Home / Articles / Nine Years After September 11, 2001: Perspective on the First Decade of an Enduring Conflict
As some of you know, I have a very personal connection-intellectually and physically-with the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. In 1999, I served as a scholar on a bi-partisan blue-ribbon commission that issued a report, of which I was one of the contributors, on the likely nature of future security challenges. Our first point in a lengthy analysis was stated thus: “The greatest threat to the United States in the future is the use of catastrophic terrorism against our homeland and our military superiority will not protect us.” The effort garnered maybe fifty short mentions in the national media in the summer of 1999. On the other hand, that summer there were over 500 stories about shark attacks at American beaches. This was, after all the height of post-Cold War peace and the go-go economic years. Nobody had time for a bunch of national security Cassandras at the Dow 36,000 party.
A few months later I was one of the principal military futurists interviewed for a PBS “Frontline” documentary on the future of war. I talked specifically about Osama Bin Laden, repeats of the failed 1993 World Trade Center bombing, a future of more military environments like Mogadishu rather than like the Kuwaiti desert, low intensity conflict, guerrilla warfare, and so on. Since then, and because the full transcript of the interview is available so widely on the web – I’ve received sporadic notes from acquaintances noting the prescience of what myself and others said in that documentary and other forums.
Well, in reality, there were many voices, and most were more important than mine, calling back then for attention to the world that visited us so violently and tragically in New York and Washington nine years ago. Many people knew all the pieces-al Qaeda, after all, had precipitated the 1998 African Embassy bombings and the attack on the USS Cole in among other activities. The U.S. had even taken some half-hearted shots at killing or capturing Osama bin Laden. After 9/11, it was a terrible time to have been even partly right about some of those trend lines in the years prior to the event.
Unfortunately, I first came to the realization of the intellectual connection with our terrible new reality when I lived through 9/11 two blocks from the World Trade Center in New York City. Having left government service in 2000, frustrated by some of the dynamics I’ve just outlined, I was working as the Chief Operating Officer of a financial services firm in downtown New York. When the planes hit the twin towers, our windows rattled and when the towers collapsed my twenty-story building literally disappeared under a forty-story high debris cloud. I spent the day caring for our employees and our business and was evacuated from downtown Manhattan that night on a ferry. Looking back from the ferry at the smoking wreckage of downtown New York-covered in the soot and debris piled a foot high in the streets-was the first time I was able to draw a breath. Only then could I appreciate the full extent to which a world with which I had wrestled intellectually as a national security professional had manifested itself on me and tens of thousands of other New Yorkers that day in the most tragic and murderous fashion.
That day, as you might imagine, is forever ingrained in my mind and in my heart-all the more so because I was there. But I want to pull back from those connections, and see if I can offer, some nine years after that attack, some historical and strategic perspective on the conflict with Islamic terrorism and perhaps even glean from that some strategic insight on the nature of this challenge.
Let me start by comparing this ninth year retrospective to some broadly similar circumstances. In other words, a reflection nine years after a profound national security event that precipitated a new era of conflict, war, and turmoil.
If, for instance, I were giving this talk on December 7, 1950-nine years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, America’s involvement in WWII would be well and truly over. Not only would we have finished almost four years of World War against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, but we would be well into rebuilding both countries. In fact, we would be fighting a new Pacific war -in Korea-with our forces having surged to the Yalu River by that point only to be pushed back toward what is now South Korea. The Marines and Soldiers would have just fought their way out of the Chosin reservoir the week prior. But, in any case, World War II would be well behind us.
Even if I reflected as a European, on Sept 1, 1948 – nine years after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, the war would be well and truly over. By then the United States and its allies were seeing the geostrategic outlines of the Cold War and were investing heavily in rebuilding Western Europe and standing up NATO.
If we go back a bit further into modern strategic history, and I were talking on June 28, 1923-nine years after Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo set off World War I-we would be past not only four years of wrenching war but also the immediate post-war recessions and starting the so-called Roaring 20’s. It was a very different world only nine years on. Nine years is indeed a long time for strategic water to pass under the bridge.
