It’s been 17 years since the al-Qaida terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center, and the U.S. has been at war ever since – with Afghanistan, with the Taliban, with al-Qaida, with terrorism, with the “axis of evil,” with Iraq, with the Islamic State. The events of that day revealed a great deal about America, but 17 years later, many of those revelations have been forgotten or were never realized. The most important that remains is that al-Qaida knew the U.S. better than the U.S. knew itself.
Thousands died in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania on 9/11, and in a combination of grief, rage, vengeance and self-centeredness, the U.S. reacted as though the attacks were an end in themselves. The response was exactly what the terrorists had hoped it would be. They knew the U.S. would barge into the Muslim world with guns blazing to punish those who had dared attack it, who had shattered the post-Cold War dream of having achieved a more peaceful global order. Most of all, al-Qaida knew it could use the U.S. reaction in a much larger conflict: an Islamic civil war that has been raging across an 8,000-mile front for decades, and to which there is no end in sight.
Separation of Mosque and State
It is hard to say exactly when the Islamic civil war started since Islam has been in a state of civil war since the first century of its existence. (Islam is hardly unique in this respect. Chapter 20 of the Book of Judges includes an account of the Israelites butchering their own tribes, and Christianity was at war with itself in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.) In A.D. 656, there was war over the proper accession to power after Muhammad’s death. Those disagreements would, by 680, lead to the split between Sunni and Shiite Islam, a rivalry as violent and visceral today as at any point in history.
But the Islamic civil war that rages today is separate from the medieval rivalries over caliphal succession, or any of the myriad intra-Muslim wars over the centuries, though it is informed by this history, and the forms used today often mimic the past. The Islamic civil war in which the World Trade Center became collateral damage began in the 1970s between Muslims who believed that religion should dictate political life and Muslims who believed that emulating the political forms of the West and separating mosque and state is more desirable. It began, in other words, as a battle between religion and secularism.
This was a friction within Islam that had long existed – many of the groups that would inspire or lead directly to the creation of al-Qaida and other radical Islamist organizations were formed decades before the 1970s. (The best known, the Muslim Brotherhood, was created in Egypt in 1928.) But these groups had previously sat on the fringes of society. The turning point was when Muslim countries, especially in the Middle East, began throwing off the yoke of colonialism and turning to secularism and nationalism. Some became socialist, some more capitalist, but they all shared a common state-run approach to economic affairs.
The new, secular nation-states were still Muslim, but in the same way that the U.S. is a Christian country – Christmas is a holiday, but the rule of law is protected by constitutional legitimacy, not biblical fiat. In the Muslim world, however, constitutional legitimacy left something to be desired. Secularism reigned, but so did authoritarianism, and it’s hard to imagine it could have been any other way, considering how poor, fractured and weak the young post-colonial states were. Strongmen, often but not always from military backgrounds, dominated political life. And while women were wearing bikinis in Cairo, and Beirut became the Paris of the Middle East, these authoritarian regimes failed to live up to the promises they had made to their people, and the conservative elements of society seethed.
As economies struggled, as regimes got more repressive to cement their control, and as Israel continued not just to exist but to embarrass Muslim attempts to destroy it, the Quran became that missing ingredient. And suddenly the Islamist political movements that had existed on the fringe began to play a more substantive role in politics. In 1979, the Iranian Islamic Revolution brought a strange amalgamation of Shiite theocracy and democratic republicanism to power. This was the same year the mujahedeen began fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, eventually with U.S. support. Two years later, Islamists gunned down Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. At the time, the West was oblivious to what was happening. Most U.S. analysis after Sadat’s assassination accused Libya of having masterminded the attack; the idea that Islamist extremists were responsible was hardly on anyone’s mind.
Radicalization moved at different paces in different countries, but in almost every Muslim country (or even every country that had a sizable Muslim population), it was clear something was in the water. For instance, in Turkey, whose post-Ottoman incarnation had been explicitly secular and where the military often intervened to remove the slightest hint of religious politics, there was a slow rise of more Islamic-minded elites as the more traditional Anatolian hinterland began to enjoy economic success and move to the cities. In 1995, the pro-Islamist Welfare Party became the largest bloc in parliamentary elections before the military stepped in. This is where the current ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, came from, and it was this struggle that was at the heart of the attempted coup in 2016.
Even where Islamism did not win outright, it began changing political conversations. In 1990, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement became active in China, initiating China’s crackdown on its Uighur Muslim population that today has reached dystopian levels of surveillance and concentration camps. Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and de facto ruler today in the Gaza Strip, emerged in 1987 with Israeli support. (Israel hoped to create a counterweight to the secular Palestine Liberation Organization and got more than it bargained for.) In the Balkan Wars and genocides of the 1990s, the Muslim identity of groups in the former Yugoslavia played a major role. The Indonesian military dictator Suharto tried to get ahead of dissatisfaction with his rule by courting Islamist elements that had grown in influence in the country, and in 1991 he took a highly publicized hajj pilgrimage and began advocating Islamic values and promoting Islamist generals in the Indonesian military.
