The War Might be Over, but ‘Yesterday’s Problem’ has Not Gone Away

Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2001. Courtesy of Hamid Mir/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Two decades on from 9/11, the West faces a continuing threat from Islamist terrorism, as well as the question of how to deal with the Taliban and other entities which reject the Western narrative.

It is impossible to put a positive spin on the US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, concluding as it did in a retreat to an airfield, the surrender of huge amounts of materiel, and a terrorist attack from a global Islamist group which did not exist 10 years ago. There is no shortage of commentary, nor of analysis on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Where does all this leave us? What more is there left to be said?


It has been so long since 9/11 that we are in danger of forgetting why we are fighting – or at least becoming a little confused. But the terrorists have not: they are an adversary with a crystal-clear doctrine and a long-term plan. They are remarkably consistent, whereas we are not. It is worth re-reading Osama bin Laden’s plentiful interviews and statements from the 1990s, which show the development and adaptability of the ‘single narrative’. He was absolutely single-minded about his purpose: a call for jihad against Jews and Americans to expel the unbelievers from the Land of the Two Holy Mosques and to liberate Palestine. In 1996, he told Al-Quds Al-Arabi that ‘Arab land has either been occupied or there is a conspiracy to occupy it. For the first time since the Prophet’s death atheists are occupying [the] Mecca, Medina and al-Aqsa Mosques’. Buoyed by a story of the oppression of Islam and the defiance of the Islamic jihadist fighter, the single narrative became a continuous historical line linking successful battles against larger and more powerful armies in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Bosnia, Chechnya, Somalia, Iraq and Algeria. This absorbs and is reshaped every time new conflicts are added: Iraq (again), Syria, Afghanistan (again). The awful scenes of the evacuation of Kabul were presaged in bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of jihad against the US, in which he stated with reference to Somalia that ‘your impotence and weakness were evident’.

His ‘letter to the American people’ of 2002 posed and answered two questions: ‘Why are we fighting and opposing you? What are we calling you to, and what do we want from you?’ The answer to the first was simple: ‘Because you attacked us and continue to attack us’. The answer to the second turns its attention to what is wrong with the West in itself: ‘We call you to Islam; the last religion that has replaced all the previous religions; the religion of good manners, sincerity, mercy, fear of Allah, kindness to others, justice between people, giving rights to people who deserve them, and protection of people from oppressors and unjust acts; the religion which calls upon its followers to “enjoin the good” and “forbid the evil” with hand, tongue and heart’. He is scathing about the West: ‘It is saddening to tell you that you are the worst civilization witnessed by the history of mankind’. A core belief is that Western society is decadent and must be saved by Islam; the objective is to eliminate what is considered to be depraved in order to create something better and purer.

Even if the groups change shape, there is a clear consistency about this message. When Islamic State erupted onto the scene in Iraq and Syria, it was utterly committed to the purification of the world (through the murder of vast numbers of people), returning civilisation to the seventh century, and ultimately bringing about the apocalypse through the fulfilment of the prophecies. These same narratives were echoed in a recent BBC report from Balkh, Afghanistan, which quoted Ainuddin, a madrassa student who is now a Taliban local military commander, as saying: ‘they are not giving up Western culture… so we have to kill them [...] We had a government and it was overthrown. They [the Americans] started the fighting’. The announcement by the Taliban of the abolition of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the formation of the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (‘enjoin the good and forbid the evil’) shows the absolute consistency in adherence to this core principle.

Western governments struggle to match this consistency. We do not have a neat doctrine; while we are deeply committed to democracy, we do not have fixity of purpose and instead take a fluctuating, imprecise, seasonal approach. We find it difficult to maintain focus; our cycles of planning and action and the terrorists’ cycles of planning and action are syncopated. They are at their weakest and most disorganised when they are under sustained pressure, but there is no evidence that they have ever been under so much pressure that they have given up, so we cannot conclude that a decline in attacks means that the threat has gone away. It takes real commitment to be actively counter-cyclical – to find a way to maintain situational awareness, capabilities and focus despite a reduction in resource. As Malcolm Chalmers wrote recently, even if NATO or the EU had the capability, no other country has indicated that it would be prepared to fill the gap left by the US. The will to fight has gone – but not the fight.

