The End of the War on Terror
Noah Feldman, legal scholar and one of Esquire's 75 most influential people of the twenty-first century, on the end of Al Qaeda. And what happens next.
The unbelievable luck that the terrorists enjoyed on the morning of September 11 would be enough to make anyone doubt the existence of a just God--unless, of course, that person was Osama bin Laden. · It wasn't just the terrorists' amazing operational success. It wasn't even the unforeseen collapse of the World Trade Center towers, an event biblical, or rather Koranic, in its horror and global visibility. No, from the perspective of Al Qaeda, the truest sign of divine providence must have been the American reaction to the attacks. Bin Laden was a liar. And we made it look as though he'd been telling the truth all along. · Seven years later, we've lost more than forty-five hundred soldiers, had perhaps ten times that number seriously injured, and spent $1 trillion. We've given the world, including China, a detailed blueprint of our military weaknesses. We've made Guantánamo a household word for lawlessness and turned Saddam's torture center at Abu Ghraib into a global symbol of our own amateurish talent for the inhuman. At home, we've sacrificed some of our freedoms and core beliefs--on wiretaps and surveillance, on habeas corpus and the treatment of immigrants--on the doubtful post-9/11 theory that our Constitution needs to be bent to keep us safe.
Yet war is politics by other means, and the point of this war for both sides has always been to win over the Muslim public. Which is why this war is coming to an end. Not because of anything America's done, but because Al Qaeda is managing to defeat itself.
The terrorists have grown too comfortable and adept at killing, first Americans, now innocent Muslim bystanders, hundreds and hundreds, scores at a time. It's enough to make the Muslim public decide the jihadists are worse than the occupiers. In the long run, it's enough to convince Muslims that terrorism and the sheltering of terrorists hasn't achieved its goals or made their lives better.
When the war does end, the real work for America will begin. We'll have to sift through the wreckage of failed U. S. policy and decide how to move forward. As winners not by victory but by forfeit.
To understand this penultimate moment, you need to go back to the very beginning.
According to Islamic legal tradition, there are two different kinds of jihad. The first, offensive jihad, is when you seek out the infidel, offer him the opportunity to become a Muslim, and conquer him if he declines. That is how Muhammad and his successors went from obscure sect to global empire. Osama bin Laden has never called for an offensive jihad, probably because he knows no one would listen to him.
Defensive jihad, on the other hand, is the obligation of every able-bodied male Muslim to protect Muslim land from foreign invaders: all for one and one for all. In Afghanistan, the Soviet occupation offered bin Laden a textbook opportunity to fulfill this duty, and when the Soviets fell, he and the other foreign jihadists who had traveled there to fight were instantly branded as heroes. They hadn't just followed the classic defensive-jihad script; they'd proven that it worked.
Having found his purpose, bin Laden immediately set out to join another defensive jihad, and he wasn't picky. He even proposed to the Saudi government that he be allowed to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, since Saddam was a bad Muslim, and that was enough for bin Laden.
When the Saudis told him thanks but no thanks, bin Laden started looking at them for the bad-Muslim role. And when the Saudis opened their doors to U. S. troops to defeat Saddam and guarantee their continued security, bin Laden figured he had them. He argued that Saudi Arabia was now under foreign occupation by the Americans, making the United States a legitimate target.
There was only one big problem: It wasn't true. The Saudi royal family had invited the Americans into their country to serve Saudi interests. And far from occupying or trying to rule, the U. S. soldiers stayed huddled on their bases. They were so eager not to give offense, they didn't even celebrate Christmas in public. If this was a crusade, as bin Laden maintained, it was the wimpiest crusade in human history.
As a man who expressed himself almost exclusively in terms of Islamic religious obligation, bin Laden had to know there were no grounds for defensive jihad against America. Yet he wanted a fight. He was gambling that latent anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world was so high that the details of whether America was actually a legitimate target wouldn't matter.
In the first week after 9/11, it wasn't looking good for bin Laden. There was no great outpouring of Muslim support for the attacks. No inspired Middle Easterners rose up against their own unjust governments. Instead, condemnations of the 9/11 attacks began to trickle in from throughout the Muslim world. Whether from a Shiite leader or a Sunni imam, the message was the same: Suicide bombings are permitted against Israelis, including women and children, but the bombing of the World Trade Center was beyond the pale. Even for Muslims perfectly comfortable with terrorism as a weapon of defensive jihad, bin Laden had gone too far.
