US military personnel in the region number around 150,000. Today, there are American “military facilities,” a euphemism for bases, in 30 Muslim countries – an all-time record – whilst 7 Muslim countries have signed cooperation accords with NATO.
The third objective was to end US support for regimes in several Arab countries. The terrorists’ hope was that the withdrawal of US support would pave the way for them.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the US did review its 60-year-old policy of backing the status quo in the region. The Bush administration saw the Middle East as “a swamp of tyranny that had become a breeding ground for the mosquitoes of terror.”
Changes in American policy produced an effect opposite to that expected by Al Qaeda.
Despotic regimes were shaken; some even collapsed. However, «pure jihadists» did not take their place.
The so-called Freedom Agenda, unveiled in Washington in 2003, helped create space for a variety of forces, including non-violent Islamic groups, thus giving Arabs a wider political choice. (I also believe that the popular uprising of 2009 in Iran has mortally wounded the Khomeinist regime.)
The fourth objective was to provoke a global “clash of civilizations” in which, so they hoped, the “downtrodden” of the Third World would side with the terrorists.
That, too, has not happened. Today, outside a conference or two sponsored by the mullahs of Tehran, talk of “clash of civilizations,” so fashionable a decade ago, is seldom heard anywhere.
The fifth objective was to launch a global recruitment drive to produce a new generation of terrorists.
The generation of “mosquitoes” bred in and around the Afghan conflict of the 1980s, consists of men heading for retirement age. Many key members of that generation have perished in the post-9/11 US intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, of the 30 or so “brethren” who formed the high command of al-Qaeda, fewer than five are still alive and free, though in hiding. The rest are either dead or in Guantanamo Bay. The hoped-for new generation has failed to emerge.
In many Arab countries, Al Qaeda has all but disappeared for want of new recruits.
Far from enthusing Muslims to rush to arms in a new round of “global war against the Infidel”, the 9/11 attacks have produced a slow but growing sense of revulsion against terrorism throughout Muslim countries.
Late in the day, Al Qaeda tried to appeal to radical Palestinians by calling for the elimination of Israel. However, that tactic also failed. Apart from a few desperados of Palestinian origin who fought, and died, in Iraq, Al Qaeda has failed to attract Palestinian recruits.
Some armed groups, a mixture of bandits and holy-warriors, use the Al Qaeda label, now without a credible claimant, to win a measure of illusionary legitimacy. We find them in several of the poorest mini-states of West Africa as well as in the Shabab (Youth) gang in Somalia. An Algerian terrorist group also used the Al Qaeda label for a while before discarding it.
To be sure, there are several armed conflicts involving Muslims. Despite brutal repression Chechnya is not yet “pacified”. Chinese policy in East Turkistan (Xingjiang) is still breeding violence. Muslim minorities in The Philippines and Thailand remain restive.
In Afghanistan, a moribund Taliban is still causing death and destruction in a few provinces. And in Pakistan, various terrorist groups remain active in and around Swat.
However, none of those conflicts, and other similar ones, could be related to the strategy that produced the 9/11 attacks against the United States.
Unable to recruit in the Muslim world, the barons of Salafist terror are focusing on Muslim minorities in the West. In the past decade, over 800 self-styled “warriors” with Western European passports have been captured in Afghanistan alone. Those monitoring the terrorist presence in cyberspace know that whatever is left of the show is now run by Muslims, including converts, from Europe and the United States.
This westernization of the “jihadist” propagandists emphasizes the increasing irrelevance of “the cause” to the lives of real people across the Muslim world.
(Published in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat on Sept. 9, 2011. Amir Taheri is a veteran journalist and columnist. His latest book “The Persian Night” is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.)