Throughout the Cold War, the United States was accustomed to dealing with the Middle East as a panoply of puppets with strings attached to either Washington or Moscow. That the paranoid “security states” of the Arab world ruled over human beings who lived, dreamed, loved, and (mostly) suffered, was lost on us—and accordingly, we failed to imagine what might emerge from their torture chambers. Originating as our response to the rage of charismatic individuals against repressive governments and societies, the War on Terrorism—now well into its second decade—has always had an intimate human dimension for which more traditional modes of warfare have proven strikingly ill-suited. Lawrence Wright, a veteran journalist who has reported from throughout the region and whose work on al-Qaeda has been as close as one can get to definitive, understands this dimension better than most. His latest book, The Terror Years, offers a view of the war through the lens of the individuals and societies that have taken part in it.
Longtime followers of Wright’s work will find little new here. Each chapter is an essay that first appeared in the New Yorker, occasionally revised and updated to reflect what has happened to his subjects in the intervening years. As such, The Terror Years belongs as much to the genre of memoir as to that of reportage; it offers reflections on both the events of the past decade-and-a-half and Wright’s own experiences documenting them. Readers in search of a survey course in the history of al-Qaeda and ISIS might be disappointed. That course can be found elsewhere, including Wright’s own Pulitzer Prize–winning 2006 history of al-Qaeda, The Looming Tower. To those readers, I say: read The Terror Years anyway. It’s not a history book exactly, but explores events through a closer, more personal lens at which historians too often balk, in an engaging, empathetic, and literary narrative style.
For men of different generations, from very different places, and with very different lives, Lawrence Wright and I have a few oddly specific things in common. His first experience in the Middle East was teaching English to would-be students at an American university; so was mine. In 2003, he did a tour of duty at the Saudi Gazette, an English-language newspaper in Jeddah, a memory retold in his chapter “The Kingdom of Silence.” Several moments in this chapter brought back memories of my own stint as an editor at the Jordan Times: the newsroom full of Indian expatriates, the frustration of working in a culture of self-censorship and half-articulated taboos, the admirable young men and women whose talents and personalities deserved to thrive more than their society might ever permit them to. For neighboring countries, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are worlds apart in many respects, but the resonances are striking nonetheless. To the extent that this book is about journalism, “The Kingdom of Silence” is a crucial illumination of the obstacles the profession comes up against throughout the Arab world.
The war we have been fighting for the past two decades is not really against any specific actor, state or non-state—nor does it quite capture its meaning to contend, as many pundits and politicians have, that it is against the ideologies of jihadism, radical Islam, or even Islam writ large. The war on terrorism is, at its heart, a rejection of a rejection: al-Qaeda and its offspring exist to violently rebuff global culture and American hegemony, which the United States finds intolerable. Doctrinally and exegetically, the Islam of al-Qaeda’s Egyptian philosophical guide, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is after all not far off from the Wahhabi fundamentalism that has enjoyed state sanction in Saudi Arabia since the birth of that tribal fiefdom-turned-petro-state a century ago. Wright ably captures al-Zawahiri’s origins in his opening chapter “The Man Behind bin Laden.” What Zawahiri promulgates and what the Saudis uphold (but would never stoop to following themselves) are identical in terms of their contempt for democracy, their fear of women as fully realized human beings, and their embrace of horrifically violent solutions to our social ills. What separates them is that the Saudis participate enthusiastically, if hypocritically, in the American-led global order and fatten themselves on its fruits, whereas al-Qaeda vows to undermine it at every turn in hope of eventually destroying it. We gladly do business with the former, but the latter presents what we perceive as a clear and persistent threat to our very way of life.
No matter how little damage “radical Islamic terrorism” actually does to the United States from a global perspective, in being the epitome of what al-Qaeda and ISIS dream of destroying, we experience ourselves as it most important victims. Meanwhile, the outsized magnitude of 9/11 and the prospect of something even worse lurking in the future keep the threat of terrorism alive in the minds of Americans—even as Iraq dies of ten thousand cuts, barely mentioned anymore in the American press. That’s how we came to see this as our fight more than anyone else’s, and the temptation to use our massive resources to try to solve a global problem is neither unreasonable nor necessarily misplaced. Keeping the Islamic heartland out of the grips of millenarian fundamentalists is hardly an ignoble mission.
And yet precisely because the ideology with which we are at war is one of opposition to our imperial aggressions both real and imagined, engaging it militarily has proven a catastrophic failure. On top of Osama bin Laden’s smashing success at drawing the United States into an endless, expensive, inconclusive fiasco in Afghanistan, we have Iraq, which became a failed state under U.S. occupation and has never recovered. Even if the Bush administration had been entirely forthright about its motivations going into Iraq, we’d still have ourselves to blame for the chaos that fateful decision unleashed.
