When future generations reflect upon the history of the 21st century, the so-called ‘war on terror’ will doubtless loom large. Indeed the shadow this global struggle against Islamic extremism casts over the current century may well end-up as big—and perhaps almost as dark—as that which the First World War and its aftermath still casts over the 20th. There are certainly some striking parallels, not least of which being how both conflicts punctuated liberal illusions about perpetual progress by pushing humanity down a path from which there was no turning back, just further savagery.
This is not to say the question of how to respond to 9/11—a terrorist outrage on a previously unseen scale, involving foreign combatants from several countries but representing no particular state—was ever going to be straightforward. The problem is that fifteen years on it’s becoming increasingly clear the path western policymakers chose to follow has succeeded only in emboldening the very forces it was supposed to overcome.
Abortive military campaigns in first Afghanistan and then Iraq, followed by more limited though similarly counter-productive interventions elsewhere, have helped to destabilise large swathes of the Middle East and North Africa. Failed/failing states have in turn become a breeding grounding ground for terrorism, as Jihadi groups step into the void previously filled by iron-fisted though relatively stable and nominally secular dictatorships. Dictatorships, moreover, which despite representing something of a bulwark against radical Islam western foreign policy has looked to remove based on dangerously misguided notions about exporting liberal market democracy around the world, irrespective of local conditions or history.
Compounding matters further, the ‘collateral damage’ that’s resulted from these foreign (mis)adventures, to use the preferred euphemism for the hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties they’ve caused, has severely dented the moral authority of the western democratic world. And of course with every innocent life lost winning the ideological battle with Islamic extremism becomes all that much harder, among disenchanted western Muslims above all—i.e. the very people whose hearts and minds must be won if the struggle with Islamic terrorism is to prove successful.
These blunders have meant that, rather than overcome its enemy, the war on terror has instead become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The nightmarish image of a global terrorist network implacably opposed to the liberal west and intent on world domination that in its drive to war the Bush administration made Al Qaeda out to be post 9/11, has a decade and a half later become a terrifying reality, in the form of ISIS and its desire to create an international caliphate. The clash of civilisations is no longer a narrative, but a clarion-call which thousands of impressionable young men and women are willing to sign-up and die for.
Those who opposed the foreign policy choices of the past fifteen or so years, those who in face of vicious smears about siding with the enemy and not supporting the troops said that military intervention abroad would only increase the risk of terrorism at home, have been proven right. The senselessness of it all, of ploughing on full-steam ahead despite clear signs the supposed solution was nothing of the sort, is as astounding as it is tragic. A kind of political obstinacy, hard to explain in terms of rational policy choices, that consequently fuels reasonable suspicion about the underlying motives of the people most closely connected with this approach. All the more so given the deep-seated reticence these same actors display when it comes to confronting the Saudi regime which stands as the main sponsor of the Wahabi religious extremism to which many of the terrorist groups in some form subscribe, Al Qaeda and ISIS included.
Yet while other responses to 9/11 were available, the window of opportunity has long passed. Without wishing to appear insensitive to the great human cost the war on terror’s inflicted, there’s little point crying over spilt milk. That will not undo a decade and a half of conflict. Nor will it prevent it from continuing. Similarly, while the rise of Islamic extremism is unquestionably bound-up with the history of western imperialism, the former developing in the shadow of the latter, simply highlighting this offers no way out of our present predicament. The simple—but troubling truth—is that regardless of whether you supported the foreign policy choices of the last decade and a half, and regardless too of what your opinion on the legacy of European and American meddling in the Middle East is, we’re now embroiled in a spiral of never-ending violence and misery from which there is no obvious escape.
Boston, New York, Paris, London, Barcelona, Berlin, Madrid: No major western city appears safe from blowback from this multi-theatre battle with Islamic terrorism. Wars have been fought, individual freedoms eroded, notions of state sovereignty transgressed and liberal moral and legal standards debased. (On the last-mentioned think Abu Ghraib and drone strikes/extra-judicial assassinations in particular.) Yet the terrorist attacks continue nonetheless. And with increasing frequency too, as ever tighter security seems merely to result in the selection of ever softer targets and the use of ever less sophisticated methods of destruction. Bombs and planes have given way to knives and vans, with there being little national security apparatuses can do to prevent isolated, wayward individuals, radicalised at arms-length over the internet, from attempting to put their perverted worldview into bloody practice.
Amid the carnage, what those who oppose the war on terror tend to overlook is that the perpetrators of these atrocities draw no distinction between those who supported the western actions and those who didn’t. In fact they don’t even distinguish between fellow believers and infidels. Islamic terrorists have shown themselves to be every bit as willing to attack a mosque as they are a shopping mall. No one is not a target. No one is safe. Barbarity has become normalised, as violence begets ever more violence and moral threshold after moral threshold is crossed. So much so that what once would have caused outrage, now barely raises eyebrows: It’s become routine.
This is the world we now live in. A world so brutalised and riven by conflict some even claim we’re in the midst of a Third World War. To have gone down this route will arguably in time be judged to have been an awful, counter-productive mistake, from which those responsible profited greatly, greed blinding them to reality and reason. That said, it’s a mistake the rest of us have no choice but to live with. For no peace treaty can be signed with ISIS and its ilk. There will be no diplomatic means of ending the hostilities. This is a battle that must be fought to the bitter end. A global insurgency that must be defeated. The problem is that no one really seems to know quite how, for the proponents of the war on terror simply call for more of the same, while its opponents argue we should never have embarked on this path to begin with.
Suffice it to say neither school of thought comes anywhere close to providing us with a solution to this most difficult of predicaments in which we now find ourselves. And in this sea of doubt and uncertainty is where radical Islam, sure of itself and its goals, thrives. Recruiting ever more soldiers for its cause and carrying out ever more attacks.
We brought this mess on ourselves. Now we must find a way of clearing it up.