Osama bin Laden didn’t live to see the 10th anniversary of September 11. And his organization, according to many U.S. government insiders, is on its last legs since his death at the hands of U.S. Special Forces in May. “We’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently observed. Others disagree, pointing to the strength of al-Qaeda in Yemen.
Both sides are wrong. In fact, al-Qaeda had lost its battle even before September 11, 2001. For all the pain and suffering that the terrorist attacks caused Americans, al-Qaeda’s mission wasn’t focused on the United States, but rather on transforming the Muslim world. The Muslim world, however, wasn’t listening. Only 10 years later, with the turmoil of the Arab Spring still ongoing and the United States slowly and painfully trying to extricate itself from the quagmires in which it got drawn, can we finally begin to understand the larger significance of 9/11.
Al-Qaeda was certainly devoted to rolling back U.S. influence in the Islamic world, particularly in Saudi Arabia. But its primary audience was Muslims. Its radical objective of recreating a global caliphate was part of a debate on how to engage with modernity that has been taking place among Muslims for at least 150 years.
Except for a few marginal groups — the Taliban in Afghanistan and some small non-state actors like Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan — al-Qaeda lost this debate before September 11. The Muslim world, from conservative Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia to radical Marxists in the Palestinian liberation movement, had definitively embraced nation-states and the international system. The fraction of the Muslim world that embraced violent means to rebuild a world based on Sharia law was getting progressively smaller.
Indeed, the Muslim world not only rejected al-Qaeda, it embraced the terrorist organization’s antithesis. Even before the dramatic and non-violent events that ousted authoritarian leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, a remarkable Gandhian tradition had sprung up in the Muslim world — from civil disobedience in Palestine to a largely peaceful transition of power in Indonesia.
Al-Qaeda’s resort to dramatic spectacle was at once a brilliant tactic and a desperate effort to revive its own fortunes. Some portion of the Muslim world did rally around al-Qaeda for a brief period, but only to protest U.S. occupation policies — first the presence of U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia, then in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, Osama bin Laden’s support in the Muslim world fell steadily from 2003 through 2011. The use of suicide bombers to advance al-Qaeda’s aims, like the last-ditch efforts of the Japanese kamikazes, only underscored the movement’s marginality.
Ironically it has been the United States and its ill-conceived response to 9/11 that has sustained al-Qaeda’s reputation. Osama bin Laden wanted the United States to respond with a crusade, and the United States obliged him. To the extent that this crusade continues — with, for instance, the Obama administration’s escalation of drone attacks across a broad swath of the Muslim world — the narrow, anti-occupation mission of al-Qaeda retains a measure of popularity. But its very raison d’etre of challenging the modern international system has failed.
Ten years after 9/11, the world continues to debate about economic and political models. As in the 1930s, global capitalism teeters on the brink. Democracy is looking sclerotic, corrupt, or unrepresentative in too many countries . Even in this chaotic environment, al-Qaeda has failed to thrive. The Arab Spring protestors in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and elsewhere want more democracy and more connection to the modern world, not less. The prospect of turning the clock back to the 7th century AD appeals to very few Muslims.
By continuing to fight a chimera called radical Islam, the United States helps to sustain it. Yes, there are imams and jihadists who want a global caliphate, but the Muslim world generally ignores them. A decade after 9/11, it’s time not only to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s time to end the war with al-Qaeda and its minions — a war they lost even before we entered the battlefield.