“And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!”
–Francis Scott Key, “Star-Spangled Banner”
Ten years after September 11, 2001, when the very phrase “war on terrorism” is barred from U.S. government usage by the president, we are told that the United States has won or is already victorious. After all, there has been no major attack on U.S. soil in a decade and al-Qaeda is weaker, with many of its leaders, including Osama bin Laden, dead.
“Where is that band”? According to the official line, pretty much destroyed. We won, perhaps except for a few “lone wolves.” But before the victory parades are held, let’s understand this: The war on terrorism, like that phrase itself, has been largely defined out of existence, not won.
Let’s be clear. Al-Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon to achieve several goals:
–To become the leader in a worldwide jihad.
–To persuade Muslims that America is weak and can be defeated.
–To stir far more Muslims to jihad, that is a Holy War that today can be defined as an Islamist revolution.
–To mobilize forces in order to challenge and eventually to overthrow all of the existing regimes in the Sunni Muslim areas, replacing Arab nationalism in many of those countries with Islamism as the main ideological force.
I would suggest that al-Qaeda’s September 11 attacks largely succeeded in three of those four goals. Only in the first did it fail, and for a very good reason. Precisely because it carried out the attacks, al-Qaeda became the main target for U.S. efforts and repression by leaders in Muslim-majority countries. Consequently, it has suffered greatly from losses.
By the same token, however, other Islamist forces have largely been left alone by the West or faced far less pressure. Such groups include the Muslim Brotherhood groups, Hamas, Hizballah, and the pro-Islamist regimes in Syria and Iran. In fact, Islamist groups and Islamism as an ideology have advanced impressively, especially in the last few years.
Another reason for al-Qaeda’s relative eclipse is its own rigidity. Al-Qaeda has been a purely terrorist group. It doesn’t carry out social welfare programs or participate in elections. As a result, being so tactically intransigent, al-Qaeda is at a major disadvantage in comparison to its more flexible competitors. After all, Islamist groups have won elections in Iran, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, and Turkey. The Brotherhood is set to become the largest single party in Egypt.
Even having said all that, al-Qaeda is not dead yet. Its ally, the Taliban, is making a comeback in Afghanistan and has spread to Pakistan. Al-Qaeda’s affiliates still carry out attacks in Iraq, Morocco, and Algeria. It now has small but deadly forces in the Gaza Strip. And it plays a major role in Yemen and Somalia, not to mention its terrorist affiliates in Asia, with Islamist terrorist activity especially significant in southern Thailand, the southern Philippines, and Indonesia.
What’s most important of all is to remember that terrorism is a tactic to achieve a goal. The goal is that of Islamist revolution. There might not be a single Arabic-speaking country where Islamists aren’t in a stronger position now than they were on September 11, 2001. The same applies to Turkey (though terrorism isn’t an issue there) and, to a lesser extent, Pakistan. Here are some examples:
Today, the Gaza Strip is under the Islamist rule of Hamas, which is also a terrorist group. The U.S. government pressed for Hamas to participate in elections, and then more recently pressured Israel to reduce sanctions. The world helped save Hamas from being overthrown by Israel in 2009, and the UN produced an anti-Israel report that basically rationalized Hamas’s behavior. Many groups in Europe have participated in sanctions-breaking activity that has objectively helped Hamas. Hamas, a terrorist and Islamist group, is much better off than a decade ago.
Lebanon is under the rule of a regime whose most powerful single component is Hizballah, a revolutionary Islamist and terrorist group. When Hizballah launched several cross-border raids against Israel in 2006, leading to a war, a lot of the international community was objectively acting in a way that benefitted Hizballah. Hizballah, a terrorist and Islamist group, is much better off than a decade ago.
The Muslim Brotherhood, a pro-terrorist group, and Salafist organizations often willing to use terrorism (a few of which are close to al-Qaeda) are far stronger in Egypt and might dominate the country politically. The Muslim Brotherhood is also stronger in Syria, though its precise influence over the opposition is hard to gauge.
Where is terrorism weaker? Other than Algeria, where it was defeated in a bloody civil war, it is hard to find any such examples, though in other places like Morocco and Saudi Arabia — terrorism has not made gains.
In many places in Europe, the Brotherhood and even more radical groups have made important strides in gaining hegemony in neighborhoods and over Muslim communities. Governments have not combatted this and even have encouraged it, arguing that the organizations are not presently using terrorism. But with growing radical Islamist ideas, the level of terrorism and intimidation also increases.
A key factor is the failure of the U.S. government, which basically defines anything that isn’t al-Qaeda as not being a threat. Within the United States, a major terrorist attack has been averted, though luck seems to play a role here (underpants bomber; Times Square bomber). At the same time there have been many more small-scale attacks. One way the U.S. government achieves positive statistics is to redefine specific events — a shooting at the El Al counter in Los Angeles, an attack on a Jewish community center in the Pacific Northwest, the murder of a military recruiter in Arkansas, and even the Ft. Hood killer — as non-terrorist, non-Islamist criminal acts.
So are things much better a decade after the September 11 attacks? Aside from the very important aspect of avoiding a huge successful terror attack on the United States, the answer is “no.”