And then we invaded Afghanistan. Initially this was not a good thing for Osama bin Laden. He and the rest of Al Qaeda had to flee. Some were killed, and a few were caught. He lost the operating base he had built with Taliban collusion, and it was pretty much guaranteed he would be a fugitive the rest of his natural life. For the United States, it wasn't the home run that catching bin Laden would have given us. But it was a solid double, the opening of a rally that combined projection of our military power with a reminder to the world that we could not be attacked without consequence.
Unfortunately, like the Soviets before us, we couldn't leave it at that. We were a global superpower (with allies behind us), and a superpower, we told ourselves, couldn't just knock out a regime and then walk away without caring about the consequences. We needed to set up our own government, and we wanted it to rule the country. We wanted it to be at least vaguely democratic, to allow TV (talk about American values), and to permit girls to go to school. All that, it turned out, required more than bearded Special Forces operators. It required an occupation.
From October 2001 until March 2003, as America's occupation grew, bin Laden began to recoup his losses. He became not simply a notorious public figure but a global actor with a gravitas well beyond that of a mere terrorist. When the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated, the U. S. was not in fact the occupier of a Muslim country, whatever bin Laden might have claimed. Yet through the U. S. response--the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, and subsequently Iraq--suddenly it was. Bin Laden was no longer a liar. Now he was a prophet.
The terrorist attacks of the last seven years all need to be understood against this backdrop of Osama's unbelievable luck. The big attacks--London and Madrid in particular--were carried out by local Muslims, immigrants or the children of immigrants, who were motivated by the fact that these countries had troops in Iraq.
Just a few years earlier, these bombings would have seemed inexplicable to Europeans, and probably horrifying to most Muslims in the world. Now they were not only justified by the jihadists, but many of their targets in Europe acknowledged the justification. In Spain, the government even withdrew from active involvement in Iraq.
Meanwhile, in Iraq and Afghanistan terrorist attacks against civilians became daily events, carried out sometimes by locals but more often by foreigners. The terms of terror had changed. No foreign fighters had streamed to Saudi Arabia when bin Laden was claiming that the Arabian Peninsula was under occupation. In Iraq, though, actual occupation had brought an actual jihad.
For a while, this defensive-jihad rationale seemed plausible to many Muslims. Al Qaeda came to be seen as an ally of the Sunni resistance in Iraq, which was fighting both against the U. S. as the occupier and against Iraq's Shiite majority. The perception that the mission was legitimate made the tactics seem legitimate, too.
Gradually, though, something began to change in the way the jihadist terrorists chose their targets. The Americans in Iraq got better at defending themselves, making it harder to attack them directly. Then the jihadists, flush with success and popularity, began to believe they could get away with anything. Instead of targeting non-Muslim occupiers directly, the terrorists began to go after other Muslims.
What opened the floodgates were two spectacular and horrifying mosque bombings, the first in 2003, of the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, and then, more fatefully, in 2006, of the golden dome of the Askariya shrine in Samarra. It was in principle unlawful to target Muslims in a jihad. But, said the jihadists, Shiites weren't real Muslims. And anyway, driving the Shiites into retaliation and triggering a civil war was a good way to get the Americans to leave.
Then, inexorably, Sunnis began killing fellow Sunnis. At first this was thought to be permissible only if they were collaborating with the enemy, such as Sunnis lining up for jobs at a police station. But suicide bombings are hardly a surgical method, and bystanders were killed who were not necessarily collaborators. And the expansion of suicide bombing did not even stop there. The next phase, especially in 2007, was Sunnis killing other Sunnis for no other reason than to cause instability in Iraq. Those Muslim scholars who took the trouble to justify these killings claimed there was no other way to fight this war, and so the ends justified the means.
From Iraq, the strategy spread to Afghanistan and then to Pakistan. Now it was Sunnis killing Sunnis for political advantage in a country where there was no foreign occupation of any kind. More than two dozen suicide-bombing attacks have taken place in Pakistan in the last year alone. The most famous killed former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, along with more than a dozen bystanders. The logic of suicide bombing had now reached its inevitable extreme: One could kill innocent Sunni civilians on purpose if it served the interests of the jihadists, regardless of whether the conditions of defensive jihad actually applied.
