The South Asia Channel

Lessons From the 9/11 Wars

1. The question to ask about radicalization is not "why?" or "who?" but "how?" In the aftermath of 9/11, Western security services tried to profile potential attackers. Results were mixed at best. In the United States especially, conservatives even spoke of inherent "Arab" or "Muslim" propensities to terrorism. On the Left, much effort was devoted ...

TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images
TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images

1. The question to ask about radicalization is not "why?" or "who?" but "how?" In the aftermath of 9/11, Western security services tried to profile potential attackers. Results were mixed at best. In the United States especially, conservatives even spoke of inherent "Arab" or "Muslim" propensities to terrorism. On the Left, much effort was devoted to analysing the potential motives of attackers or the environmental factors that led them to violence. Ten years on however, intelligence services are no longer searching for inherent qualities common to large numbers of people or trying to identify "root causes" which convincingly explain why one person becomes involved in extremist violence while others do not. Increasingly, it is the dynamic and complex process of radicalization itself that is seen as key, with peers, relatives or small group dynamics playing a very significant role in the radicalization process. One conference of international intelligence services in 2008 focussed almost entirely on this aspect of militancy. That should not be a surprise. Terrorism is, after all, a social activity.

2. When looking at individual nations, it's the middle, not the extremes, which is important. The best example of this is Pakistan, though many of the countries experiencing the tumult of the Arab Spring are similar. The standard Western analysis of Pakistan relies on a binary opposition between "moderates" and "extremists." This misrepresents a nation of 180 million largely conservative, observant Muslims whose views on many major social and political questions are similar enough to be considered consensual. These views are not those of the English-speaking, often Western-educated elite. But they are those of most of the new and increasingly potent urban middle class. They are the views of the small town doctors, the less successful lawyers, the pharmacists, the better-off shopkeepers and increasingly the more literate and more politically-conscious Pakistani rural poor. Imbued with a strong anti-Americanism, a strong nationalist identity despite ethnic differences, a desire to see religion play a major political role -- though quite antipathetic to any theocracy and against (most) violence -- these views are often ignored. The same mistake of misunderstanding the middle class is being made in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and elsewhere. The Facebookers, Tweeters or U.S.-educated youth are not representative of what are deeply socially conservative, often nationalist, and religiously observant communities.

3. The local always wins out over the global. What was the biggest problem for neo-conservatives and their allies? Local resistance to the universalizing principles of free market democracy and the material progress it was meant to bring (albeit at gunpoint). What has historically caused the most trouble for al-Qaeda and its offshoots? The stubborn attachment of communities to their own parochial interests, traditions and view of the world, and individual communities' dislike for Islamic militants, their ideology and their methodology. Having rejected the package of political values and systems offered by the United States in 2003, the Sunni tribes of the west of Iraq then rejected terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Qaeda. The latter brought their own universal vision, as disrespectful of local difference as anything coming out of Washington.

1. The question to ask about radicalization is not "why?" or "who?" but "how?" In the aftermath of 9/11, Western security services tried to profile potential attackers. Results were mixed at best. In the United States especially, conservatives even spoke of inherent "Arab" or "Muslim" propensities to terrorism. On the Left, much effort was devoted to analysing the potential motives of attackers or the environmental factors that led them to violence. Ten years on however, intelligence services are no longer searching for inherent qualities common to large numbers of people or trying to identify "root causes" which convincingly explain why one person becomes involved in extremist violence while others do not. Increasingly, it is the dynamic and complex process of radicalization itself that is seen as key, with peers, relatives or small group dynamics playing a very significant role in the radicalization process. One conference of international intelligence services in 2008 focussed almost entirely on this aspect of militancy. That should not be a surprise. Terrorism is, after all, a social activity.

2. When looking at individual nations, it’s the middle, not the extremes, which is important. The best example of this is Pakistan, though many of the countries experiencing the tumult of the Arab Spring are similar. The standard Western analysis of Pakistan relies on a binary opposition between "moderates" and "extremists." This misrepresents a nation of 180 million largely conservative, observant Muslims whose views on many major social and political questions are similar enough to be considered consensual. These views are not those of the English-speaking, often Western-educated elite. But they are those of most of the new and increasingly potent urban middle class. They are the views of the small town doctors, the less successful lawyers, the pharmacists, the better-off shopkeepers and increasingly the more literate and more politically-conscious Pakistani rural poor. Imbued with a strong anti-Americanism, a strong nationalist identity despite ethnic differences, a desire to see religion play a major political role — though quite antipathetic to any theocracy and against (most) violence — these views are often ignored. The same mistake of misunderstanding the middle class is being made in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and elsewhere. The Facebookers, Tweeters or U.S.-educated youth are not representative of what are deeply socially conservative, often nationalist, and religiously observant communities.

3. The local always wins out over the global. What was the biggest problem for neo-conservatives and their allies? Local resistance to the universalizing principles of free market democracy and the material progress it was meant to bring (albeit at gunpoint). What has historically caused the most trouble for al-Qaeda and its offshoots? The stubborn attachment of communities to their own parochial interests, traditions and view of the world, and individual communities’ dislike for Islamic militants, their ideology and their methodology. Having rejected the package of political values and systems offered by the United States in 2003, the Sunni tribes of the west of Iraq then rejected terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Qaeda. The latter brought their own universal vision, as disrespectful of local difference as anything coming out of Washington.

Equally, the collapse of support for bin Laden and his tactics in the Muslim world occurred progressively as violence came to successive communities.  In Jordan, only weeks before the bombing of hotels in Amman in November 2005, support levels for extremist groups were between 60 and 80 percent. After the attack support was down to less than 20 percent, where it has remained. The same phenomenon occurred elsewhere – in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Turkey. Abstract "global" violence is easier to endorse than bombs on your street. Yes, we all know the tune to the "Titanic" movie theme; yes, there are McDonalds all over the place; but we are not global in our lives, values and outlooks. All politics, as the old saw has it, is local.

