Al-Qa'ida is back. Dispersed by the worldwide security crackdown that followed 11 September, it has regrouped. In selecting soft targets where it can inflict the maximum loss of civilian life and economic damage, it has not changed its basic strategy or goals. The attacks in Bali, Saudi Arabia and now Morocco, and the continuing alert in Kenya, show that the first truly global terrorist network is still in business.
The threat is real, and it is not going away. Western leaders talk of defeating terrorism, but – as recent events in Northern Ireland remind us – it is rarely decisively defeated. It can be subdued and contained, but usually only after many years of patient diplomacy and intensive security measures. Dealing with terror requires resolute action, sometimes involving difficult trade-offs between personal freedom and the security of society as a whole. Counter-terrorism is never easy.
In the case of al-Qa'ida the task is made harder by the aftermath of war in Iraq. With no sign of the weapons of mass destruction that were used to justify the war, it is now being defended as a way of spreading liberal values in the Middle East, but the result has been to inflict another bitter humiliation on the Arab world. An entire generation of Muslims is growing up convinced that peace between Islam and the West is an impossible dream.
It is a belief reinforced by prevailing Western attitudes. For most Western observers, al-Qa'ida is a throwback to the medieval Islamic past. According to this view, radical Islam is a by-product of the failure of Islamic countries to emulate the successes of the West. Once Islamic countries join the West, terrorism will be cut off at the root. This is a dangerous position to take, for it means that the only way forward for the Arab world is to shed its traditions and become like the West. It is also self-deluding, for the idea that the world can be transformed by terror is not a peculiarly Islamic aberration. On the contrary, it is distinctively Western.
From the Jacobins through Lenin and Stalin to the Baader-Meinhof gang, the modern West has spawned ideologies and movements that sanction the use of terror to make a better world. Even the Nazis, who perpetrated the worst genocide in history, believed that they were creating a new and superior type of human being. However horrible their utopian vision, all these movements believed they could create a future better than anything that had existed in the past by the systematic use of violence. A1-Qa'ida has more in common with these modern Western experiments in terror than it does with anything in Islamic traditions.
Like other revolutionaries, Osama bin Laden looks to the past when he promises to revive the medieval Caliphate. Yet his utopian vision of the future – a harmonious world in which the traditional institutions of government are no longer necessary – is an echo of 19th-century European anarchism. Like the anarchists, Bin Laden believes that corrupt power structures can be destroyed by acts of spectacular violence. Like them, he imagines that such wilful violence can transform the human condition. When he calls on his followers to remake the world through terror he speaks in a modern Western voice.
The idea that al-Qa'ida can be eradicated by converting the Islamic world to Western modernity ignores the fact that revolutionary terror is a product of the modern West. At the same time it strengthens radical Islam by denying that Muslim countries can find their own ways of being modern. There are many theories of modernisation, but the truth is that no one can know in advance what it means. Japan became a modern society towards the end of the 19th century by grafting borrowings from the West on to its indigenous culture. Today China is doing much the same. In contrast, when countries try to modernise by transplanting crude Western models – as Russia did when it embraced communism and later the cult of the free market – they usually find that they are unworkable. The most successful countries do not seek to copy the West, but rather to find a path that suits their unique history, circumstances and needs.
For all their failings, that is what moderate Arab governments have been struggling to do for decades. A1-Qa'ida threatens them as much as Western countries, if not more so. They know how difficult it is to fight radical Islam. They are not helped by American policies that promote instability in the region in pursuit of callow dreams of instant, Western-style democracy.
The irony of the American invasion of Iraq is that it could well be the trigger for another experiment in theocratic democracy. The predictable result of destroying the regime of Saddam Hussein – a secular state modelled on the former Soviet Union – has been to leave radical Islam the most powerful political force in the country. In the near-anarchy that prevails in most of the country, only the mullahs have anything like legitimacy. The interim government – the upper levels of which have been reshuffled after only a few weeks – is a shambles. It is not just that the occupying forces lack the manpower to protect the cities from anarchy. Worse, it is clear the Americans lack the skills that are needed for such an operation.
As an occupying power, the US needs to show at least a minimal concern for the people over whom it claims to rule. In fact, US forces are insulating themselves from the population and treating ordinary Iraqis as potential enemies. However hypocritically, the US needs to show some respect for the culture of the country it claims to be liberating, but American troops stood by idly while Iraq's treasures were ransacked. British forces have been incomparably more skilful, but they are not in the driving seat. Having put itself in the position of a colonial power in Iraq, the US has demonstrated that it has no idea how to govern like one.
There can be little doubt that the mix of anarchy and resurgent Islam in post-war Iraq has come as a nasty surprise to the Bush administration. Fed on dubious emigré intelligence and neo-conservative fantasies about America's popularity in the country, it seems to have expected that a friendly regime would emerge quickly and easily following the collapse of the Baathist state. With a compliant government in place, it believed the US could afford to slim down its forces. By now the Bush administration must know these hopes were groundless, but its geopolitical objectives will not permit it to exit from Iraq. Its chief goal in invading the country was to secure control of Iraq's oil so as to be able to withdraw from Saudi Arabia. This has been achieved, but at a cost much higher than any contemplated before the war. The US will be compelled to retain a large military presence, which is likely to find itself the target of a dirty, guerrilla-style war waged by an increasingly hostile and radicalised population.
The effect of the American invasion of Iraq on the Middle East has been to set back indigenous modernisation – the only kind that really works – for a generation. By seeking to impose a single model of modern development on the region, it has acted as the recruiting agent for revolutionary terror. Al-Qa'ida is not so much a revolt against the modern world as a symptom of its intractable conflicts. We should not be surprised that it is back. With its radical utopianism and boundless faith in the human will, al-Qa'ida belongs in our world, not the medieval past. Fighting it demands unflinching courage and determination. It also requires the humility that comes from understanding that the dreams which fuel al-Qa'ida are not as foreign to us as we – and they – like to believe.
John Gray's book 'Al Qaeda and What It Means To Be Modern' is published by Faber & FaberReuse content