Islamist terrorism has always been, and will continue to be, a foreign policy issue. Events in Afghanistan, the Middle East and North Africa ought to make us think again about foreign policy and diplomacy. We have taken terrorism very seriously as a threat, but not as seriously as a foreign policy challenge. And yet this sits right alongside the biggest diplomatic challenge of our age: how does the West develop a way of coexisting with parts of the world where people simply have different ideas about how things should be done? In this sense it is no different to the question of how to deal with China, yet one is seen as the highest form of statecraft while the other is relegated to a security matter – albeit one with enormous resource. There should be the same diplomatic esteem and effort given to both. For countries on the fault lines, such as Pakistan and Turkey, the War on Terror has been pivotal to foreign policy posture. The next phase in Afghanistan’s history will be decided by countries with very different self-interest equations to those of the US.

According to the Economist, between 2010 and 2020, US drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen killed somewhere between 9,000 and 17,000 people, including as many as 2,200 civilians (figures collected by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism). Raids by special forces killed many more. Between 2015 and 2018, the US and its Afghan allies killed more than 11,000 Islamic State Khorasan Province members. These figures demonstrate that the opponent in this ‘War on Terror’ was never a small terrorist group but is a living, shifting idea passed from one generation to the next, in diverse geographies and cultures.

Management of this phenomenon will require, in part, a military solution: suppression works, in that it can cripple a group’s operational capabilities and disrupt command and control. It has now become an orthodoxy that suppression is necessary but not enough, and that the wider causes of instability and grievance need to be addressed in parallel. This could be paraphrased as: a) military action to suppress the worst threat, and b) ‘de-radicalisation and disengagement’ through development assistance and tailored programmes. But a plan which involves bombing terrorists on the one hand and then de-radicalising them on the other leaves a chasm in the middle, which is where we work out how to develop a kind of coexistence – a means of continuing to live – with millions of people who do not share the same values and worldview, and whose lives are shaped by a different belief system. They have rejected the assumption that the Western formula for statehood is desirable. Suddenly, de-radicalisation and disengagement seems a woefully inadequate solution.

Let us not forget that terrorism is distinguished in law from murder by the fact that it is a political act: it must be for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause. Setting aside the question about whether it is right to seek to ‘rehabilitate’ people from their political or religious views, we must accept that attempting to change what people believe can be a naïve – if not misguided – endeavour. With the resurgence of the Taliban, we will be confronted yet again with the question of how to relate to political Islam, which is of course not the same as terrorism, but is often seen as a harbinger and can be inimical to Western values. It is most definitely not going away.


Common sense dictates that this requires local solutions, tailored to local grievances, sensitively implemented while somehow avoiding local politics. If we are going to avoid this lasting for the next 20 years, we will also need a genuine step-change in partnership, between countries and within them. The international community has not worked together as effectively as it could; and there are underlaps and overlaps between states and multinational bodies. We have not addressed vital legal questions which might enable action against terrorists and hold them to account for their actions. The continued existence of the Islamic State camps in Northeast Syria is an awful case in point: individual countries cannot cope with the complexity of the challenge, and international organisations do not believe it is their responsibility; meanwhile, terrorists are not held to account for their crimes and a new generation of jihadis is born. It is time for real diplomatic engagement twinned with a sustained counterterrorist effort, to enable the next generation to catch the terrorists before they act; to ensure they are unable to act with impunity (to develop routes to prosecution); to enable people within our societies to challenge and to help; and to provide alternative options for individuals who would otherwise turn to terrorism. We must deal with yesterday’s problem – Islamist terrorism – which persists, and today’s problem: how we deal with the Taliban and other entities which reject the Western narrative.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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