If, on the other hand, I were reflecting on May 3, 1955-nine years after Sir Winston Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech-we’d just be really figuring out the full topography of the Cold War (now into Eisenhower’s Presidency). Still to come would be another 44 years of Cold War, full of costly proxy wars and even sporadic direct conflict with the USSR that cost the lives (in only unclassified records) of some 382 American servicemen killed by hostile fire during the so-called “cold” portion of the Cold War. If you add the casualties in Korea and Vietnam, you had over 80,000 U.S. deaths from hostile actions during that period.
Looking further back in history to other long running conflicts, consider May 1627-Europe would be nine years moved on from the Defenestration of Prague that started the Thirty Years War but with still 21 years of wrenching conflict to come before peace. Still ahead would be the traumatic Sacking of Magdeburg and the battles of Breitenfeld, Luten, Leipzig, Rocroi and others. Millions killed in Europe – some estimates state that as many as half of the male population of Germany perished in that conflict.
In 1346 – France and England would were nine years removed from Philip VI’s 1337 claim to England’s Gascon fief, but over 80 years of war with each other away from peace. Still to come would be the famous battles of Crecy, Poitiers, the Seige of Rouen, Agincourt, of course, and many others. Still to follow after that ninth year retrospective would be the deaths of hundreds of major nobles, thousands of lesser nobility, and tens of thousands of common men-at-arms and civilians.
The essential difference between the range of these two types of conflicts, lies, of course, in the fact that in the latter set the essential dynamics-geopolitical, social, economic, cultural, religious, and dynastic-that gave rise to these conflicts in the first place, remained unsettled, or unsolved if you will, nine years after those conflicts began. While the phenomena that fueled the conflicts in the first place changed and shifted over time-in their modalities, their locales, their personalities, and their strategic impact-the fundamental reasons for the conflict were enough alive after nine years, to give all sides a reason to keep fighting. Victory, however defined by either side, was not yet at hand to give even an inkling of their conclusion almost a decade after they began.
I fear it is just so in our conflict with Islamic terrorism and fanaticism. The dynamics that led-from the time of Palestinian Liberation Organization’s sponsored terrorism in the early 1970s to September 11, 2001 – are all still present in some form, and perhaps even exacerbated, in the nine years since those attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
I put the dynamics of this conflict into two basic categories and will briefly examine each in turn. First, there is what I term the geopolitical ones-phenomena that I and many other scholars and policymakers believe help define the root causes of this conflict. There are many complex causes for any conflict of course, let alone one that swirls together history, religion, politics, strategy, power, and culture in such a maddening pattern. And, in fact, while bookshelves full of books have been written on each of these dynamics, I will touch on them briefly to make two points. First, they exist. Scholars will endlessly debate the details of the exact nature of their existence and their influence, but the fact of their existence cannot be doubted. Second, they matter-mostly to our adversaries. After all, it was our adversaries and our enemies who declared war on the United States and other nations and adopted the murder of civilians as their chief tactic. So, as a strategic analyst, I am concerned with what matters to and motivates my enemies-even if I feel their objectives and their tactics to be baseless, wicked, or even mad. The point we must take away is that these dynamics that helped fuel Islamic terrorism before 9/11 and on the tragic day itself will unfortunately continue to feed the conflict, as they are unsettled at the present time and likely to be so for the foreseeable future.
As a contemporary reference point for some foundations of these conflict dynamics, consider a 20-year old magazine article. In September 1990, the Atlantic Monthly published an extraordinarily prescient article by Bernard Lewis, a Princeton Professor of Middle East Studies. The article was entitled “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” In it, Lewis details the ancient and recent history of the conflict between the West and the Islamic world, and illuminates the causes of the many grievances regularly cited by Islamists against the United States and Europe over the last nine centuries in general, and the last eighty years in particular. Lewis concluded then that, from the viewpoint of Muslims, their “fundamentalist leaders are not mistaken in seeing in Western civilization the greatest challenge to the way of life that they wish to retain or restore for their people.”
