Earlier this year, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks produced a flood of commentary, mostly focused on the United States, about the so-called global war on terror and its legacy. And, without a doubt, the two decades that followed 9/11 represent an important chapter in the history of the modern world. But it is a chapter that is not mainly about the United States.

Since 1979, an often violent struggle about how to adapt to modernity has convulsed the Islamic world, from West Africa to Southeast Asia, and has engulfed expatriate Muslim communities, especially those in Europe. To see this as a “clash of civilizations” pitting Islam against the West would be a profound misjudgment. What Americans mostly see are spillovers from the wars within Islam. These struggles over the future of Islamic civilization bear some resemblance to the wars of religious and social reformation that sprawled across the Christian world in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and to the long struggles in the nineteenth century and twentieth century over how to organize modern industrial societies.

Fundamentally, the United States has always been an outsider to these struggles inside the Muslim world—a reactive and reluctant participant. Americans naturally tend to put themselves and their government at the center of these stories, casting themselves as either victims or perpetrators. But this astigmatism distorts perspective and hinders development of more constructive strategies, which must involve complex global partnerships. Meanwhile, the geopolitics of the wars within the Muslim world have changed. So have the threats to the United States—and so, too, must Washington’s approach.

The Wars Within Islam Begin

In the Islamic world, the year 1979 was a landmark. In Iran, a popular revolution overthrew the monarchy; the revolution later evolved into a ruthless Islamic theocracy. In Afghanistan, a general Islamist uprising against a socialist government, which had overthrown that country’s monarchy the previous year, led to an effective takeover of the country by the Soviet Union. Neighboring Pakistan moved decisively toward Islamist governance. In Saudi Arabia, Islamist revolutionaries occupied the Great Mosque of Mecca, the holiest place in the Islamic world. The Saudi state savagely put down the revolt but then, in partnership with Pakistan, strengthened its own commitment to Islamic governance, in order to co-opt the radicals in its midst and confront Iran’s revolutionary claim to be the true leader of the Islamic world.

All three of these explosions originated inside Muslim-majority societies that had struggled to adapt to the modern world. In Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, Islamist revolutionaries argued that they were revolting against a secular (“un-Islamic or godless”) tyranny bent on modernizing the country from the top down, causing great hardship and disturbing traditional ways of life. Always, the argument included the accusation that the tyrants were corrupted by foreign ways and foreign influence. Americans, Russians, and other “Westerners” were the usual villains. The Islamists promised to fight corruption, restore religious harmony, and preserve law and order based on Islamic jurisprudence. In the revolutions that had upended the Atlantic world in early times, liberty was a touchstone. In the Muslim world, in contrast, the more common appeal was to justice.

In Iran, the most modern of the three countries, the revolutionaries were joined by important allies among urban merchants, professionals, and students. The shah’s tyranny had shut out these more traditionally liberal forces. Tragically, once in power, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his fellow revolutionary guardians” purged and crushed their erstwhile partners in Iran’s revolution.

The geopolitics of the wars within the Muslim world have changed.

The flames of 1979 immediately ignited major wars. Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, consolidated his grip on power in 1979 and then, the next year, exploited the turmoil in neighboring Iran to launch a war that he hoped would legitimize and expand his rule. Saddam promoted himself as the paladin of Sunni Islam against the Shiite menace of Iran, which threatened his own rule, since Iraq was also a majority Shiite country. The Iran-Iraq War lasted until 1988. Meanwhile, the Soviet war in Afghanistan raged from 1980 until the beginning of 1989. Together, the two wars killed and displaced millions.

Although the U.S. began basing more naval forces in the Persian Gulf, the United States was a marginal player in these two wars. Preoccupied in the Middle East by a relatively minor and ultimately futile struggle over Lebanon—where Iran and Saudi Arabia also conducted proxy warfare—the United States had a negligible role in the Iran-Iraq War, although it was dragged in a bit near the end when the war spilled over into attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.

The United States played a modest, opportunistic role in supplying the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan. The impact of U.S. aid has often been exaggerated: even the deliveries of Stinger antiaircraft missiles had little part in withdrawal decisions that Moscow had already made. Pakistan was the dominant base of the anti-Soviet resistance, managing its supplies. Saudi Arabia contributed much of the money. It also helped fund a huge expansion of Islamist education, building tens of thousands of Islamic schools among the huge new communities of displaced refugees.

