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Ten years on
Historical eras rarely start or finish smoothly. But the tenth anniversary of September 11th next week presents a useful opportunity to reflect on the decade since those attacks — what we have won and where we have lost.
In the immediate aftermath, and facing the prospect of further attacks, Britain and America acted decisively. The first phase of the war in Afghanistan, designed to remove al-Qa’eda training camps, was swift and successful. Al-Qa’eda were still able to inspire terrorist atrocities — notably in the ensuing years, in Bali, Madrid and London — but their use of Afghanistan as an active operations base ended and the Taleban was toppled.When they moved to Pakistan, targeted attacks by American drones (increased fourfold by Barack Obama) successfully decapitated the al-Qa’eda leadership, leading to the killing of Osama bin Laden himself.
The war in Iraq was no natural segue. Saddam Hussein was the only world leader to welcome the September 11th attacks, but al-Qa’eda had no base there. Bush, at least, argued honestly: that in the post-9/11 world, it was time to start removing regimes which posed a threat — as it was then believed Saddam did with weapons of mass destruction. Tony Blair felt unable to level with the British people and said his aim was to disarm Saddam, not remove him. A trained lawyer, he perhaps felt this lie would sustain a broad alliance. Instead, it led to a feeling of betrayal at home, a feeling that we had been led into war on a false premise.
The gruesome and arduous task of nationbuilding came at a great cost of lives, 179 of them British and 4,477 of them American. The Americans adapted, reinforced and eventually won a counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, as al-Qa’eda’s efforts to ignite an inter-Muslim sectarian war there failed.
Its very savagery deprived it not only of any chance to gain significant support from ordinary Muslims, it lost even the support of fellow extremists. When General Petraeus was sent to Iraq by President Bush to head the temporary surge in US troop numbers there, he was helped by Sunnis who shared portions of al-Qa’eda’s ideology but were sickened by their tactics.
Leadership opportunities at the top of al-Qa’eda have opened up with increasing regularity. Last week the latest al-Qa’eda second-in-command, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, was killed by a drone. According to the CIA, 600 militants have been killed in Pakistan since May, bringing the total to 2,000.
This was not a war on terror: it was a terrorists’ war on us, and it is a war they are losing
The Arab revolutions for which bin Laden longed took place this year, but with alQa’eda nowhere to be seen. Its chief rival, the Islamist factions standing for parliament, are now in the ascendant from Baghdad to Tripoli. This will bring its own threats, to an extent which the West — ever keen to cheer the Arab Spring — does not yet want to realise. But al-Qa’eda is no longer the vanguard of the Islamist movement.
To an extent barely recognised outside the intelligence communities, the past decade has been not just a learning curve but a success story. Yet just as this war was not declared in the traditional way, by a traditional enemy, so victory will not come in a traditional way. This was not a war on terror: one cannot declare war on a concept. It was a terrorists’ war on us: and it is a war they are losing. That’s not just due to American drones, but to the British military and security services who have brilliantly adjusted to the spectator | 3 September 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk the constant threat of small, deadly Islamist cells. MI5 doesn’t declare victories. But it has foiled more than a dozen serious terrorist plots, infiltrating cells, using surveillance and depressing the ideology on which al-Qa’eda hoped to thrive.
Significant challenges still lie ahead. London remains a hub of international extremism. Still the government, police and security services fight a daily battle against the European Courts and campaign groups who seek to put public safety behind the newly invented and often-elaborate ‘rights’ of terrorists. But al-Qa’eda has failed. In part that is because of the bloody impossibility of bin Laden’s vision. But it is also because the people he pretended to speak for wished for something else. The clash of civilisations he longed to bring about is not happening.
In Libya, Nato has just supported a successful grass-roots revolution to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. The intervention was brought about by the need to save Muslims from massacre: here, as in Bosnia, western military power was used to save thousands of Muslims from repression. Not that anyone saw it in such terms: freedom is a universal value. Anyone who doubts this need only look at the scenes recently in Bengazi where Libyan Muslims have been carrying pictures of Cameron and Sarkozy saying ‘God bless you’.
A perilous path lies before them. But the events of this year have shown that the peoples of Muslim countries want to have their voices heard in a fairer and more democratic way than they have until now. In the process their societies will become more like the free democratic states that bin Laden so despised. This is no time to be sanguine, and there will be many troubles ahead. But somewhere out there, a corpse will be spinning in its watery grave.