The Books Interview: Jason Burke

The 9/11 Wars covers the ten years since the attacks on 11 September 2001. Did you see it as a first draft of history?
As I was writing, it wasn't just that new events kept occurring, but new material kept emerging about events that had happened a long time ago. Then, after I'd sent in the manuscript, Osama Bin Laden was killed. All you can do is try to make sense of it. I think you can see a narrative curve over the decade.

Was it hard to resist the temptation to come up with a grand theory of events?
The grand theory was: don't generalise, which seems slightly contradictory. The story I wanted to tell was very much about real people, and how extraordinary events have affected them. The book became almost an argument against being too global.

You emphasise the importance of detailed, local understanding. What did it teach you?
Look at Islamic militancy. I had good access to the thinking of various intelligence services, which showed me how they moved from an idea of the global vision of al-Qaeda to something more specific. Early on in the decade, they were talking about profiling - looking for 18-to-25-year-olds, British Pakistanis, second generation, possibly with family trouble, with anti-western views. Soon you had MI5 saying it had several thousand people who matched that profile, and couldn't watch them all. Another thing you take away is that global ideologies don't work. People often talk about radical Islam as a reaction to globalisation, but that's disrespectful of local difference. In Iraq, communities started to get resentful of being inducted into somebody else's global jihad.

At the same time, aren't terror attacks a global phenomenon?
I'd wager that, apart from a couple of headline actions such as 9/11, at least 90 per cent of terrorist attacks are committed within a few miles of the perpetrator's home or within a couple of hours' travel. International terror has been the exception, not the rule. An official in Kabul told me that something like 80 or 90 per cent of Taliban who are captured or killed are within a few kilometres of their home. It's never been proven more true than in the past decade that all politics is local. That was a fundamental thing that Bin Laden never recognised, and that George W Bush and Tony Blair never recognised, either.

Ten years on, are we in a new political era?
I've been interviewing lots of people in Islamic communities around the world about how they see 9/11, and what's so striking is that, for people who are under the age of 30, you might as well talk about the Falklands. It's part of its time. It seems almost inconceivable that there could be another
Bin Laden, doing the same thing. Those videos - people would laugh at them now.

And yet are there not some worrying continuities in western policymaking?
Do we see a sudden enlightenment among our policymakers in how to deal with the Middle East? Probably no, we don't. At least the Libya operation had bodies from within the Arab world on board, but then the air strikes look very like 2001 in Iraq.

Are you worried that Libya will embolden leaders to stage more interventions?
There is a danger that we go back. We'll have to watch what happens. The problem with the Arab spring is that the focus is on the westernised upper middle classes. There was a cover of Time about the generation changing the Arab world - all these hip, well-educated, wealthy kids. That is not Egypt. We look for our own and try to empower them, but we forget that in Pakistan, for example, most people are profoundly conservative. Religion is very important; they are anti-western and deeply nationalistic. We don't hear Middle Pakistan, in the same way as we rarely listen to Middle England. They're the critical weight.

You say the new book is the work of a reporter. Why did you not place yourself in the story?
It would have changed the whole tone of the book. There's a lot of "I" journalism around at the moment. To write a 700-page book that had loads of "I" in it, you'd have to be hugely interesting, which I don't think I am, or you'd have to be a megalomaniac.

You can tell in the piece when it's my own reporting, but there comes a point where you try to step back and let the material speak.
It's not all about me.

“The 9/11 Wars" by Jason Burke is newly published by Allen Lane (£30)