“I watched 9/11 unfold in the office of The Observer,” says Jason Burke, one of the UK’s foremost experts on Al-Qaeda and currently South Asia correspondent for The Guardian.
“I was just back from Algeria,” he says. “I stood in front of the TV watching the first tower burning, then watched the second plane go in. I turned to the deputy editor and said ‘that’s Bin Laden’. He told me to get a satellite phone and some money and get to the airport.”
That’s exactly what the he did, spending the next decade writing from the front line of the post-9/11 conflicts, including two critically lauded books, Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam and On the Road to Kandahar: Travels through Conflict in the Islamic World.
The 41-year-old’s latest tome, The 9/11 Wars, looks back at the violence of the past decade, offering an insight into the conflict from the perspective of the local and the regional. As he puts it: “seeing things for myself”.
It’s an understanding on the conflict built from meeting hundreds if not thousands of participants across the globe.
“Repeatedly in these encounters, whether it was failed suicide bombers, Iraqi militants or western intelligent specialists, I kept having difficulty reconciling the individual with the general, and particularly the local with the global,” says Burke, sitting at a coffee table in central London.
The author, originally from North London and now based in New Delhi, admits that tackling ten years, particularly a decade so scarred by violence, was a difficult task. The book’s arc progresses through the aftermath of 9/11; the escalation of violence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Europe; and the years post the European attacks, which saw a gradual change in western policy.
“The progression in terms of the understanding of Al-Qaeda over the last ten years has been absolutely phenomenal,” he points out. “And central to that greater understanding has been the disaggregation of Al-Qaeda from being the global organisation with tentacles everywhere, led by a single figure, to being something far more diverse with a whole variety of local manifestations.”
Within days of the Twin Towers collapsing, Al-Qaeda had been morphed in the public consciousness into an all-encompassing terror network, a religious SPECTRE with bin Laden orchestrating the chaos from his Tora Bora redoubt.
“That global vision has slowly been broken down,” says Burke, arguing that by viewing Al-Qaeda as a local phenomenon, the West was able to refine its understanding and apply counterterrorism measures that were far more bespoke.
“Much of the thinking within the counterterrorist community is now about the individual, it’s about the particular circumstances or courses of events that takes a person into radicalism or radical violence. We’re no longer talking about global profiling. What we are talking about is real granularity – hierarchies, flat networks and the mechanics of individuals.”
While reporting abroad Burke saw that it wasn’t the global narratives that were determining events, but local factors – communities, families, brothers…
“Most terrorist or militant attacks used local materials, perpertrated by local people operating only a couple of hours travel from their homes. Yes, 9/11. Yes, a couple of other major international events. But 99 per cent of the violence is rooted in communities, often intra-community.”
Burke sips his water before launching into a dissection of the causes of the conflict:
“Let’s look at what this conflict is really about. Is it about Islam versus West? Is it about good versus evil? Is it about these meta-narratives that ideologically driven thinkers on all the sides were trying to impose? Or is it about people and their reactions to certain contexts and certain situations?”
I ask why the West, its commentators and its governments (Samuel Huntington’s ‘The Clash Of Civilisations‘ became required reading post 9/11) were so eager to bolt a grand narrative onto the conflict.
“I think it’s a hangover from the Cold War,” he says, “but also after a massive shock you seek simple answers because a complicated answer is not particularly morally or intellectually satisfying.”
The West played along with Al-Qaeda’s framing, a narrative staggering in its lack of sophistication.
“There was a very strong influence from the evangelical Christianity in the States, which fed into that framing,” Burke adds.
The reasons underpinning America’s eagerness to engage post 9/11 remains an open debate, but the US didn’t act alone in Afghanistan and Iraq. Britain was in lock step and the evangelical argument doesn’t carry across the Atlantic.
“No, but Blair brought liberal humanitarian interventionism to the equation, which looking back seems just as dated.”
In regards to Afghanistan, Burke argues that Western strategy has made a couple of distinct shifts, from “ridding the world of terrorist training camps”; a move the author says was “long overdue”, to creating “a liberal pluralist democracy with a free market system”. Finally, around 2006, Western doctrine decided that it was to be “none of the above”.
The author also witnessed what he calls a “similar ratcheting down of expectations and of objectives” in Iraq. In both countries, by 2006, the early idealism was on its way out and by 2008, following Obama’s election, it had completely gone… so much so that the Taliban “are now being rapidly rehabilitated as partners for peace”.
“Earlier,” insists Burke, “though a lot was pegged on that election. By 2009 a lot of people thought the core problem in Afghanistan was the government’s legitimacy.”
Karzai was first elected in 2004 with around 55 per cent of the vote. However his subsequent term was characterised by charges of corruption and a growing disquiet about civilian casualties. By the end of the term, he was deeply unpopular.
“The Americans and the British thought if they could get a legitimate government in Kabul, that legitimacy would trickle down. What actually happened was a total catastrophe. Karzai screwed things up horribly.”
“Following the election, the West was forced to do a quick re-messaging. The line was now ‘this is what happens in Afghanistan, this is still the best we’ve got, now we’re moving forward with our Afghan partners’.
Moving forward, for the West, meant out of the door as quickly as possible. “This is pretty much where we are now,” he adds. “So the election was key, but it came against a backdrop of on going change.”
Within the book, Burke characterises the problem of extremism as “a complex fusion of the secular and the religious that’s extremely difficult to counter.” It’s an unusual charge, as secularism is often perceived to be one of the principle targets of the extremists.
