Twelve and a half years after 9/11, al-Qa’ida-type organisations control an area the size of Britain in western Iraq and eastern Syria. Include Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia and the territory they rule is larger in size than the UK. What is so extraordinary – and blameworthy – is that this vast expansion of jihadi groups comes even as the US, Britain and others are waging a “war on terror”. In the name of such a struggle, great sums have been spent; wars have been fought in Iraq and Afghanistan; civil rights have been curtailed; and torture, rendition, detention without trial and domestic espionage have been justified. But attempts to eliminate the supposed enemy have wholly failed.
It is to consider the roots of this failure that The Independent published a five-part investigation by our distinguished correspondent Patrick Cockburn this week. The aim of the series is to show the extent to which jihadi organisations identical in ideology and methods to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qa’ida have survived, flourished and are now stronger than ever.
This was not an inevitable outcome. Saudi Arabia was crucial to the rise of the original al-Qa’ida: in the attack on the twin towers, 15 out of 19 hijackers were Saudi and the 9/11 Commission Report revealed that Saudi donors were the main financial support for al-Qa’ida. To this day, 28 pages of the report relating to Saudi involvement have never been published. Yet the Bush administration never sought to pin any measure of responsibility on Saudi Arabia, enabling it to go on playing a central role in funding and recruitment for jihadi groups across the Muslim world. Instead, Bush sought to put the blame for 9/11 on Saddam Hussein and Iraq, without the smallest evidence.
Since the start of the Arab Spring the US, Britain and their allies have supported jihadis who appear to be on their side, just as they backed them in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Syrian and Libyan rebel groups much like al-Qa’ida have been viewed tolerantly thanks to their opposition to Gaddafi or Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, the US ambassador to Libya, J Christopher Stevens, paid with his life for Washington underestimating the danger posed by the jihadis with whom America had been co-operating.
A hypocritical aspect of the willingness of the US, Britain and their allies to co-operate with theocratic absolute monarchies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf is the absurd pretence that they want to establish secular democracies in Syria, Libya or Iraq. In addition, there is a sustained unwillingness to admit that the Sunni monarchs are viscerally anti-Shia. Sectarian hate propaganda spews out from Saudi preachers on well-funded satellite television stations, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and through the internet in general.
The reason why Washington, London and other states have been so gentle with the Saudis and their allies, responsible though they are for sustaining the jihadi movement, is the kingdom’s financial might, the West’s hunger for arms deals and the lure of consultancy contracts and other personal benefits for powerful individuals. The “war on terror” has failed and failed unnecessarily. Were there to be a repeat of 9/11, then those responsible for that defeat should be held accountable.