When radical jihadism dies out, the Bhutto assassination may well look like the turning point. Al Qaeda is now identified not so much with defensive jihad against foreigners as with injecting suicide bombing into ordinary political struggles, which flatly contradicts fourteen hundred years of Islamic law. The jihadists have weakened Pakistan's already faltering government and so expanded their power in Pakistan's tribal areas and North-West Frontier. But they have alienated the public. In the elections that followed Bhutto's death, Islamist political parties did worse than they had in years.
This sense of Muslim disillusionment has begun to reverberate from Pakistan to Iraq and beyond. Critics hold Al Qaeda responsible not just for deaths caused by their terrorist attacks but also for deaths brought about subsequently by American retaliation.
"Brother Osama, how much blood has been spilled?" Sheik Salman al-Oadah, a radical Saudi cleric formerly sympathetic to bin Laden, exhorted in an open letter last year. "How many innocent children, women, and old people have been killed, maimed, and expelled from their homes in the name of Al Qaeda? . . . What is to be gained from the destruction of entire nations--which is what we are witnessing in Afghanistan and Iraq?"
Two months later, an important jihadist ideologue known by the nom de guerre Dr. Fadl released a ten-part treatise that condemned the killing of innocents as a violation of Islamic law and argued that it was forbidden for Muslims living in Europe to attack civilian targets. Dr. Fadl's work was written from an Egyptian prison, and so his statements have to be treated skeptically. But Al Qaeda took them seriously enough that Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's deputy, replied to them directly.
There is a similar tactical shift happening on the ground. Starting in the second half of 2006, Sunni tribal sheiks in the Anbar province of Iraq decided to turn against Al Qaeda and side with the U. S. and the Iraqi government. This was not because they suddenly decided they liked the Shiites or the Kurds or the Americans. It was because the path of jihad had been a failure of policy, bringing with it only instability and death. The sheiks didn't want war as an end in itself; they wanted security for their people and patronage for themselves. The U. S. and the Iraqi government were prepared to offer these things, so the sheiks decided to switch sides.
The significance of the sheiks' defection is that they turn bin Laden's one true ideological victory--causing the U. S. to become an actual occupying force--into a defeat for Al Qaeda. The sheiks of Anbar, and others, not only blame bin Laden for bringing us into Iraq; they have come to realize that what is standing between them and American withdrawal is not our imperial ambition but the jihadists whose presence is keeping us there. The logical response is therefore not to join the jihad but to take practical steps to make both the jihadists and the occupiers go away.
It is still too soon to say when, exactly, bin Laden will be seen as a pariah. But that day is coming. Radical jihadists have always had a central goal, which is to win over the Muslim public to their side. If they lose their audience, the attacks against the West will decline--and eventually disappear. This does not mean the end of all Islamic terrorism. There will always be small groups acting within Al Qaeda and on their own, and jihad will continue against Israel and others who can be described as foreign invaders. But it will mark the end of the age of terror as we've come to know it.
When that happens, our footprint will lighten abroad, and back at home we'll have to reevaluate what post-9/11 America should look like. We'll never be able to go back to our complacency. We will still need good intelligence, smart surveillance, and hard-hitting operational capacity to make it difficult for terrorists to operate. But we should be able to pull this off without the panic that marred our first efforts. The amateurish torture techniques used in Abu Ghraib can be rejected as both evil and stupid. The next president can close Guantánamo, which never should have been opened. And we can follow the law when it comes to wiretapping and habeas corpus. It turns out that undermining the Constitution doesn't make it easier to fight terror--it makes it much harder.
Perhaps the greatest lesson is that despite the gift we gave bin Laden by becoming occupiers, he ultimately failed to convince the Muslim world to join him on one side of a global jihad. The reason the clash of civilizations never materialized was that at least one side didn't seem that interested in a fight--and it wasn't ours.
As Muslim terrorism against the West dies out, it will be tempting for us to declare victory. This will be a mistake. We haven't won the war on terror, and we certainly haven't won the battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims. Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and the radical jihadists are losing it--in their own way, on their own time.