“Violent Islamist rhetoric was influenced by the revolutionary ideologies of the 20th Century,” he says, citing the impact of Nazism and revolutionary communism on the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic thinkers.
They also share similar structures,” he says. “What does radical Islam do? It takes a situation, it explains what’s gone wrong and it gives you a programme for a solution. You don’t really need to think. It gives you all the answers, just like revolutionary communism or Marxism.”
“What bin Laden did was to fuse very contemporary concerns – oil, Israel, Palestine, human rights – with a revolutionary Islamic violent methodology, along with a lot of mythical references, which are enormously potent in terms of identity baggage. He talked about the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols, and he talked about the crusades. These are all fantastic push button issues.”
“Terrorism is not about massive organisations,” he continues apace, “and it’s not about psychopaths. It’s also not about starving people or revolution. It’s about pairs or small groups of people egging each other on. It’s a social activity like anything else. Yes – it’s abhorrent and morally unjustifiable, but it’s not that dissimilar to robbing a bank.”
“People get sucked into it. If you look at the interrogations of British militants, the leaders of the groups were using the same type of arguments criminals use: ‘If we go down you’re coming down with us’ and ‘if you go to the cops, we’re all going to go down’. It’s like the mafia… not in terms of mailing body parts, but a shared understanding of how things work.”
The author is also quick to dismiss a link between poverty and terrorism. “We’ve seen violence from very poor people, we’ve seen violence from extremely rich people and lots in between.”
Two chapters are devoted to what in retrospect appears to be the nadir of the decade, the years 2005 and 2006. Following the Madrid bombings (2004), the murder of Theo Van Gogh (2004), the London bombings (2005), the riots in Paris (2005), the failed transatlantic bomb plot (2006) and the Danish cartoon affair (2005), he concedes that, at the time, Europe looked like it was on the precipice. However, reporting on the unrest in Paris, Burke was confronted with a phenomenon far removed from militant Islam.
“In three weeks I didn’t hear a single religious slogan, or see any religious graffiti. There was simply no religious element on the ground.”
“The people who were rioting were largely non-Muslim. The main slogan of the rioters was that hardy perennial of urban violence, ‘fuck the police’.”
Yet at the time, the notion of Europe falling to a Muslim hoard gained ground on the right in the US, while Oriana Fallaci’s book ‘The Force Of Reason‘ had their European counterparts in a similar flap.
“It was all hysterically overblown,” says Burke. “There was no massive radicalisation of European Muslims. That is important, as Al-Qaeda was unable to recruit. The first stage of their plan was the spectacular propaganda attack; the second stage was the mass roll out of that violence.”
Around that time Al-Qaeda started to lose support in Muslim countries, especially when violence was being perpetrated on Muslim soil.
“The best example is the 2005 bombing of the hotels in Amman,” he says. “Prior to the bombings, approval ratings in Muslim countries for Bin Laden, Musab al-Zarqawi and suicide bombing was up around 60-80 per cent. Immediately after the bombings, that went down to 15-20 per cent. The Al-Qaeda strategy… not only failed to gain new recruits, but was undermining its own strategic aim with every step it took forward.”
Al-Qaeda began to face similar problems in Iraq. In the west of the country, the Sunnis ended up aligned to the US, after Al-Qaeda started appropriating “the rackets, which fed the power of the local sheiks.”
Which brings Burke back to his original thesis, that of the local versus the global:
“The Al-Qaeda ideology and package is disrespectful of local differences. In the end most people just have their communities – there’s no global narrative. They’re just getting on with their daily life – individuals, families… The bloke who lives down the road, asking whether he can get water or not, whether he’s proud of being who he feels he is – an Iraqi, an Arab, a Sunni, a Muslim, a father, a tribal chief or whoever. These are the drivers behind those critical decisions as to whom he is fighting.”
I ask if he think another major attack, one on the scale of 9/11, is likely.
“There might be another attack, but there might not be,” he says. “That uncertainty is what the whole security industry gravy train runs on.”
The author points to another shift in thinking: “These days, the US seems less preoccupied with how to protect itself against a terrorist attack and more concerned with how to be resilient when a terrorist attack occurs.”
Speaking to veteran journalist Bob Woodward in 2010, President Obama said:
“We can absorb a terrorist attack… we’ll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever… we absorbed it and we are stronger.”
“It was an extraordinary statement,” says Burke. “He’s right, of course. The US could absorb four or five. It would have its impact but one of the most astonishing things about the American economy, with its massive deficit and all its structural problems, is that over the past ten years it has managed to pay for two trillion dollar wars.”
“You have to remember that the insurance costs for Hurricane Katrina and the recent Japanese Tsunami are many, many times greater than those of 9/11. That’s the power of terrorism… to terrorise is to make people fear something disproportionately.”
I start to ask the author about more recent events… “bin Laden dying offers a sense of narrative closure,” he says, interrupting. “It is easy to be mistaken about these things… but there is a sense that what’s happening with the Arab Spring is the start of something different, a new cycle.”
It’s an optimistic tone on which to end, but not before Burke adds one last note of caution:
“Watch out for social conservatism. Western portrayals of the Middle East and places like Pakistan can be very misrepresentative. Western journalists, myself included, very often allow the educated, elite English speaking voices to dominate, giving the impression that they’re representative of much of their society.”
“So you end up with a view of a country made up of either extremists or moderates. The majority middle ground doesn’t get heard. And that majority middle ground is often socially conservative, religiously conservative, deeply anti-American and deeply anti-Western. I think it is going to be very interesting to watch in the coming years.”