Say what you will about the French in all this, they know a thing or two about terrorism. Squatting on a large chunk of Muslim North Africa will teach you a few things, and France has paid dearly for its lessons, from its tumultuous rule of Algeria to the bombings that struck Parisian Metro stations and marketplaces as recently as the '90s. The extent to which this history has informed the mind of Gilles Kepel is up for debate, but the French scholar at least has very clear ideas on the nature of political Islam, and there's no disputing the vigor of his opinions.
Indeed, it's hard to dismiss the calculated tone of Gilles' study, which suggests that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, did not in fact announce a newly energized holy war against the United States, but instead were more like desperate shrieks uttered in retreat. Islamism as a political force, he argues, has been on the wane since the mid-'90s, and the more tenuous its grasp becomes, the more its limbs begin to violently flail. Gilles presents examples of this against many different backdrops in the Muslim umma, but the clearest ones seem to take place in the theaters where the United States is now so deeply embroiled: To keep clerics in his country from falling under the radical sway of Ayatollah Khomeini, for instance, Saddam Hussein in 1980 marshaled religious militants within his own borders; to compensate for failing to defeat Saddam in the Iran/Iraq War, subsequently, Khomeini ramped up his credibility in 1989 by making a holy issue of Salman Rushdie and his Satanic Verses; and in the 1990s, when extremists failed to re-create the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan in other countries--namely, Bosnia, Egypt, and Algeria--the jihadi decided to take up a final battle royale, on U.S. soil with airplanes as their weapons. And on it goes.
Ultimately, Gilles disserts, the lofty Islamist ambition of winning self-determination was defeated by the movement's own strident violence. The more extreme the attacks became, the more they created contradictions of policy, alienated needed allies, and conjured illusions of success where, in fact, many victories were bankrolled by either the United States or Russia. That Gilles' view of jihad history is an essentially Manichean one is demonstrated in his book's structure; it has only two sections, "Expansion" and "Decline." But he is careful to warn that the age of extremist violence has not yet come to an end, and the current state of downtown Baghdad is testament enough to that.