IRAQ, LIKE MOST countries, is a young nation; according to the CIA World Factbook, 40 percent of Iraqis are under the age of fifteen, and nearly 60 percent are under the age of twenty-five. Iraq has been more or less continuously at war, under sanction, or in chaotic disarray for nearly thirty-five years. A generation has grown up never knowing a world in which its country was at peace, and a second generation is now on its way toward suffering the same fate. Even for those of us who have never known war and terror as Iraqis know them, it’s not hard to imagine that for a person with no memory or reasonable expectation of a peaceful life, there comes a point at which holy war and martyrdom feel like options worth exploring. Hopelessness has deep roots in Syria as well, as Wright describes in “Captured on Film,” a sketch of Syrian society in 2006 as seen through the eyes of its filmmaking intelligentsia. Knowing what has become of Syria since then gives this vignette a ghostly, chilling quality.
Wright depicts the war on terrorism from several angles, but one is notably absent: that of the people living within the shifting borders of the “Islamic State” today. His final essay, “Five Hostages,” clarifies the reason for that absence. The chapter narrates the impressive effort made by the families of James Foley, Stephen Sotloff, Peter Abdulrahman Kassig, and Kayla Mueller—with the assistance of David Bradley, the owner of the Atlantic Media Group—to secure their children’s freedom after they were taken captive by ISIS, and the gut-wrenching grief of their failure to prevent their awful deaths. I was covering foreign affairs for the Dish, Andrew Sullivan’s news-and-culture website, at the time of these deaths and remember them all too well. Even reading about the plight of these journalists and humanitarians from the security of my laptop in New York was traumatizing—the pain of their relatives is unfathomable to me, to say nothing of their own horrific ordeals.
Wright understands the significance of these murders as only an American journalist who has worked extensively in the Middle East can. While that region has, in general, never been the safest place to practice journalism, the danger has never prevented gutsy reporters like Jim Foley from bringing the world firsthand reporting from inside its conflict areas. ISIS is different. With the executions of Foley, Sotloff, Kassig, and other journalists, ISIS sent a message to the world that any foreigner who comes to their lands to assist or tell the stories of the people who live there—really, for any reason other than to participate in their jihad—will be executed as a spy.
It remains difficult and dangerous to report from within ISIS, but fearless journalists continue to do so—only now they are Syrians and Iraqis, no longer Americans and Europeans. After all, what news agency would send a reporter to a place where his or her death is not merely likely but practically guaranteed? There’s a reason why nearly all the agency reports on ISIS-held Syria and Iraq are filed from Beirut or Erbil. ISIS has managed to create a space so violent and so hostile to independent reporting that the only narrative other than their own comes from those who manage to escape with their lives. The chilling effect on aid, meanwhile, helps keep the local population utterly dependent on ISIS’s pseudo-government.
In his epilogue, Wright discusses some scholarship on the various trajectories terrorist movements take, and predicts that in the end, ISIS’s violent flame will extinguish itself, but will take a great human toll as it expires—and nobody can say what happens after that. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, he concludes, helped birth an apocalyptic strain of Islamic thought that even Osama bin Laden never quite envisioned.
Wright does not get into whether the United States should intervene more directly in Syria than it is already doing, or re-enter Iraq to fight ISIS on the ground. That is just as well, as his work here is reflective, not prescriptive. Yet no matter whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump prevails in November, the White House will soon be occupied by a president much less hesitant than Barack Obama has been to deploy the full power of the U.S. military in service of resolving a foreign conflict (or in Trump’s parlance, more willing to “bomb the shit out of them”). This is a useful reminder that presidents matter; for all the ways Obama continued (or was unable to discontinue) Bush’s war on terror, that transition marked a change of approach to the Middle East, and the next one will have the same effect, for good or ill.
Where Wright does take a stand is on the matter of refugees. Over 4 million Syrians have fled the country since the start of the civil war in 2011, and some 11 million in total have been driven from their homes: a crisis on a scale the world has not seen since World War II. Millions of Iraqis, Yemenis, Libyans, and Afghans have also been displaced. Meanwhile, the morality and practicality of admitting refugees from the Middle East has become a thorny political issue in both the United States and Europe, with the overblown threat of our societies being overwhelmed by this wave of homeless humanity strengthening right-wing nativist movements throughout the Western world. Addressing this crisis is already proving a test of our humanity, which we are by no means guaranteed to pass.
The Terror Years aren’t over. The question that keeps me up at night is whether they ever will be.