Where were you on 9/11?
Few events are accorded such status in public memory: there is an expectation that, if you are old enough, you will remember to the second where you were and what you were doing when the planes hit.
I was five, so I have no memory of that day. My mother tells me that she had seen the news just before she was due to collect me from school. At the school gates, she learned more from the other parents. My parents chose, as many did, not to tell me what had happened. But, later, after Bush and Blair had spoken, my father mentioned that we were now at war. I am told that I was upset when I overheard this, despite knowing nothing about what was happening.
This was in Scotland, not America. The news that day was global—and rightly so. It was a world-historical turning point. It launched the United States and its allies into decades of war around the world. It loudly and bloodily informed everyone on the planet of the arrival of a murderous new ideology. Jihad became a familiar word. Without 9/11, al-Qaeda would have remained a little-known terrorist group, an Islamic caliphate would never have been declared, and we would have been spared so much death.
I disagree with those who downplay the significance of 9/11. Ben Sixsmith in The Critic, for example, argues that:
[9/11] did not have the epochal geopolitical significance that it was assumed to have.
Liberalism was growing weak in subtler ways, at home and abroad. Internal disputes over matters such as migration and supranationalism, and “cold” rivalries with secular China and more-or-less secular Russia, loom larger in our minds than jihadis, as well as more transcendent matters such as environmentalism and pandemic risk. To the extent that militant Islam concerns us, it is generally at home, where it has been idly allowed to spread …
Of course, jihadism could burst into the news again … But the War on Terror was talked into being as if it was the historical successor of World War Two and the Cold War—conflicts that contrasted major geopolitical and ideological powers. Jihadists, for all of their morbid destructive potential, have neither the power nor the coherence for the same to be true …
The attacks of 9/11 were a defining moment for thousands of families, of course, for obvious reasons, but they were also a defining moment for commentators who sought to prolong the twentieth century and its idealised conceptions of ideological conflict between the forces of liberty and the forces of totalitarianism.
But the existence of many other problems does not negate the import of jihadism. China and Covid might loom a bit larger now, but jihadism, despite its many defeats and failures, is the most resilient terrorist wave in history. Islamic State, as the editors of The ISIS Reader (which I review for this magazine here) point out, has declined before, and was able to build itself back up and rapidly seize swathes of territory; it still has affiliates across the world and significant resources and propaganda reach.
Al-Qaeda was able to revive itself after its decimation in Afghanistan (owing to the opportunity of a Saddam-free Iraq) and its friends and hosts have just retaken control of that benighted country. Afghanistan was al-Qaeda’s pre-eminent base pre-2001, and the Taliban’s return to power is likely to make that true again. The last time this was the case, al-Qaeda was able to cause more direct damage to the United States in a single morning than any other enemy since the Confederacy.
As for militant Islam at home and the issues with immigration, I agree with Sixsmith, but his implication is that, somehow, these problems have little to do with official jihadism, when in fact it is the propaganda and, less often, the direction and resources of al-Qaeda and IS that inspire domestic terror attacks in the name of Islam. Look, for example, to the career of Anwar al-Awlaki.
There are, of course, major differences between the conflicts of the twentieth century and the War on Terror, but it is absurd to say that jihadist organisations with global reach and appeal lack power and coherence. Such organisations have at times had the power or backing of nation-states, and their goals are quite simple—the defeat of the United States and the establishment of Taliban-style Islamist regimes and/or caliphates throughout the Muslim world and beyond.
The war on jihadism is a war of liberty against totalitarianism. I don’t mean that the foes of jihadism are all starry-eyed democratic romantics (although some of us may be), but that al-Qaeda and its spawn are expansionist totalitarians. Osama bin Laden and his heirs were and are quite explicit about this. Jihadism is a totalitarian ideology: it demands the subjugation of entire populations to a utopian vision of a Sharia paradise and it seeks to do this by any means necessary, including genocide (as the Taliban’s erasure of pre-Islamic culture in Afghanistan and IS’s persecution of, among others, the Yazidis demonstrate). To acknowledge this cannot simply be dismissed as a longing for the battles of the past: it is merely to apply the lessons of history (the threats from China and Russia, too, are threats of expansionist authoritarianism).
