I am going to make a statement of the obvious, being one of the people heavily involved in the events of 9/11: We didn’t actually know what was going to happen next.
We made a very good stab at trying to understand what might happen, but much that is said now is said with the benefit of hindsight. My own views have changed over the last 10 years, especially now that I have the time to reflect and read, which I didn’t necessarily have in my previous job.
Unquestionably 9/11 was a defining moment, and by that I mean that it had a historical before and after. It caused a fundamental rethink of national security threats and a reordering of national security priorities in the United States, in Britain and elsewhere. It had a huge impact on security, defense and intelligence budgets. It caused a significant change of direction in U.S. foreign policy, and we live with the consequences today in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, to an extent in Iraq and perhaps across the entire Middle East.
It will take a long time for the surface of American society to become even again. Though President Obama has cleverly remolded the rhetoric around what the previous administration called “the war on terror,” he has actually in some respects raised the aggression level against Al Qaeda.
The current administration has approved more “targeted killings,” particularly in northern Pakistan, than the Bush administration, and of course there has been no closure of Guantánamo.
Yet what is surprising 10 years on is the relative failure of violent Islamism to make a more lasting political impact. Few of us would have predicted this failure at the time.
Al Qaeda began with the idea of purging Saudi Arabia of “infidels”; it then came up with a complex political model of a caliphate. What we are seeing instead — and I stress that my comments are personal — is a resurgence of moderate Islam and moderate Islamist parties. These groups are now apparently arguing for the very democratic values and individual rights that Al Qaeda was so opposed to. This can be seen in what is happening today in Tunisia, in Egypt, in the sort of things that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is saying and doing.
Suddenly we have a different narrative — a narrative to which the Qaeda leadership is violently opposed — making the political and social weather across the Middle East. Al Qaeda to an extent is on its back foot. And intelligence has proven effective in blunting its efforts over the past decade.
Let me focus briefly on that: The first point is that effective counterintelligence work is highly dependent on working with other agencies both domestically and internationally; it requires unprecedented international and domestic cooperation.
To be sure, that has raised issues of dealing with governments and legal systems different from our own, and particularly with partners whose views of human rights are different from ours. Intelligence agencies operate under a system of political clearance, and it is the responsibility of government ministers to decide what the scope of that cooperation should be in the face of clashes of interest or clashes of legality.
For example, any future exchange of information with the Russians, after the Alexander Litvinenko affair, is clearly a political decision for the government. We were cooperating quite extensively with the Russians until we had this serious bilateral problem. A potentially valuable relationship has become quite difficult to handle for political reasons.
I want to add that I rather resent the suggestions I’ve heard that our relationship with Muammar el-Qaddafi was “cozy.” No, it was uncomfortable, difficult and pragmatic. It was a political decision, after having significantly disarmed Libya, for the government to cooperate with the Libyans on Islamist terrorism. The whole relationship was one of serious calculation about where the overall balance of our national interests stood.
Another challenge in fighting terrorism has been the need to work with intelligence that I would call highly mosaic. It requires locking many small pieces together to form a coherent picture. It requires extracting value from massive data flows, filtering out large quantities of irrelevant and useless material.
Yet another challenge is dealing with what I call “non-organizations.” Collecting intelligence on organizations that have organograms, telephone directories or papers in safes is relatively straightforward.
Dealing with transient conspiracies that are based around charismatic individuals, whose members come together like flocks of birds and disperse, creates huge difficulties. Sources can be very temporary and short-lived.
There is also the question of when to intervene. We can’t just sit there and amass intelligence and increase our understanding, as we did in the Cold War on the Soviet military. Now we actually have to do something with it. We have to plan for the catastrophe, for the possibilities of something truly dreadful happening.
Now, back to Al Qaeda, and its crisis of credibility. I believe Al Qaeda made a tactical and strategic error in trying to fight the U.S. military in Iraq, which it did with a substantial number of foreign fighters. Al Qaeda had a vision of taking on the American military in Iraq, but once the United States got its act together, the Sunni tribal chiefs decided to support the Americans, and the war only accelerated Al Qaeda’s decline. From its point of view, Al Qaeda would have been far better off concentrating on terror attacks.
We also must be careful when we talk about Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda is not the Taliban. Its relationship with the Pashtun Taliban has always been an alliance of convenience, and their agendas do not really match. I don’t want to give Al Qaeda more advice, but if they have one objective in Afghanistan it should be to keep the Taliban away from the negotiating table.
Negotiations are a two-way process. The I.R.A. in Ireland is a classic example of moving from terrorism to a political solution. Similarly, it is possible to negotiate, say, with Basques — or the Taliban. But Al Qaeda has no realistic political agenda, it is entirely rejectionist. Theirs is a confrontation of beliefs and values. So it is the right thing to do, despite the risks, to go out on the front foot and meet their threat militantly.
Al Qaeda may well have more very nasty surprises in store. But it is instructive to look at how Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, responded to the phenomenon of the Arab Spring and the Arab Awakening. It took Al Qaeda a long time to make any statement, and when a statement came it condemned the aspirations to democracy and rejected the secular character of the uprisings. That does not look like the sort of message that will have any potency on the Arab street in the light of what is happening. We have a different narrative, and events in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria should give us hope that it has the greater power.
Of course there is always the danger in a time of revolutionary change that well-organized nonrepresentative groups — by that I mean groups that don’t have democratic credentials — can hijack political developments. I am concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and what its ultimate objectives may be. There is also evidence in Libya of a relatively well organized Islamist group. If Yemen continues to fall apart, it could be highly fertile ground for a movement like Al Qaeda to move into.
But then so could Saudi Arabia. Let me recount an anecdote that illustrates the complexity of what I am talking about. I traveled extensively after 9/11, in part with the prime minister, and also representing the interest of my service. On a visit to Saudi Arabia not long after the event, I was harangued by one of the senior members of the Saudi royal family, who said, “9/11 is a pinprick for the West. You will get over it. It does not threaten your fundamental identity, but it does threaten us. Ultimately we are the targets of these people.”
We have now various strands conflicting with one another, and it is difficult to make sense of the future. Liberal modernity, religious fundamentalism, tribalism, powerful sectarian divisions and failing authoritarian regimes are some of these strands, and against this background counterterrorism is but one tool among several — and not the dominant one any longer.
The success of the electoral process in Tunisia should give us some cause for optimism. But the political vacuums that follow behind long-serving dictators when they are forced from office are susceptible to being filled initially by politicians whose appeal is sectional and who have had no incentive and no opportunity to develop a broad political base. The acid test for those countries of the Arab Spring now facing elections will be the ability of their politicians to put themselves at the head of formations or parties that are not defined by their ethnicity, tribe or religion.
That process could take several years. Meanwhile, holding at bay the extremists while building successful civil societies with better justice, more representation and economic opportunities for all will be difficult, with unavoidable setbacks, but nonetheless achievable if there is a broad and assertive consensus about the general direction in which these countries now wish to travel.
I see the return of politics to the Middle East after a long period of stasis. Obviously this will affect how intelligence services view the area and view the problems. Violent political Islam has not become the catalyst for change and crisis in the way I expected it to become after 9/11.
Despite all the dangers and risks — and the fact there will be further terror incidents, some of them no doubt serious — Al Qaeda is no longer the focus, and I doubt it will ever again be at the center of our attentions. I think we are moving on.
By Richard Dearlove, head of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) from 1999 to 2004, and now the master of Pembroke College, Cambridge. This article is adapted from a talk he gave to the Henry Jackson Society.