4. So is (most) terrorism. The 9/11 or 2008 Mumbai attacks were exceptions, not the rule. The vast bulk of extremist violent acts over the last decade have involved local people, local targets and whatever material is locally available. Few travel more than an hour or so to reach the site of their operation. Even the Madrid bombs of 2004 were the work of locals — many living in the Madrid neighborhood of Lavapies close to the Atocha station — and those involved in the 7/7 attacks in 2005 in the United Kingdom took the train to reach their targets.

5. Watch out for the new generation. Think about the troubles in Northern Ireland or the history of the Basque separatists in Spain. Longstanding insurgencies create their own lore, legends and expectations for the young. Sixteen year-olds who have grown up soaked in the culture of "struggle" or "jihad" feel they have a lot to live up to. This is clear in Kashmir currently, where the historic example of an older set of militants is making currently non-violent protestors question the decision to throw stones at Indian security forces, instead of grenades. The last decade has also seen the creation of a global sub-culture of jihad that has enough momentum — especially with the spread of Internet access around the world — to have significant traction on those far too young to even remember 9/11.

6. Beware first impressions and portrayals. They are usually wrong. Examples include the vision of al-Qaeda as solely an organized, hierarchically-structured group (that structure exists, but alongside all sorts of other elements), the initial thought that Pakistanis were responsible for bin Laden getting away from his mountain redoubt at Tora Bora (Guantánamo Bay interrogation reports indicate he in fact headed north through the lines of U.S. Special Forces and their Afghan auxiliaries not south), the French riots of 2005 (not a Muslim intifada but fairly banal urban violence), through the supposedly "spontaneous" Cartoons Crisis of 2006 — (now known to have been manufactured in some places by a group of radical clerics and then governments). There are other examples too. When it comes to on-the-spot analysis, including my own, caveat emptor.

7. It’s not only Americans who learn quickly. The creaking old democracies of Western Europe have reacted to the terrorism threat over the decade with a rapidity and suppleness that belies their age. Laws have been changed, new powers given to security services, strategies launched to counter radicalization (many depending on a greater degree of local involvement), budgets enhanced or reallocated, all without wreaking unsustainable damage to core values of social welfare or democratic debate.

8. The long term counts. How will the decade of conflict be seen by, say, college students in 50 years? Surely as part of a series of developments dating back to the 1980s and beyond. The 9/11 attacks will be probably be seen as the climax of those trends, not the departure point.

9. This has been one conflict — and many. An essential feature of the last decade has been the very variety and specificity of the many individual conflicts we have witnessed. But there are shared properties and elements between these many small- and large-scale conflicts — the abuse of unarmed captives (whether by U.S. troops or the militants), the use and misuse of photographs and other visual material made by protagonists such as pictures of prisoner abuse or Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks, a vocabulary shared between theatres ("Haji," transition, kuffar), the same people (Zawahiri, former commander of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and current CIA director David Petraeus), tactics and doctrines such as counterinsurgency, or COIN —  meaning that this disparate ensemble of events can be seen as part of a whole, or as I call them "The 9/11 Wars."

10. Militant leaders have problems too. Beyond the increasingly tricky job of avoiding Hellfire missiles or night raids, individuals like Taliban leader Mullah Omar or Iraqi Shi’a leader Moqtada al-Sadr (in an earlier, more militant incarnation) have tough management challenges: bureaucratic squabbles between commanders, lower-rank indiscipline, logistics, shortage of high-grade recruits following unexpectedly rapid expansion or attrition by the enemy, squabbles over controversial tactics such as suicide bombing, and the loss of local community support. Equally, no senior militant thinker had much of a game-plan for post-2001. The last decade has seen an extraordinary amount of theorizing, thinking, and debate among the extremists — as much as in the West or elsewhere. The tendency to dehumanize the militants masks the mundanity of what they do most of the time.

11. Low-intensity wars do not mean little loss of life. Hundreds of thousands of people, mostly civilians but also including tens of thousands of U.S. and foreign military forces, have been killed in the various conflicts of the last decade. At least half the casualties were incurred in Iraq.  We may be looking at 250,000 or more dead in total. Then, of course, there are the wounded, maimed and displaced.

12. No one wins. Al-Qaeda has failed to achieve most of its key aims: there has been no global uprising of Muslim populations, no establishment of an empire under its strict vision of Muslim law. Nor have changes in America’s policy in the Islamic world been those desired by men like the late bin Laden. The Arab Spring has underlined radical Islam’s marginalization and failure to promote real reform. There has been no attack in the West or anywhere approaching the scale of 9/11. But the United States and other Western nations can hardly claim victory. American intelligence agencies reported in their four-yearly review in late 2008 that they judged that within a few decades, the United States would no longer be able to "call the shots." Instead, they predicted, America is likely to face the challenges of a fragmented planet, where conflict over scarce resources is on the rise, poorly contained by "ramshackle" international institutions. The previous review, published in December 2004, when President Bush had just been re-elected and was preparing his triumphal second inauguration, had foreseen "continued dominance" for many years to come. The difference is stark. If the years from 2004 to 2008 brought "victory," then America and the West cannot afford many more victories like it.

Jason Burke is the author of, most recently, The 9/11 Wars, published in September by Penguin and is currently the South Asia correspondent for the Guardian newspaper. He has been reporting on Islamic militancy in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere since the mid-1990s. 

NEXT: Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, IV, The Afghan National Security Services: A Progress Report.

Jason Burke is chief reporter for Britain's Observer and author of Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2003).

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