Jihadism is a form of fascism. Angus Colwell has recently criticised Christopher Hitchens for his use of the term Islamofascism: “Hitchens was bright enough to know how historically inaccurate this was: fascism was a historical creation of its place and time, not a moral cudgel.” But Colwell refers us to an essay in which Hitchens defends the term against such criticisms, in which Hitchens reminds us that words are not our masters but our servants. If ideological terms were locked in to specific historical moments, then political discourse would become pretty difficult. If, for example, an antisemitic totalitarian rose to power through manipulations and lies tomorrow, would the word fascist not be applicable? Colwell writes as if there were no debate on this matter, yet the scholars Ibn Warraq and Hamed Abdel-Samad have both examined the historical links between Islamism and fascism and the deep similarities between those two ideologies.
Jihadism and fascism share many features—including antisemitism, the fetishization of death, leader worship, anti-intellectualism, yearnings for past glories as against present humiliations, utopianism, expansionism and obsessions with purity—and therefore jihadism can be legitimately described as Islamic fascism.
I don’t wish to single out Ben, whom I regard highly, but his arguments reveal the shortcomings of some conservative views on this subject. Meanwhile, in its idiocy, much of the anti-imperialist left regards jihadism as anticolonial revenge against America for its depredations rather than the murderous theocratic fascism that it actually is.
The apologetics that claims an equivalence between America and jihadism is one of leftism’s great shames. Noam Chomsky’s comparison of 9/11 to Bill Clinton’s 1998 bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory is the classic demonstration of the poverty of this view. Even if you believe Clinton was wrong to bomb the factory, as I do, there is no comparison. Clinton’s 1998 strikes were part of a limited response to al-Qaeda’s bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam that year, which killed more Africans and Muslims than Americans. The missiles of 9/11 were packed full of human beings and were fully intended to slaughter as many people as possible in the world’s most cosmopolitan city—all in the name of an avowedly murderous, imperialist, fascist ideology. Osama bin Laden was delighted by the spilling of the blood of thousands in the heart of multicultural New York. All his targets were civilian targets (including the Pentagon). He had no compunction about any of this, nor did he differentiate between military and civilian.
And why did bin Laden target the World Trade Center? Perhaps he thought it represented the evils of world capitalism? Perhaps his attack was a misguided assault by the Third World on the power of international finance? No. In an Al Jazeera interview from October 2001, bin Laden said that:
The values of this Western civilization under the leadership of America have been destroyed. Those awesome symbolic towers that speak of liberty, human rights, and humanity have been destroyed. They have gone up in smoke. [Emphasis mine.]
Before 9/11, the Americans had a few opportunities to kill or capture bin Laden. One of the reasons they never took advantage of these was the fear of collateral damage. There is no moral equivalence between the two sides here. Bin Laden wanted to kill as many people as possible in the name of his totalitarian faith, while the Americans rightly agonised over civilian death as they attempted to capture this murderer. Indeed, even after 9/11, when planning the 2011 raid on the Abbottabad compound that killed bin Laden, bombs and drones were ruled out partially because the man believed to be bin Laden frequently walked in his garden with children and the Americans feared killing innocent Pakistanis. And, as Raymond Ibrahim has shown, while al-Qaeda’s statements to the west may have been full of spurious grievances and justifications, its propaganda aimed at Muslims was entirely religious.
So, 9/11 was a world-historical event and jihadism is a form a fascism that must be fought. But what of the man behind it all? Some of the details above are taken from Peter Bergen’s new biography, The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden. This excellent book convincingly argues that bin Laden was one of a tiny number of individuals who have changed history through sheer force of will.