This phase of war within the Islamic world concluded in 1991. The Soviet Union disintegrated, which rapidly led to the final collapse of the regime it had left behind in Afghanistan. Iraq’s dictator, bankrupted by his war against Iran, had turned south to grab oil wealth from the Gulf monarchies that he regarded as greedy and ungrateful. Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait had united the world against him, and he was defeated by a military coalition led by the United States and blessed by the United Nations. During the 1990s, Washington was boosting its military bases in the region but focused on policing a defeated Iraq, containing Iran, and trying to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and did not really engage with the core issues driving the struggles within Muslim societies over how to adapt to the contemporary, globalized world.

The Wars Within Islam Come to America

At this point, Sunni Islamist political movements split into three basic camps. There were the conservative authoritarians in power in places such as Riyadh and Islamabad. They got along with their more secular friends in Cairo and Algiers. Then there were the democratic Islamists. They were against foreign influence, in favor of Islamic law, and often opposed to the conservatives in power. But they preferred peaceful, democratic change and opposed terrorist attacks on civilians. They preferred not to denounce or kill fellow Muslims, of a different sect, by branding them as apostates. And then there were the violent Islamist extremists. Some were more sectarian than others, but all favored violent revolution against the conservatives at home, whom they accused of being too close to foreigners. They wanted to wage real, not allegorical, holy war against infidels abroad and apostates closer to home.

It was in this period, during the 1990s, that an enterprising Islamist of Yemeni-Saudi background, Osama bin Laden, helped build up a global extremist group called al Qaeda. The battlefields in the wars within Islam shifted to brutal fighting in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia, Egypt, Russia, Somalia, and Sudan.

By the mid-1990s, when al Qaeda was sheltered by a friendly Islamist government in Sudan, bin Laden had decided that Saudi Arabia’s rulers also had to be overthrown. Al Qaeda made updated versions of the same arguments that had been made by the Saudi rebels who had seized the Great Mosque back in 1979. In 1996, the group abandoned Sudan; bin Laden believed the Saudi and/or Egyptian governments had been responsible for at least one attempt to kill him there. He found a new base amid the chaos of war-torn Afghanistan, providing some shock troops and teams of assassins for the Islamist Taliban movement, which had recently gained the advantage in the civil war that had broken out in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal. In Afghanistan, al Qaeda could gather, train, and evaluate thousands of recruits.

What was novel about al Qaeda and bin Laden was the group’s notion that Islam’s “near enemies”—whether in Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, or elsewhere—all depended on the United States, and thus jihad had to be waged against the far enemy”: the Americans. Al Qaeda formally declared war against the United States in early 1998. But the United States did not pay much attention until, later that year, al Qaeda operatives used truck bombs to blow up most of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.

ISIS militants surrendering to the Afghan government in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, November 2019
ISIS militants surrendering to the Afghan government in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, November 2019
Parwiz Parwiz / Reuters

Washington paid more attention when, in October 2000, al Qaeda operatives used a boat bomb to attack and nearly sink a U.S. destroyer docked in Yemen. By that time, al Qaeda had already made progress on its planes operation,” which aimed to turn airliners into guided missiles and launch them against high-profile American targets.

Washington had done nothing in particular to provoke these attacks. Al Qaeda deliberately chose to carry its wars within Islam to the United States for its own reasons. Beyond the surface delusion that the authoritarian rulers in the Muslim world would crumple if a wounded United States retreated, bin Laden’s deeper motivation was a desire to elevate himself and his group into world-historical figures. Through their modern-day version of the “propaganda of the deed,” they imagined themselves as global titans going toe-to-toe with the infidel superpower. Later, official U.S. rhetoric that treated bin Laden as a figure on a par with Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin thus played into his and al Qaeda’s vastly inflated image of themselves.

Uneasy about bin Laden’s anti-American activity, the Taliban ruling council forbade al Qaeda from conducting foreign attacks out of Afghanistan. Bin Laden ignored this, complacent that nothing would be done and knowing that al Qaeda was about to help assassinate the Taliban’s most formidable enemy, the Afghan Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Al Qaeda operatives murdered him two days before the 9/11 attacks.

