The sad legacy of 9/11: Isis and al-Qaida are stronger than ever
By Ali Soufan, Thursday 11 September 2014
In the years leading up to the attacks of 11 September 2001, the west saw al-Qaida rising but didn’t address the threat in time. My colleagues and I in the FBI and over at the CIA had been focused on al-Qaida since the mid-1990s. The true threat, however, came from the ideology, not the group.
In the first years after 9/11, the west focused too much on Osama bin Laden and not enough on the bin Ladenism he spawned. We mistook killing the messenger for killing the message. The tactics were understandable – repeated targeted strikes at key individuals to keep al-Qaida off balance – but our strategy was based on just that: “our” understanding of “them”, rather than “their” understanding of “us”
Thirteen years later, al-Qaida central is an organization on the decline – there have been undeniable successes – but the so-called Islamic State (Isis) is on the rise. The arithmetic is tragic: Despite untold trillions of dollars and thousands of lives spent across the globe countering the threat, there are more extremists espousing the ideology of bin Laden in September 2014 than there were in September 2001.
Thirteen years later, it’s becoming clear that we have not fought a 13-year war so much as a one-year war, 13 times. It is the sad legacy of our tactic-driven response to 9/11 that bin Ladenism has spread far beyond Osama bin Laden’s wildest dreams.
The incredible success of Isis in both Syria and Iraq has more to do with the Syrian civil war and Iraq’s divisive politics than anything else, but the core ideology of the group is straight from the bin Laden playbook. Isis is al-Qaida’s greatest rival, but its message – and its unfortunate but undeniable appeal to a target audience of disaffected youth – is bin Ladinism on steroids. Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s rhetoric of liberation, of a return to some imagined glory from the past, is exactly the same as bin Laden’s propaganda almost 20 years ago.
What unites the two violent extremist groups – their embrace of terror through modern weapons and modern media, while rejecting true modernity – is greater than what divides them. Collectively, the ideology of Isis and al-Qaida enters the 14th year probably stronger than at any point since 9/11.
The same cannot be said for the international response to bin Ladenism. In the chaotic aftermath, ad hoc counterterrorism tactics reigned supreme; to a degree, they still do. Focus and morale have been strained as much as budgets and manpower. And the underlying issues – of education systems rooted in indoctrination and the suffocation of critical discourse, corruption so pervasive that it has become endemic, oppression of women that has robbed society of their contributions, and an absence of political representation that has served as the fuel of extremism – have been ignored by most governments across the near east, making it inevitable for any spark to cause a conflagration that would prove impossible to extinguish. The various revolutions of the Arab Spring succeeded in upending the old order but failed to deliver a credible alternative, leaving bin Ladenism to fill the void from Libya to Syria. All the while, sporadic counterterror campaigns kept the worst from happening while ensuring that little else would.
Instead of addressing the extremism, the series of one-year, tactic-driven wars has morphed into regional powers using religious extremism as little more than a tool against their rivals. These governments sought to use extremist groups as proxies in their battles for regional hegemony, or as a sectarian tool pitting Shia against Sunni and Sunni against Shia. Whether it was countering increased Iranian influence or its fierce regional proxies, the brute menace of the divisive prime minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq or the despotic rule of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, to tolerate and supporting violent extremist groups inevitably meant to tolerate Isis, al-Qaida affiliates and other like-minded groups.
The results have been catastrophic; now everyone is losing except for the extremists. It’s similar to what I saw when I was investigating al-Qaida following the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, when we knew the clouds were building but didn’t know where the storm would hit or just how hard. Arab regional governments – and even Iran – have belatedly seen their own storm clouds of extremism, but there is tremendous work required to undo what has been done.
President Obama has now outlined details of his strategy that calls for increased US military effort to knock down the immediate threat posed by Isis and extremism, along with a renewed international approach. But the real work starts where it should have in 2001, with true grassroots opposition – a true comprehensive strategy – that is managed by regional powers and supported by the international community. This will work if regional governments don’t co-opt Obama’s plan to advance their own divisive agendas.
There will indeed be a military role – words alone won’t defeat Isis and its heavy weaponry – but there can be no purely military solution, and it cannot be carried on by the West. When Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Turkey and, yes, even Iran, finally act as if the future stability of their region is at stake, only then will the tide turn. Only when the world – and specifically the region now plagued by bin Ladenism – is vested in the outcome will we prevent Isis from making bin Laden’s rhetoric more of a reality.
Even extreme people reject bin Ladenism – whether it flies under the banner of Isis, al-Qaida or some other militant group – but they need real alternatives. It is these strategic alternatives, more than any tactics, that will be what finally defeats Isis and all other groups that embrace the ideas we overlooked 13 long years ago.
Illustration by Steve Haske (for Guardian).