Bergen has written extensively on jihadism and met the al-Qaeda leader in 1997 when he produced the first TV interview with the man who would go on to slaughter thousands and mutilate the heartland of the world’s most powerful nation. He was also the first and only outside observer to view bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound before the Pakistanis destroyed it to prevent it from becoming a shrine. Bergen’s first-hand knowledge and decades of experience in reporting on jihadism shine through in this biography, which is a work of lightly worn expertise. It is fairly short yet incredibly detailed and rich. It provides, for the first time, a properly rounded view of bin Laden, in all his dimensions: family man, business mogul, bloodthirsty religious fanatic, spin doctor, strategic incompetent and more—from his privileged birth to his pathetic death (Bergen’s account of the hunt for bin Laden and Operation Neptune Spear is thrilling).
By looking at bin Laden and his influence on history, Bergen is able to clarify bigger issues, such as the successes and failures of the American War on Terror. And he shows that bin Laden, despite not being a religious scholar, was a deeply religious man who consciously modelled himself on the Prophet Mohammed, and that, above all else, it was his religious beliefs that inspired him:
Of course, bin Laden’s beliefs were not a mainstream view among Muslims, but assertions that Islamist terrorism has nothing at all to do with Islam are as nonsensical as claims that the Crusades had nothing to do with Christian beliefs about the sanctity of Jerusalem.
Bergen’s portrait of bin Laden also shows us how laughable the man was. He would cover his ears at racetracks if music started to play over the loudspeakers and avert his eyes from uncovered women. In his grotty Abbottabad compound, as the Arab Spring went on without his or al-Qaeda’s help (inspired by liberal and anti-corruption campaigners rather than religious fanatics), he felt abandoned by history and pontificated to his family members so that he could feel important once more. His lack of intellectual curiosity, his egotism, his arid spirituality, and his pathetic exile would be enough to make one pity him if he were not also a mass murderer.
Osama bin Laden was ultimately a failure. Though Bergen harshly criticises George W. Bush’s strategy and actions (such as the barbaric and futile use of “enhanced interrogation,” viz. torture), he also shows how bin Laden blundered. Bin Laden believed that 9/11 would destroy America and make it withdraw from the Muslim world (thus allowing Taliban-style utopias to topple the corrupt Arab regimes), when in fact it led America to become ever more involved. Rather than causing the downfall of a superpower, as bin Laden absurdly believed he had done with his paltry part in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, 9/11 led to the utter annihilation of al-Qaeda. Bin Laden’s spectacular tactical success on 9/11 was also a staggering strategic error.
Alas, things changed. Bergen criticises Bush’s invasion of Iraq for leading to the revival of al-Qaeda, and although I still believe it was right to overthrow Saddam Hussein, it is hard to disagree with this analysis. I think it likely that Saddam’s Iraq would have imploded anyway, and the fortunes of al-Qaeda would have been revived in an even worse way had there been no intervention, but the historical record is clear that events in Iraq led to the resurgence of a defeated bin Ladenism.
Still, bin Laden was never able to launch a 9/11-level assault on the United States again. This was his aim until the end, unlike Awlaki, who thought the way forward was to instigate lone wolf attacks in the west. In that sense, at least, the War on Terror has succeeded.
But perhaps that is about to change. The Taliban has retaken Afghanistan following Joe Biden’s withdrawal of US forces. I believe that international forces should have stayed for as long as necessary. Even if it proved impossible to transform Afghanistan into a properly democratic state, the relatively small mission there was all that stood in the way of the Taliban’s return. Donald Trump’s peace deal with the Taliban is castigated by Bergen, and rightly so. The Taliban has repeatedly reiterated its support of al-Qaeda, whose leaders have sworn oaths of allegiance to each of the successive Taliban emirs as “Commander of the Faithful,” meaning leader of all the world’s Muslims (hence the rift with Islamic State, whose head also claims to be the global leader of Islam). Since day one, the Taliban has broken its promises to be a more moderate version of the old fundamentalist regime. By betraying the people of Afghanistan, and especially its women and girls, the west has also gifted its avowed enemies a base from which to launch apocalyptic attacks once more. Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, if he is still alive, is no doubt smirking. The US will rue the day it agreed to leave Afghanistan, as the people of that country are ruing it even now.