The U.S., of course, famously played its own role in the proliferation of Islamism by supporting the endeavors of its Cold War allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. It was a classic case of the ends justifying the means, but it was followed by an unexpected development: the means pursuing their own ends. For example, America trained and armed the mujahedeen to fight the Soviets, only to see those weapons turned against the U.S. by al-Qaida after the Soviet collapse. For Washington, the war in Afghanistan was between liberalism and communism – Islamism was underestimated, considered just another tool to defeat or contain the Soviet Union. The United States failed to understand that the very groups it was helping detested the U.S., both for its values and especially for propping up secular, authoritarian dictatorships across the Muslim world. The Saudis and Pakistanis, meanwhile, failed to understand the limits of their control over the religious zealots they had empowered.
There were signs that in hindsight should have tipped the U.S. off to the situation that was emerging. In 1993, Islamic fundamentalists bombed the World Trade Center. In 1998, al-Qaida bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing over 200 people. In 2000, al-Qaida bombed the USS Cole in Yemen, killing 17 sailors. Al-Qaida had come to believe that the Muslim world was ripe for a revolution. If al-Qaida could tempt the U.S. into a heavy-handed intervention in a Muslim country, it thought Muslims across the world would rise up and throw down the dictators who had been propped up to rule them – some of whom were unabashedly secularist, while others, like the Saudi leaders, feigned piety while carousing in private. (Osama bin Laden, whose family was close to the Saudi royal family, knew better than most the hypocrisy of the Saudi ruling classes’ lives.)
Al-Qaida finally succeeded in its goal on 9/11. The deadliness of its attacks sparked a reaction in the U.S. that has yet to run its course. The U.S. began by invading Afghanistan, but within a few years, neoconservativism had justified extraordinary mission creep. The mission to defeat al-Qaida became a mission to make Afghanistan a liberal democracy. That mission was then grafted onto Iraq, where, in an example of American ignorance, it was claimed that Saddam Hussein’s regime had had ties to al-Qaida. Saddam was a murderer, but he was no friend of Islamist extremists. He knew that Iraq would be a fertile recruiting ground for jihadists if they ever established themselves in the country. The group that became the Islamic State flocked to Iraq to build its caliphate after the U.S. invasion, not before.
But no matter what the U.S. did, it could never seem to win the day. Al-Qaida splintered into smaller groups – it has franchises all over the world now. The U.S., along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has even reportedly cut deals with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula so the Saudis can focus on defeating the Houthis in Yemen – an Iran-backed, Shiite sect that historically has been more concerned with creating an independent state in Yemen than with global jihad. The Islamic State emerged from radicals who went too far even for al-Qaida, and spawned a caliphate and franchises of its own around the world, from the Philippines to Nigeria. In some of these places, the U.S. is deeply involved, like in Yemen, where U.S. special operations forces help Saudi forces on the ground and where the U.S. makes the weapons that the Saudis drop. In others, like Nigeria, U.S. involvement is negligible because even a global superpower cannot be everywhere at once.
What all this points to is the fundamental misunderstanding the United States has suffered from the moment it was attacked 17 years ago. 9/11 wasn’t the first attack on the U.S., nor was it primarily aimed at destroying the United States. It was simply the event that so galvanized the American people that it moved the U.S. government to action, any action, to make people feel a little bit better about the tragic loss of life that day. Some of that action, such as attempting to rebuild countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, came with noble intentions if impossible goals. Other action, like the United States’ involvement in Yemen, is little more than mission creep gone wild. An initially ill-defined goal has dragged the U.S. into conflicts with relatively little strategic import, and into compromises with the very group that attacked the U.S. on 9/11 in the first place.
The Islamic civil war will continue, and there’s little the U.S. can do about it. That powerlessness was one of the things that made 9/11 so traumatic. That also happens to be what makes terrorism such an effective tactic – the way it manipulates fear and insecurity to warp the actions of its target rather than defeating its target outright on the battlefield. The radical Islamists wielded it particularly well against the United States. The U.S. has been at war for nearly two decades, but there is no battlefield on which the United States can guarantee surrender as it did with Japan, nor a single enemy whose defeat will bring an end to the war. There are, instead, 1.8 billion Muslims in the world trying to figure out what the relationship should be between religion and politics. The U.S. can articulate a position and support those fighting for that vision with either money or military force, but to do that, the U.S. has to realize what the war is about and why it is fighting in the first place, and prioritize its resources accordingly.
In a very different time, about a very different war, and with an overtly political agenda, many in the U.S. once asked, “When will they ever learn?” Perhaps a better question would be, “Will they ever learn?” The Islamists think not – and they have staked their entire strategy on it. I confess I don’t know the answer, but I think it’s fair to say that after 17 years, it is above politics or naivete to ask.