As Lewis and others have observed, the geopolitical drivers of the rise of Islamic militancy, terrorism, and fanaticism are many. However, let’s deal with three major ones: Bad governance; a narrative of grievance and hatred towards the U.S. and the West, and geopolitical friction with the West. First, as many have observed, including many Muslim scholars and politicians, too many modern Muslim states and leaders have failed to successfully create governments, economies, polities, and societies over the past fifty years that can productively accommodate the needs of most of their growing citizenry. Second, and part and parcel of this first phenomenon, would be the Islamic world’s struggle with modernity and the resulting climate of resentment and hate towards the United States from a militant Islamic minority. This narrative unfortunately has been ascendant not simply with Al Qaeda and similar terrorist organizations but has also found voice with many Islamic regimes and intellectuals. Add to this mixture an activist U.S. and European foreign policy in the Islamic heartland since the end of World War I (the support of Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being just one manifestation) and there is plenty of geopolitical friction to fuel conflict-pre- and post-9/11.
Let me address each of these contributing factors. Many countries struggle with adopting systems of economic and political governance that can allow for some form of political representation, stability, security, order, economic advancement, cultural achievement, and health and well-being for their citizenry. The Islamic world is particularly challenged in this respect. And its booming populations layered on top of politically and many times economically fragile states only add more pressure. While Pakistan, a non-Arab Muslim state usually tops the lists of Islamic states that most acutely reflect these worrisome issues, the problem is also severe in the Arab world. Since 2003, the United Nations Development Program has periodically published a report on Arab human development. Most of the reports cite a so-called “knowledge deficit” that threatens human development, economic growth, and the future potential of Arab societies. Johns Hopkins Middle East Studies Professor Fouad Ajami describes the reports as showing an “autocratic political culture, economic stagnation, and cultural decay.” He concludes that “The simple truth is that the Arab world has terrible rulers and worse oppositionists. There are autocrats on one side and theocrats on the other. A timid and fragile middle class is caught in the middle between regimes it abhors and Islamists it fears.”
Now many parts of the world suffer from poor governance that stunts advancement for their people, their economies, and their polities. But bad governance in the Islamic world-particularly the Arab world and Pakistan-is such a critical part of understanding 9/11 and the current conflict because that poor governance in the Islamic world has provided an opening for an alternative narrative for Islamic advancement. It is a narrative of inspiration, violence, and the restoration of a glorious past that is put forward by Islamic extremists and terrorists. We have to ask ourselves if the Islamic world “worked”- in other words, provided a reliable range of opportunities for the political, economic, and cultural expression of most of citizenry-would the al Qaeda narrative really be a compelling alternative for opportunity, order, and justice in Islamic societies? Or would al Qaeda just be a fringe criminal gang-like the Aum Shinrikyo cult that attacked the Tokyo subway system with Sarin gas in 1995? In our own country, the Weather Underground, Timothy McVeigh, or even the Unabomber all failed to gain any credence or even sympathy in the mainstream with their own narratives of grievance, humiliation, injustice and revenge. Instead, they were rightly dismissed as criminals or kooks. Would the narrative and ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood, al Qaeda or the Taliban, get real traction in an environment of good governance, opportunity, and advancement in the Arab and greater Islamic world?
Fouad Ajami writes that the “wellsprings of Islamic radicalism” stem from the pathologies of Arab and Islamic political life. He notes that on 9/11 “We had become, without knowing it, a party to a civil war in the Arab-Islamic world between the autocrats and their disaffected children, between those who wanted to live a normal life and warriors of the faith bent on imposing their will on that troubled arc of geography.”
For the most part, Islamic regimes in the modern age have been characterized by autocracies of one sort or another – either military, dynastic, religious, or nationalist. With the exception of the Saudi Kingdom and post-revolution Iran, most Muslim governments were founded and run by modernists. But their autocratic methods, their corrupt and inefficient governments, and their inability to provide for stability and advancement during the 1940s through the 1970s opened the door for the appeal of today’s more fundamentalist Muslim narrative. As Akbar Ahmed, former Pakistani Ambassador to Britain and Chair of Islamic Studies at American University notes, when the “modernists failed over time, becoming increasingly incompetent and corrupt, the literalists stepped into the breach. And while not all literalists advocate violence, many do. Movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and the Taliban belong to this category.”