I have been against the withdrawal from very early on and the horrors of the last month have strengthened my conviction. What has occurred in Afghanistan is a real-time refutation of the dogmas of both the anti-imperialist left and the isolationist right. It was and is our business to be in Afghanistan, as it was and is the business of the Afghans. For all its many and deep flaws, and all the mistakes and failures of the intervention, the west will regret its abandonment of the ousted Afghan regime. (The Uyghurs of Afghanistan are also at risk, fearing a Taliban-China alliance: the withdrawal, therefore, may turn out to benefit the CCP as well as jihadism, allowing it to extend its influence and its genocidal aims ever further.)
I only hope that the resistance being mounted in the Panjshir Valley by Ahmad Massoud, son of the late anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud (who was known as the Lion of Panjshir and was assassinated two days before 9/11 by al-Qaeda) succeeds in carving out a non-Taliban space in Afghanistan. Ashraf Ghani’s former Vice President, Amrullah Saleh, has, unlike his boss, bravely stayed in the country to fight alongside Massoud. The situation in Panjshir is looking tenuous, but all is not lost. For some heartening words, I recommend a read of Saleh’s defiant and coruscating despatch from Panjshir and Peter Bergen’s interview of Massoud.
Joe Biden should never have left the country, and certainly not in the disastrous way that he did. He should swallow his pride and send the troops back in. If he has even the remotest spark of honour, he will commit to helping the Panjshir resistance with all the resources he can muster, but I don’t have much hope that he will. (As Bergen amusingly points out, bin Laden wanted to have President Obama killed but told his men to leave Vice President Biden alone as he was “totally unprepared” for the role of president. For once, I agree with bin Laden.) Let us hope, at least, that Biden, and the west more generally, gives Afghan refugees, especially the women and girls and those who risked both their and their families’ lives to support the intervention, safe harbour.
There is one small spark of hope. However long it takes and however much it destroys, jihadism is a self-defeating ideology. It has demonstrated the need to reform or enlighten Islam. Its actions have led many—including former dogmatists—to criticise or leave the faith. For example, Ibn Warraq relates that one pious young Iraqi girl who originally celebrated 9/11, after seeing what al-Qaeda did to her country, remarked: “Now I hate Islam. Al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army are spreading hatred. People are being killed for nothing … [The clerics] are making a society of nonbelievers.” That story comes from Warraq’s book (reviewed here) on the heartening wave of disbelief in the Muslim world, which is in large part a response to the horrors committed by the faithful. It will take a very long time, no doubt, but the ideology of jihad inscribes its own destruction. It is to the heretics and infidels that we must look for hope.
The 9/11 assault on the United States was committed by filthy fascists, and now, twenty years to the day, those fascists are resurgent. Jihadism has evolved and become less centralised, and the rift between al-Qaeda and Islamic State has been fascinating to watch. IS, too, I predict, will make a return in the coming years. The west’s supposed allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, who have, respectively, sponsored the Taliban and spread fundamentalist Islam around the world, are friends the west is better off without. The west should have stood by its commitments in Afghanistan: one does not defeat this sort of evil quickly. It was a forever war, and so what? All wars against totalitarianism are forever wars. If you leave fascism in peace, it won’t return the favour.
All we can do is understand the enemy, and to that end Peter Bergen’s biography of Osama bin Laden is one of the few pieces of essential reading. Bin Laden, whose first name meant “lion” and who had vowed to die a martyr’s death, died pathetically in a shabby compound, having been side-lined from great historical events and reduced to vainly applying dye to his greying hair. But his vision lives on. Twenty years after al-Qaeda’s evil attack, it is necessary to re-commit to opposing the totalitarian Islamic fascism that has destroyed, and continues to destroy, so many and so much—and to honour those, all around the world, of all faiths and none, from the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 to the new lions of Panjshir, who have stood against it, often at the cost of their lives.