The controversy over the use of torture by the CIA obscures two important aspects of “the war on terror” which the agency was supposedly waging. The first is that this war has demonstrably failed since Isis, terrorists by any definition of the term, today rules a large part of the Middle East in northern Iraq and eastern Syria.
It has achieved this success despite the vast budgets of American and European security agencies after 9/11. Not only did they fail to stop this happening: they do not seem to have even noticed it was occurring until it was too late. They were much happier focusing on Osama bin Laden’s core al-Qaeda that was a group of limited size even before it lost its bases in Afghanistan in 2001.
The continuing threat from al-Qaeda was exaggerated and the organisation was presented post-2001 as a sort of mini-Pentagon with senior officials who could be regularly eliminated or captured providing Washington with politically useful successes. But over the last 13 years such operations attributed to al-Qaeda were mostly petty. The end result of the CIA operations has been the triumph of a group, espousing much the same ideology and aims as Bin Laden, establishing its own state that stretches from the Iranian border to the outskirts of Aleppo.
A second aspect of the war on terror is that from the beginning it avoided targeting two countries without whose complicity 9/11 could not have happened: Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. It was obvious within days of 9/11 that citizens of Saudi Arabia were heavily implicated, with 15 out of the 19 hijackers Saudi nationals. Bin Laden himself came from the Saudi elite and the US inquiry into the attack found that financing from al-Qaeda had come primarily from private donors in the Saudi Kingdom. But President George W Bush and his administration were not only careful not to point the finger at Saudi Arabia but had 28 pages of the official report on its role censored despite the pleas of the victims of 9/11. President Obama promised as a candidate to allow these pages to be published but has never done so.
Al-Qaeda had used Afghanistan as its sanctuary and the US duly overthrew the Taliban in 2001, but it was an open secret that the Taliban had been sponsored and even created by ISI, Pakistan’s military intelligence agency. Once the furore over 9/11 had died away Pakistan was to do exactly the same again, so the Taliban was able to wage a long guerrilla war to regain power. But, for all the US claims that it was battling al-Qaeda, it never confronted Pakistan as the silent partner of the Taliban. When Bin Laden was traced to Abbottabad, close to Pakistan’s leading military academy, it was highly likely that his presence was known to the Pakistan security services.
Al-Qaeda was a useful target of choice for the CIA because it was the villain of 9/11 and a demonic force in the eyes of the American public. The destruction of the Twin Towers had exhausted its capabilities and it could be combated without great difficulty. When very similar al-Qaeda type groups grew and flourished in Iraq, Syria and Libya post-2011, they were not identified as part of the original core group.
Thus successes are announced against al-Qaeda in Yemen but no attention paid to the fact that jihadis pledging allegiance to Isis have taken over the town of Derna in Libya and are a growing force throughout the country. Guilty the CIA may have been of torturing suspects, but this was one episode in a far greater failure for which it has never been held to account.