The U.S. security environment was permissive back then. Operatives could stage and train inside the United States. One of them, a French citizen from a Moroccan family, behaved so foolishly while training at a Minnesota flight school that he was arrested in August 2001. But outside the FBI’s Minneapolis field office, few U.S. authorities appreciated the significance of the intelligence item that hit their desks the next week, labeled Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly.”

The Wars Within Islam Return Home

Bin Laden and the Taliban radically underestimated the U.S. determination to destroy those who had planned the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. intervention in Afghanistan scattered al Qaeda. By 2003, the group was splintering and on the run. In Pakistan they found some cover, for a while. Pakistan was sheltering other violent Islamist groups, focused against India.

But Washington then launched an unnecessary and catastrophically ill-managed invasion of Iraq, giving both al Qaeda and Iranian-backed extremists new bases for operations. U.S. excesses in its global war on terror,” mainly in atrocious mistreatment of prisoners, were another godsend for al Qaeda propaganda.

Despite these enormous blunders, the more important lines of U.S. counterterrorism went on: unglamorous, persistent, and productive. Although little noticed in the United States, Saudi Arabia successfully waged its own internal war against its rebels within, suffering hundreds of casualties. After 2006, al Qaeda was a declining force, and conditions in Iraq stabilized in 20078. The United States and its allies hunted down what was left of the original al Qaeda organization. The main plotter behind the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, was captured in Pakistan in March 2003. The United States finally tracked bin Laden to his Pakistani hideout and killed him in a well-executed raid in May 2011. Although many Americans believe bin Laden was sheltered by the Pakistanis, papers captured by U.S. forces during the raid suggest that was not true.

After years of trial and error, Americans slowly began to learn how they, as outsiders, could help Muslims who wished to marginalize and contain the extremists in their communities. On the military side, this usually involved relatively small numbers of Americans who leveraged unique assets, such as technical intelligence, air transport, logistics support, medical aid, and precision strikes. The civilian side of such efforts did not receive nearly as much attention or investment, but there were usually a few Americans and Europeans who understood local conditions and could sometimes play a constructive role.

Bin Laden and the Taliban radically underestimated the U.S. determination to destroy those who had planned the 9/11 attacks.

Still, the core challenge of adapting Muslim-majority societies to the modern world had only been deferred, not resolved. They had not found a sustainable balance between the habits of autocracy, popular hunger for a more just society, and the needs of their young, poor, and uneducated populations. The United States had still not really engaged these core issues. For instance, in Afghanistan there was some help, the best of which often came through the World Bank and other non–U.S. government channels. Measured by education, electricity, and public health, human development rapidly advanced.

But these advances did not extend much into governance, sustainable economics, or security. For those who spent time in Afghanistan in the years immediately following the defeat of the Taliban, at least until 2007, the constant theme was one of U.S. disinterest and neglect, not overweening ambition. With some admirable exceptions, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan did more to undermine stability than to build it. Meanwhile, the Afghan government assumed a villain’s role in Afghan society: the un-Islamic, corrupt, unjust predator dominated by foreigners.

By 2011, the global extremist menace was less salientbut the wars were all coming home. There was turmoil in Tunisia, civil war in Libya, and protests followed by civil war in Syria. Soon it was hard to keep track of all the civil wars tearing apart Muslim societies.

Reactive from the start, the U.S. role in the proliferating wars within Islam had come unmoored and was adrift. With bin Laden dead and the U.S. surge in Afghanistan stalemated at best, Washington began backing off. President Barack Obama decided that the 2011 U.S. intervention in the Libyan civil war, with its European allies, would have no meaningful follow-through. Blustery American rhetoric about the Syrian civil war produced little action. As the wars within the Islamic world expanded, Washington disengaged from them. Among Americans, it was a popular choice.

In the years that followed, a new global organization of Islamist extremists, the Islamic State (or ISIS), arose and substantially supplanted al Qaeda. ISIS overran large portions of eastern Syria and northern Iraq and organized horrifying terror attacks in Europe. After about a year of drift, Obama very reluctantly agreed to help Iraq and local Kurdish and Syrian groups deal with ISIS’s so-called caliphate. Eventually, the coalition knocked ISIS out. But Syria remains a violent wilderness.

