The merciless al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington 10 years ago started a cycle of warfare that seemed, for a time, to establish international jihadism as an enemy on a par with the Soviet Union during the cold war – another generational crusade in which the west had to prevail. That was always far-fetched and part of a pattern of category errors through which western powers have repeatedly misdiagnosed the nature and potency of the jihadi phenomenon. But so, too, have the jihadis overestimated their reach. In retrospect, 9/11 was probably the high watermark of jihadi success. Certainly, the unprovoked Anglo-American invasion of Iraq opened up a rich and bloody new arena in which Islamist extremists managed to dig themselves in at the heart of the country. They failed to consolidate their position but their defeats were mainly of their own making. In confronting al-Qaeda after its apocalyptic Twin Towers triumph, the US has been lucky in the uneven quality of its enemies. Prior to and beyond 9/11, the US and its allies found it hard to get their heads round terrorism divorced from state sponsorship. Despite the accumulating evidence that itinerant bands of holy warriors, battle-hardened in the US-backed jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, were fanning out during the 1990s to wage war in Algeria and Egypt, Chechnya and Bosnia, many intelligence professionals were stuck with the model of, say, the Abu Nidal group, guns-for-hire by Libya or Syria.
more from David Gardner at the FT here.