Bernard Lewis simply states, “Ultimately, the struggle of the fundamentalists is against two enemies, secularism and modernism.” And overall, the Islamic world has struggled with the challenge of modernity-failing to adopt its very traditional economic, social, and political structures to the pluralistic, secular, and market based modalities of the West. These modalities define the global marketplace of ideas, power, culture, and economics. This has been a challenge for many traditional societies-in Africa, the Western Hemisphere, and Asia. The principal difference though is that none of those other traditional societies have recently offered a narrative and global campaign plan of violent and murderous attacks against the West-as Al Qaeda and the Taliban have-in order to blunt modernity’s intrusions and restore a more pure and historical golden age of traditional laws, religious observance, and social mores.
Let me briefly address a contemporary issue that relates to this phenomenon. It has become fashionable of late-indeed the policy of the current administration-to not mention the word Islam or Muslim in connection to the conflict with Islamic terrorists and extremists. “I will not be drawn into impugning an entire religion,” an administration official stated recently in reply to a question along these lines at a private luncheon I attended. This stance is admirable in some ways and even bipartisan. The Bush administration took great pains to try and convince the Muslim world we were not at war with Islam, and that the help of the Muslims in defeating the apocalyptic tactics and warped vision of terrorism committed in the name of Islam was the key to addressing the problem. However, to be so politically correct as to dismiss entirely from public dialogue the profound connections between Islamic terrorism and issues within the Islamic polity and Ummah is to completely cloud one’s ability to have any strategic and moral clarity about the issue.
As former British Prime Minister Tony Blair notes in his new autobiography, A Journey,
The extremism we fear is a strain within Islam. It is wholly contrary to the proper teaching of Islam, but it cannot be denied that its practitioners act with reference to their religion. I feel we too often shy away from this assertion, as if it stigmatizes all Muslims. But if it is true-and it is-it has to be faced, not just because it is true, but because otherwise we don’t analyze the problem or attain the solution properly. If it is a strain within Islam, the answer lies, in part, at the very least, also within Islam. The eradication of that strain can be affected by what we outside Islam do; but it can only be actually eliminated by those within Islam. Here is where the root of the problem lies. The extremists are small in number, but their narrative-which sees Islam as the victim of a scornful West externally and an insufficiently religious leadership internally has a far bigger hold. Indeed, such is the hold that much of the current political leadership feels impelled to go along with this narrative for fear of losing support.
Make no mistake, the grievance narrative that fuels Muslim resentment towards the United States and the West, and that has been translated by fanatics into murder in the streets of New York, Washington, London, Madrid, Bali, and elsewhere is popular-not just found on some obscure terrorist websites or in propaganda materials. A few years ago, addressing the Summit Conference of the Organization of Islamic States, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, a moderate leader of a moderate Islamic country noted to the delegates,
We are now 1.3 billion strong. We have the biggest oil reserve in the world. We have great wealth. We are familiar with the workings of the world’s economy and finances. We control 57 out of the 180 countries in the world. Our votes can make or break international organizations. Yet we seem more helpless than the small number of Jahilliah converts who accepted the Prophet as their leader. Today we, the whole Muslim ummah are treated with contempt and dishonour. Our religion is denigrated. Our holy places desecrated. Our countries are occupied. Our people starved and killed. None of our countries are truly independent. We are under pressure to conform to our oppressors’ wishes about how we should behave, how we should govern our lands, how we should think even.
In explaining this attitude, prevalent through Muslim societies, Bernard Lewis notes that, “In part this mood is surely due to a feeling of humiliation-a growing awareness, among the heirs of an old, proud, and long dominant civilization, of having been overtaken, overborne, and overwhelmed by those whom they regarded as their inferiors.” Jihadist literature and doctrine not only echoes this popular sentiment, but offers redress for such perceived humiliations in a way that modern Islamic leaders and governments have not.