The Situation Now

During the past two decades, the basic geopolitics of the wars within the Islamic world have evolved in large ways. Saudi Arabia has distanced itself from the pure Islamist model. It is now aligned most closely with a rising powerhouse, the United Arab Emirates, and with Egypt. Those three countries now see friendships with India and Israel as more profitable and advantageous than partnerships with failing states such as Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia’s autocratic ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is trying to avoid sharing the fate of the U.S.-backed ruler whom he ironically most closely resembles: the shah of Iran. Some Westerners have a great deal of influence over MBS and his colleagues, but U.S. officials are usually not among them. Saudi and Emirati leaders buy the help they think they need. Partners at McKinsey, the Boston Consulting Group, and Booz Allen Hamilton may be more influential than any U.S. officials.

By 2011, the global extremist menace was less salient—but the wars were all coming home.

Iran’s geopolitical position has also evolved. It has joined the emerging anti-American grouping that has China and Russia at its core. Pakistan and the Taliban are both dependent members of that loose confederation. In their most recent campaigns, the Taliban had diversified their support, receiving important aid from Iran and Russia. Those countries, with China, are bound to play vital roles in Afghanistan’s future.

Meanwhile, Turkey, indulging in nostalgia for Ottoman glory and teetering between autocracy and democracy, has emerged as a third pole of attraction in the war within Islam. It supports its fighting partners in Azerbaijan, in Syria, and in Libya and is flexing its muscles in new struggles over energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean.

If Americans are worried about the return of violent Islamist extremists aiming at their homeland, Afghanistan is not the most important place they should watch. A contest for influence there pits the Taliban against the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), which is a much stronger force than whatever remnants of al Qaeda linger in the country. If Washington wants to keep fighting IS-K, it will have to get in line. IS-K threatens every one of Afghanistan’s neighbors, too, and they know it. If worried Americans want to concentrate on places where their role might be more essential, the first place to look is Africa. Second might be Syria and northern Iraq, then the Arabian Peninsula.

Adapting to New Partnerships

Ever since 1979, wars within Islam have raged over how Muslim societies can successfully adapt to the modern world. As much as Americans may prefer to examine themselves, this is not a story centered on the United States.

Europeans, more than Americans, have frequently been the ones stepping up to cope with the turmoil in the Islamic world, especially in the Mediterranean region and in Africa. But, going forward, U.S., European, and Asian leaders should reflect on which important Muslim societies might tip either way, toward encouraging success or demoralizing failure. It will not be hard for them to come up with a list of the places that are in the balance. Indonesia, for example, should be near the top.

These leaders might then rigorously analyze what, if anything, they might practically and realistically be able to do in any of these cases, even at the margin, that might make a decisive difference. Their current toolkit is not fit for purpose. As a pair of seasoned analysts, Michael Shurkin and Aneliese Bernard, recently noted:

The need to improve governance and de-emphasize security force assistance is widely accepted among terrorism experts . . . to the point of being a truism. However, dealing with these problems is precisely what the U.S. government is bad at, which helps explain why it is more comfortable defaulting to “kinetic” operations aimed at killing terrorists, security assistance in general, or writing checks for well-intended aid programs that are designed to boost governance or economic development yet apparently have had no enduring effect.

If Washington and its friends would invest even a fraction of the creative effort and investment they have given to old, reactive instruments, they will find constructive opportunities to influence the course of the wars within Islam. The great issues of this erabiological security, climate change, cyber-digital governance, economic inequalitycut across many countries, including those of the Muslim world. If the United States wants to help the Muslim world emerge from its decades of civilizational strife, it should focus less on reactively pursuing violent extremists waging an atavistic and quixotic struggle for theocratic purity. The U.S. government can be more effective if it can proactively assist those Muslim problem solvers who are trying, conscientiously, to navigate the big, generational challenges that face their societies.

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  • PHILIP ZELIKOW is White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia. A former career diplomat, he served as Counselor of the U.S. Department of State from 2005 to 2007. Earlier, he was Executive Director of the 9/11 Commission. 
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