Now add into this stew of Islamic discontent an activist U.S. and European foreign policy in the Islamic heartlands since the end of World War I. The result is an almost unbearable friction among these three dynamics. There has been, of course, the European administration of much of the Middle East and South and South East Asia from World War I through to decolonization. And since the British withdrawal from the region, there has been a U.S. military involvement (and before that intelligence involvement) in the Gulf region. Ironically, in his 1990 explanation of the Muslim rage that would ultimately feed the designs of the 9/11 plotters some eleven years later, Bernard Lewis breathed a sigh of relief that while this rage against the U.S. existed, at least nowhere “in the Muslim world [were] American forces involved as combatants or even as ‘advisers.'”
That limited face-to-face engagement in the Islamic heartland, however, changed dramatically only a few weeks after Lewis’s article was published. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and the rulers of Saudi Arabia invited some half a million U.S. and coalition troops to the Kingdom to defend it. Since then of course, the United States has militarily intervened (along with coalition partners) to restore the sovereignty of a Muslim state in Kuwait, to protect Muslim minorities in Bosnia and Kosovo, and with military assets to assist in peacekeeping and disaster relief for Muslim populations in Somalia, Aceh Indonesia after the Tsunami, and in Pakistan after both earthquakes and floods. Those interventions rarely make the jihadist narrative.
The U.S.-led engagements that do offend the Islamist sensibilities involve the efforts over the past 18 – 19 years since Desert Storm: to contain Iraq (and then to invade it); to contain Iran; and, of course, the post 9/11 counterterrorism oriented interventions in Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Islamic heartland – from Yemen to the Southern Philippines. When you look at the scope of that presence and intervention, the question of who controls the fundamental balance of power is not in doubt in the minds of Islamists. And regardless of how lightly our forces, or even our diplomacy, tread in the region, the natural friction will help to fuel the narrative of the militants and terrorists. As Sir Michael Howard, the British historian, notes when discussing the attitude of so many Muslims towards the United States, “This sullen animosity is directed against the West in general and the United States in particular; not only for its political and economic intrusion into the Middle East, but as what the Germans call the Kulturtrager, the bearers of a culture seen to be destroying their way of life and violating the tenets of their faith.”
Now, it would be a mistake to conclude from this explanation of the geopolitical friction our engagement entails that I might be advocating a reduction in the U.S. presence or national ambitions in the Islamic world. No such thing. As both a soldier and an American policymaker my job was to help protect U.S. interests. I am an advocate of muscular but intelligently applied American power. And to those key areas of the world that are the most threatening or unstable, I believe U.S. power must be vigorously applied. I simply point out that the friction described earlier is a phenomenon that should be understood by sober strategists and taken into account for the betterment of U.S. policy and the stability of the region. Other policymakers or political leaders-on both left and right-have argued that this itself makes the case for an American retrenchment or retreat. I would offer that great powers are great because they recognize and try to manage the friction caused by their exertion of power-not run from it.
Let me address the second category of dynamics that continues to fuel a conflict with Islamic terrorists and militants. This category concerns the terrorists’ own articulation of their strategic goals and motivations. Only one of them has been realized since 9/11 (U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia) and almost all remain extant in the minds of terrorists who are dedicated to killing Americans or harming our interests in order to see them fulfilled.
One does not need to look far into terrorist or jihadist literature for the basis of their beliefs, strategy and doctrine. Part of their manifesto was spelled out in al Qaeda’s Declaration of Jihad in 1998 which not only clearly annunciates the tortured historical interpretation of their own humiliation at the hands of the West over many centuries, but more specifically cites the presence of Americans in Arabia (a “Crusader occupation of the lands of Arabia”), the ongoing campaign (then an international combination of economic sanctions and no-fly zones) against Iraq, and the occupation by Israel (or, “the petty state of the Jews” as the declaration labels Israel) of Jerusalem. These “crimes” according to the manifesto, “are a clear declaration of war by the Americans against God, His Prophet, and the Muslims.” Every Muslim should therefore “kill the Americans and plunder their possessions wherever he finds them and whenever he can.”
Now, al Qaeda, with what the CIA estimates might be just a few hundred active members, is a fringe group (dangerous, but fringe) within the Muslim world. Al Qaeda also targets what it labels “apostate” Islamic regimes, including the Wahabist House of Saud. And, as Bernard Lewis reminds us, “Most Muslims are not fundamentalists and most fundamentalists are not terrorists.” But, it is enormously important in understanding the motivations of Islamic terrorists to also understand, as Lewis states, that “most present day terrorists are Muslims and proudly identify themselves as such.”
Because of that connection, the narrative of historical grievance adopted by so many in the Muslim world also plays an enormous role in jihadist doctrine-but with a critical difference. To the usual narrative the jihadists add a plan for violent retribution and restoration of a better Islamic condition. And, in accomplishing this, as Lewis notes, “the slaughter of innocent and uninvolved civilians is not ‘collateral damage.’ It is the prime objective.”
Given that this is the way our adversaries express the stakes, and given that they feel their tactics can know no boundaries or laws of conduct when it comes to fighting non-believers, it is hard to imagine a time when a bin Laden or other jihadist leader might hold a press conference to say something like “We’re done-we’re good. We’ve accomplished what we need to and are standing down now.” Their goals and their tactics are apocalyptic, and for this reason, combined with the enduring significance of the geopolitical dynamics I spoke to earlier, I fear we are in for a long campaign. As my old mentor Sir Michael Howard, has written, “We are not faced with a finite adversary who can be appeased by political concessions or destroyed by military victories. We are dealing with a state of mind that has to be transformed; a task demanding skill, sagacity, determination, empathy, and above all patience.”
Thus, even a cursory look at the landscape-either as a geostrategist or as an intelligence analyst trying to fathom the motivations and goals of an adversary-tells us that this is not a conflict that should end anytime soon. If this conflict is indeed a long-term one, and if the conditions that gave rise to the attacks of 9/11 persist in a virulent enough form, and if the conclusiveness of its ending depends more on reform within the Islamic world than on U.S. power-well, keep your seatbelt fastened for a while.
For the next few decades we will need to continue to work hard, be vigilant and opportunistic, and wage this struggle with a smart and creative combination of diplomatic, political, intelligence, law enforcement, economic, and military power. There will be ebbs and flows, lows and highs, triumphs and disasters. We will inevitably over-reach at times and under-shoot the mark at others. Allies and partners will likely come and go. We will make deft and shrewd moves, and we will also miscalculate at times. We will have to make hard choices with tough consequences on any path. For instance, I am conflicted over how much I care about “inflaming the Islamic world” if the cost is a belligerent Iran armed with nuclear weapons and fueling a local nuclear arms race. We will have Presidents and administrations that the bar of history will judge as being too hard, too soft, and hopefully a few who were just right. Innocents will lose their lives on both sides and we will be discouraged as a result. All this will happen. But hopefully, as in the Cold War, we can steer a generally reliable course over the long run towards marginalizing the appeal and capabilities of Islamic terrorist groups and their fellow travelers.
All this might seem a bit gloomy. Yet, there is much from which to draw hope and inspiration during this long conflict with Islamic terrorism and extremism. First, there are the men and women on the front lines. I’ve visited with both American and allied front line law enforcement, intelligence, and military forces from the National Counterterrorism Center through to North Africa, the whole Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Indonesia and right on down to Jolo Island in the Southern Philippines. The work they are doing in all these places, and the risks they are running to keep us and our partners safe, is awe inspiring. I’ve also talked with Imams from the Arabian Peninsula to India and also draw some strength from their understanding of how their polities must confront a culture of victimization and revenge and murderous radicals among Islam’s followers.
But most of all, I draw inspiration from the Americans I went to work with on September 17, 2001. On that day, the Monday after 9/11, the city authorities let those of us who lived or worked in downtown Manhattan back in to our offices and apartments for the first time since we were evacuated. The World Trade Center site was still a smoking, twisted, haunting ruin. The acrid smell of death and destruction still hung thick in the air. We moved into lower Manhattan on foot and by ferry, each of us carrying little American flags that were being handed out. Now, downtown New Yorker’s are a tough lot-but even so I was amazed that there was not a word of complaint, no wringing of hands, no more tears or shocked expressions, no self-pity. Instead there was much grumbling, in groups of two’s and three’s, about getting back to work and showing whoever did this that America could not be cowed, terrorized, or beaten. That attitude will sustain us until victory.
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